Shutterstock / Volodymyr BurdiakWhen speech pathologist Lois Brady, 49, visits special-needs students in San Francisco schools, she often brings along her assistant: a jet-black, 70-pound miniature Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named, naturally, Buttercup. Strange enough to intrigue some of Brady’s most withdrawn students, Buttercup is a hit.
Last year, a severely autistic 11-year-old boy ventured out of his hiding place beneath the teacher’s desk to run his fingers along Buttercup’s flank and through the pig’s long, coarse hair. After the encounter, the child spoke to other students in the class for the first time. “It was a remarkable breakthrough,” says Brady.
Dogs have long been used as therapy animals, offering comfort to hospital patients, people in retirement homes, and others. But pigs? Yes, says Brady. Their placid demeanor and unusual appearance makes them a good fit for special-needs kids. “Pigs are very calm and friendly, so they don’t startle or frighten autistic kids,” she says. “Even if the children hit or kick or pull his tail, Buttercup just walks away. He doesn’t bark, snap at them, or fight back.”
When he’s not working as a classroom aide, Buttercup lives in a dog house in Brady’s backyard. Sometimes, Buttercup even comes inside. “He loves sitting by the fire on cold and rainy days,” she attests.