'Babe' Wannabes Enter Sheep-Herding Trials

Scooter the pig takes a run at the job held by generations of Border collies

This weekend in Meeker, Colo., porcine aficionados will find out if life can imitate art.

Inspired by the Oscar-winning movie 'Babe,' where a pig takes top prize in a sheep-herding contest, organizers of the 10th annual Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship have added a category for pigs.

So far, only three pig owners think their swine have what it takes to waddle off with the winner-take-all prize of $500.

"He's way smarter than a dog," says Richard Korthas, who has entered Scooter, a six-month-old black miniature, in the contest.

He says he couldn't teach his dogs not to dig holes in the garden, but his 40-pound porker had no trouble grasping the inappropriateness of such excavations. As for herding, Mr. Korthas says, Scooter "just likes to chase sheep."

But can a pig, without the assistance of Hollywood special effects, really drive a herd of sheep?

Experts agree that pigs are highly intelligent. But unlike dogs, which are selectively bred for tasks such as herding, tracking, and retrieving, pigs historically have been bred only for the table. So, unlike Border collies - the darlings of the herding set - pigs aren't supposed to have any natural aptitude for herding.

"Certainly, pigs are smart enough. That I can tell you," says Marc Bekoff, an animal-behavior professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "But pigs are sort of blank slates, if you will. They have no predisposition to do any particular thing." Still, their natural intelligence and willingness to please make them surprisingly trainable, he says. "A pig could definitely do what the pig in 'Babe' did."

Some 5,000 spectators may find out as they gather in this northwest Colorado town of 2,300. More than 80 dogs, which come from all over North America, will compete.

How adept wannabe Babes are as herders is really beside the point for Gus Halandras, founder of the sheep dog event. "It's all in the spirit of fun," he exclaims. "Everybody is coming to have a good time."

In fact, the pig competitors will face a simpler version of the dogs' herding test. Dogs are judged on how well they move the sheep across a pasture, through a gate, around obstacles, and into a pen. Pigs need only get them across the pasture and into a pen.

"It's all in fun," agrees Korthas. "I just thought it was kinda neat that a pig would herd something."

In jest or not, the sheep-dog purists aren't exactly hog-wild about seeing pigs at the championships, Mr. Halandras reports.

"They think we've committed heresy, that it's cheapening the trials. But I tell them that the sheep will be just as tough." Anyway, he adds, "if you can create a laugh in today's world, I think you've really done something."

For Mr. Bekoff, the intriguing question is whether pigs could be selectively bred for herding. "Some pigs will have more of a predisposition for herding than others. From a biological standpoint, it would be interesting to see what pigs would be like in 50 years if you bred for the best herders."

One thing looks certain, though: Pigs aren't about to oust dogs from their time-honored position as "man's best friend." Companion pigs, especially the Vietnamese pot-bellied variety, did enjoy a surge in popularity several years ago - but before long many ended up on the doorsteps of animal shelters.

"By nature, pigs are really not suited to living in the average home," says Michael Kaufmann, spokesman for the American Humane Association in Englewood, Colo.

Left unsupervised, they are notoriously destructive, he says, turning over furniture, tearing up carpets and linoleum - creating a pig sty.

"For every person who swears they make a great house pet, there are nine or 10 people who have had disastrous experiences. People got them expecting they'd be like little dogs," Mr. Kaufmann says. "Instead," he says, "they turned out to be little pigs."

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