WASILLA — It’s a frigid late November day in this Mat-Su city, but inside Sheila Pontier’s garage at Alaska’s only potbelly pig rescue, 13 pigs slumber, warm and dry.
Some of the pigs cuddle with one another, pressed together in a snug row. Others snore softly, noses twitching, ears drooping.
Pigs of all kinds come to Alaska Potbelly Pig Rescue from communities around the state for different reasons, often because their families can no longer care for them or didn’t know what they were getting into. Even pigs labeled “teacup” or “miniature” can grow to be 200 pounds or more.
The rescue, which Pontier founded in 2019, has since grown into two locations: a property in Big Lake where the majority of the pigs are homed while they await adoption, and Pontier’s garage, where older pigs and those with special needs live.
Pontier has rescued more than 150 pigs so far. She has no plans to stop now.
But lately, the exhaustion of running a sanctuary — especially with a winter heating challenge that recently surfaced and a bird flu outbreak in her poultry flocks — has been wearing on her. At times, it can feel like too much for one person.
No matter how much she loves what she does, Pontier’s voice fills with emotion when she talks about how much work it is to run a sanctuary.
“There are days I don’t want to get out of bed,” she said. “But I think God built me a little bit different.”
Pontier, an accountant with a business in Wasilla, has a hard time remembering the exact moment she first fell in love with pigs. She’s always been drawn to them — when she was a kid visiting the Alaska State Fair and working at a pet store, and now, as an adult.
“I think I just fell in love with their noses,” she said in a recent interview. To Pontier, the snouts look like upside-down hearts. She thinks pigs are misunderstood creatures, and very easy to connect with. Their eyes have a surprising depth.
“Their eyes are human eyes,” she said.
Like humans, pigs cry if they’re getting neglected, Pontier said. She has seen actual tears stream down their faces, usually after they’re dropped off by families that can no longer care for them.
She serves as owner and executive director of the rescue nonprofit she founded three years ago.
Pontier purchased the 55-acre Big Lake plot of land, along with a $7,000 natural gas generator that she planned to run all winter long to keep the pigs warm.
The Wasilla woman has a dream for the beautiful Big Lake property — for it to be become a sanctuary with picnic areas, and opportunities for families to feed and interact with the pigs and other animals.
The land has so much potential, she says. But lately, it’s been a massive amount of work, with challenge after challenge. In November, she contended with an avian influenza outbreak that killed most of her chickens and threatened her ducks, too.
Pontier, who was raised in Cordova, grew up hunting and fishing, living off the land, and DIY problem-solving. But when a line to the generator froze in November, and oil spilled causing the generator to break, the stress pushed even her Alaskan grit to the brink.
She already wakes up every day at 4 a.m. to take care of her pigs and run two separate businesses, and isn’t in bed until after 11 p.m.
Now she’s relying on a gasoline generator that can only be used twice a day to keep the Big Lake pigs warm.
As the temperatures in the Valley have gotten colder, she’s been worried about the pigs, and about the cost needed to realize her vision.
She’s been working with Matanuska Electric Association on getting permanent electricity for summer 2023. It’ll cost over $30,000. She’s been doing a lot of fundraising, submitting a lot of grants.
“I have big ideas and big dreams for this place, and we just have to get there,” she said. “Right now, we’re just trying to survive.”
Each pig has a story
When Pontier is asked about her pigs, she lights up.
There is Bernie, who arrived on Pontier’s doorstep emaciated after he was discovered curled up in a snowbank living off of a moose head. And Willie and Ernie, who Pontier found in 2016 by a for-sale sign on the side of the road where they were being sold for meat.
There is Miss Piggie, who arrived inside a guinea pig cage she’d been kept in, on a balcony of an apartment building that didn’t allow pets. And 21-year-old Wiggles, whose former owner died two years ago.
Pontier puts everything she has into caring for these animals that have become like family. She spends between $5,000 and $7,000 a month keeping the pigs fed and cared for — their feed is expensive. And pigs eat a lot.
Pontier dreams of a future where she has the time and resources to sit down for meals, put up Christmas decorations, and take a week off here and there — three things she’s been too busy to do as of late.
She says her nonprofit is always accepting financial or in-kind donations to help keep the pigs fed and housed, and cover vet care and generator expenses — and currently, to set up electricity in Big Lake.
They are also looking for volunteers to help with feeding and caring for the pigs, in Big Lake and Wasilla.
Not everyone in Pontier’s life understands how she can spend so much money, time and energy on the pigs at the expense of doing the things she loves, like hunting and camping.
“When I only had a few, they were fine,” she said, when asked how her family has responded to her life with the pigs. Then she laughed. “Now I’m just a crazy pig lady.”