Not long ago, the novelty of swimming with pigs off the shore of an uninhabited Bahama island elicited squeals of delight — and selfies aplenty.
Now, copycat attractions across the Bahamas are prompting concerns from animal rights advocates about mistreatment who are calling for regulation, inspection, and limits on the number of attractions.
"It’s completely out of control," said Kim Aranha, president of the Bahamas Humane Society, in a telephone interview. If she had her way, the government would outlaw it altogether.
Aranha said the phenomenon began years ago when some tourists boating through the Exuma chain noticed a group of pigs wandering around the beach of uninhabited Big Major Cay. As their boat approached, some of the pigs began swimming toward it.
"Pigs will do anything for food," Aranha said.
She estimated that more than 20 attractions have sprung up in recent years across the island chain — each offering tourists the opportunity to wade or boat in shallow waters as pigs beg for scraps of food.
"People are traveling from Finland and Japan to see swimming pigs," she said. "Guys who operate boats on New Providence charge $300 to $400 to see swimming pigs, and people will actually pay it so they can take pictures next to swimming pigs."
The attractions range in size from Piggyville on Abaco promoted by the Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina to, Aranha said, "a guy that walks down Bay Street in Nassau with two pigs on a leash."
"They just go to the Ministry of Agriculture farm, buy a couple of piglets and they think they’ll make millions."
Earlier this month, the Bahamas Tribune published portions of a social media post and photos from a Canadian travel blogger criticizing treatment of pigs at a Freeport attraction called Celebrity Eco Adventures.
Writing on her Facebook page under the handle Kennidy From Canada, blogger Kennidy Fisher said she signed up for the excursion expecting the "beautiful and wonderful" Exuma experience she had heard about.
But at the Freeport attraction, she saw pigs corralled in a pen, exposed to wind and high seas on a narrow, unshaded cay, then tossed by employees into rough waves as the excursion boat she was in approached the shore.
"The men then went on a kayak across the water which they themselves could barely swim in, they let all the piggies out of the crate and THEN threw them in the water, IN HUGE WAVES, with current, they made these pigs swim in water and they were not allowed back on the beach every time they tried to get back onto shore, and they are fighting for their lives, and people are just trying to take photos with them, it was horrible."
Fisher said she chose not to participate further in the excursion, which cost $30 per person. In an interview via Messenger, she said she was surprised at "how everyone there could see how unusual it was and still chose to participate."
The Sun-Setntinel contacted Celebrity Eco Adventures, and the person who answered a phone call said she would relay the request to a public relations representative.
An April 18 Bahamas Tribune report quoted proprietor Barbara Danville as saying the attraction’s pigs are "healthy, well kept and being properly housed and cared for."
Danville told the newspaper that the pen Fisher saw houses the pigs for only part of the morning so they don’t run away when the first tour group shows up each day. She added that the pigs are kept onshore overnight and fed plenty of water, grains, and apples.
The earliest mention of swimming pigs as an Exuma tourist attraction in the archives of the website newspapers.com was in the London paper the Guardian in 2002.
Since then, the Exuma pigs have been the subject of numerous media accounts, including a book and movie, Pigs of Paradise, endorsed by the Bahamas’ official tourism promotion agency. They were featured on the ABC show The Bachelor and in a promotional video for the ill-fated Fyre Festival music gathering.
How the pigs got to Big Major Key, Aranha said, was likely because an owner of one of the nearby Exuma islands owned some pigs and kept them there, knowing there was a natural source of freshwater, "until it was time to go to the butcher."
Wild pigs have apparently been swimming around the Bahamas for decades. In 1954, a story distributed to U.S. newspapers reported that "wild pigs found on some Bahamas islands ... often go to sea, swimming from island to island in search of food or to escape the dogs of huntsmen."
Aranha and a colleague, Tip Burrows, executive director of the Humane Society of Grand Bahama, have been urging tourism and agriculture officials to regulate the copycat attractions.
They are concerned about the apparent lack of freshwater and shade in the holding pen at the Freeport attraction and want the government to set down rules protecting pigs from sunburn and requiring that they get proper shelter, clean freshwater, and appropriate food rather than scraps from tourists.
After seven pigs on Big Major Cay died, veterinarians found large quantities of sand in the animals’ stomachs — possibly resulting from tourists throwing food on the beach, they said.
And don’t be lulled just because they are cute, Aranha said.
"When they’re hungry, they can get aggressive and bite."
No comparable attraction exists in the United States.
If an entrepreneur did try to create one in the U.S., it would have to be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and by its home state’s department of health, according to USDA spokesman R. Andre Bell.
States’ health departments might look askance at permitting humans to swim in water alongside pigs and their waste.