This little piggy gets life

By BOB SABERHAGEN, Californian correspondent,
The Bakersfield Californian

Sunday September 30, 2001, 11:22:00 PM

Bob Saberhagen / Special to The Californian

Cindy Holloway offers a treat to Moeshia, one of 14 Vietnamese potbellied pigs she shelters at her Lebec home. Moeshia is scheduled to undergo open heart surgery.

LEBEC -- Early death at the hands of the slaughterhouse butcher is a foregone conclusion for the average pig.

For most, the only question is whether destiny lies in a luau pit or a tin of Spam.

But at least one sty full of pampered pigs rescued by Lebec resident Cindy Holloway are assured a full life -- at practically any cost.

When 19-month-old Moeshia, one of 14 Vietnamese potbellied pigs residing at Holloway's Lebec animal shelter was diagnosed with heart disease, there was little question that no effort or expense would be spared for her treatment.

"I love her dearly," Holloway said of the adopted pet that sleeps nightly in bed with her and husband Ken Holloway.

Holloway consulted animal cardiologists, who concluded after several tests that Moeshia suffers from an atrial septal defect, a condition not uncommon in humans and animals in which blood leaks between the left and right heart chambers.

Doctors painted a dim picture of Moeshia's chances of survival without an operation that could cost up to $15,000. They said she could expect to live no more than a year.

"I was blown away when I first heard how much it would cost," Holloway said. "Running a rescue, I couldn't afford that kind of money. At first, I was resigned to the fact that I would lose her. But it nagged at me. The more I looked at her, I knew I couldn't give up on her. I had to find a way. I decided I'd go into debt if I had to."

Although many pet owners whose main contact with pigs takes place on the supper table might opt for euthanasia over a pricey operation that could run into the thousands of dollars, Holloway began calling surgeons to schedule the procedure that has been set for Oct. 13.

It will be performed at the Veterinary Medical and Surgical Group clinic in Ventura.

Fortunately for Holloway, a Ventura animal surgeon and surgical team offered to waive their professional fees, leaving only $4,000 for hospital expenses and the use of a heart-lung machine.

"We're absorbing the professional costs for this one," said lead surgeon Ross Lirtzman.

If the operation proves successful, Lirtzman estimates similar procedures on animals will cost between $8,000 and $14,000 depending on the type of surgery.

Lirtzman, will head a team comprising himself, Richard Declusin, a surgeon from Oxnard's St John's Regional Medical Center, Michael B. Lesser of Advanced Veterinarian Care Center of Ventura and certified perfusionist and heart-lung bypass machine operator Ron Cottman of the Veterinary Medical and Surgical Group of Ventura.

Also assisting will be Lebec veterinarian Diane Cosko, who is also associated with the Los Angeles Zoo and U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Condor Recovery Program.

The operation, although never before performed on a swine, is not considered experimental, Lirtzman said.

"It's the first time I'm aware that this particular procedure has been performed on a pig," Lirtzman said. "But we're using techniques that have been used on humans for years. Surgery in pigs has been done for decades as a model for human cardiac surgery for developing techniques. The pig is a good model for evaluating human procedures because of the similarity of hearts."

Lirtzman likes his chances of success and predicts Moeshia will enjoy a normal life. "We've approached this cautiously so I'm confident we will be successful."

Moeshia, who has been the poster pig for the Humane Society, SPCA and the Holloway Herd, also may be playing a starring role in the development of cardiac procedures that will someday become common for animals as well as humans.

"Techniques used on people are now coming to be used on animals," Lirtzman said. "There's a tremendous unmet need for this type of treatment for animals. No one in private practice is presently doing this."

Lirtzman hopes Moeshia's surgery will open the doors for expanded use of the procedure for thousands of animals with heart disease.

Only Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., currently uses heart-lung machines on animals, performing mitral valve surgery on dogs, Lirtzman said.

"Mitral valve defects are common in dogs," he said. "But thousands are not being addressed. We hope this will be something that puts us on the map and provides hope for pet owners."

Holloway is also confident that Moeshia will again join her sty mates working in the community providing pet education for children and adults and pet therapy for hospital patients and the elderly. Moeshia and several of Holloway's pigs appear at schools and various SPCA and Humane Society events.

Holloway, who volunteers as a Humane Society officer serving the Frazier Mountain area through Lebec's Shelter on the Hill Humane Society chapter, becomes emotional when talking about her pets. Especially when reminded that as she feeds her pigs, others would dine on them.

"I don't hold it against them," she said. "What's important to me is the quality of life an animal has on this earth. Ideally, I'd like no piggies to be killed and consumed, but I know that's not reality.  As a humane officer, it's my passion and my job to make sure that they're not being neglected, abused and mistreated."

Holloway's rescue efforts are focused mainly on potbellied pigs, but she often takes in dogs, cats and other abandoned or abused pets.

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