By Kate Daly
Special to The Almanac
Move over Miss Piggy. There's a new superstar hogging the limelight: Pickles the pig, who lives in the loving care of Portola Valley native Maddie Johnson.
Johnson is not her real name -- for privacy purposes the 26-year-old chose the pseudonym for all things Pickles-related when she started posting the piglet's pictures and videos online.
"I just started doing Instagram as a joke," Johnson says, but after Pickles became deathly ill, she then turned to the platform to update family and friends on his progress.
Soon "thousands and thousands" of people became followers on Instagram and Facebook. These days Pickles has close to 65,000 fans all over the world, and is gaining even more fame as the subject of Johnson's new children's book, "How Tickles Saved Pickles."
On a recent visit to Johnson's family home, Pickles looked remarkably chipper after crisscrossing the country on a weeklong book-launch tour that took him and Johnson to New York for a TV appearance on "Good Morning America," followed by an eight-hour drive to San Diego to sign books with his "hoofagraph" and meet a classroom of first-graders.
He trotted around, performed tricks such as responding to commands to sit, stay and circle, sniffed and snorted to get pets and treats, and wagged his tail.
Johnson says Pickles is very affectionate and smart, comparing his intelligence to that of a 3-year-old child. She largely treats him like a dog, taking him on walks and over a dog agility course that he mastered in an hour. She taught him how to use a litter box and turf pad in two days.
"Pigs are insanely clean. They don't have sweat glands, and don't stink," she says.
At 2 years of age, the potbelly/juliana cross weighs 50 pounds, and sleeps in the "big bed" with Johnson and her partner, Stephen, at their home outside of San Francisco. Pickles' other constant companion is Dill, a slightly younger French bulldog mix.
Johnson grew up with horses, cats and dogs, but getting a pig was Stephen's idea. In 2017 she read a posting on Facebook from a woman whose farm flooded during the heavy winter rains, forcing her to relocate all of her animals. The couple sprang into action, driving four hours in the middle of the night to rescue the woman's last piglet.
"He was terrified," Johnson says, but they smothered him with love and snacks, and eventually won Pickles over.
When he was 5 months old they took him to New York and stayed in an Airbnb. When they returned, Pickles was bleeding from the mouth and vomiting.
Veterinarians at the University of California at Davis confirmed he had ingested rat poison on the trip, and gave him only six hours to live. They said a blood transfusion from another pig could improve Pickles' chances.
Johnson frantically searched on Craigslist and found a pig on a farm about an hour away. When the woman arrived with the potential donor, tests showed the pig was pregnant, and therefore ineligible.
Because the vets told Johnson "the bigger the better" when describing the ideal blood donor, she switched to searching for commercial livestock and found a butcher selling his 550-pound sow. She asked to borrow her.
"He had lost his dog to rat poisoning, so he sympathized," Johnson says, but transport posed a problem because the man's trailer was out on loan.
Johnson dashed back to Craigslist to find a hauling service. The first person she called had his wife and two kids loaded up in the car for a road trip to Southern California. After the kids chanted, "We've got to save Pickles!" the man postponed his plans and drove over to pick up the sow and take her to UC Davis, Johnson said.
By then seven hours had passed, and Pickles ended up needing two transfusions. Afterwards, when he chewed through his catheter and went into seizures, vets worried he had suffered neurological damage and paralysis. They gave him an experimental human drug and put him in an oxygen chamber. When he finally pulled through, vets declared Pickles "a little miracle pig."
Next up: Saving Tickles
Johnson realized after the whole ordeal that she needed to save the sow. She bought her for a dollar a pound and named her Tickles.
Johnson then asked Pickles' Instagram followers to help find the sow a forever home. Hundreds of people made calls.
The Yorkshire pig now weighs 880 pounds and is living at an animal sanctuary in Sonoma County, Flat Broke Farm, where she frolics with Freedom, another pig who escaped the slaughterhouse.
Instagram followers also inspired Johnson to write a children's book about Pickles' story of survival. When she posted a message that she needed a publisher, she got a response within two hours from a senior editor at Simon and Schuster.
In the limelight
Pickles likes to ham it up for the cameras, so for the book Johnson took numerous photos of him surfing, painting, and playing with dogs to show how special he is, but the main message is "helping a friend in need, and reciprocating," she says.
"We need people to be more caring, especially now," she says.
"I'm so grateful to all these kind strangers who make this into such a beautiful story."
The epilogue to the true story: Tickles' original owner was so moved by Pickles' experience that he has stopped raising livestock for meat, and is now rescuing dogs.
What's next? More Pickles merchandise to add to the existing clothing line and pillows on the livingwithpickles.com website -- perhaps a toy, possibly another book, and a movie deal.
Johnson is a marketing consultant when she's not spending an average of three hours a day on Pickles' social media updates.
Fans send Pickles Christmas presents. A baby piano arrived in the mail one day. Another day a Japanese film crew inquired about doing a story.
Invitations for book tour engagements continue to come in. She will be at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Dec. 2 at 11a.m. Pickles is scheduled to join Johnson at the local event, no doubt hogging the spotlight.
Meanwhile, the superstar volunteers as a therapy animal, making weekly visits to Voralto Village, a memory care facility in Menlo Park. And when time permits, Pickles heads north for a play date with his friend Tickles.