Mrs. Tiggywiggle’s tummy nearly touches the straw bedding on the barn floor. She’s due within days, and her body shows it. Unlike bigger hogs, she is shorter, stouter, and without as much room for the piglets within her. That’s because she is a Kunekune, one of the smallest pig breeds in the world.

The Kunekune (pronounced “cooney cooney”) is a rare, domestic breed from New Zealand. Its name means “fat and round” in the Maori language, and its compact size makes it ideal for smaller farms where it can graze outdoors–like the Wells Fargo Family Farm at the Minnesota Zoo.

This breed is among the rare and heritage livestock and poultry breeds cultivated at the Zoo. The third full week of May every year, we celebrate International Heritage Breeds Week to build awareness of the diversity of farm animal breeds, and especially those at risk of extinction.

“I personally like the heritage breeds because they align with the Zoo’s mission of conservation and sustainability,” says Marian Newland, Farm Zookeeper. “We can conserve breeds as we do wild species.”

Breeds designated as heritage have a long history in the United States, typically pre-1920s, and often have a small documented population, she explains. They are purebred (not crosses) and have traits suited to a particular climate or landscape. For example, the Kunekune’s small size and sociable nature made it well-suited to traveling with humans on boats in the island country of New Zealand.

But as commercial, large-scale farming grew, far fewer breeds were cultivated. For example, Holstein cows dominate the dairy industry and Yorkshire pigs are the most farmed by the pork industry. That practice puts less commercially valued breeds at risk of extinction or a population bottleneck in which there are too few unrelated animals to sustain the breed.

“It’s important for the Zoo to serve as a genetic resource for these rare breeds,” Newland says. “Once you lose the genes, you can’t get them back.”

Raising Grazing Pigs

Kunekune sow with her piglets born May 2023 at the Minnesota Zoo.

In the 1970s, there were fewer than 50 Kunekune pigs in the world. Thanks to breed conservationists, today, there are thousands.

“There’s nothing else like them,” Newland says of the rotund pigs that flop onto their backs when offered a pat and a scratch. “They’re really happy in human company and as a herd of pigs.”

The Farm is home to five Kunekunes, plus the nine piglets born to Tiggy on May 6, 2023. She was the only one bred this year among the three sows.

Newland says the breed is a unique combination of European and Asian breeds and is adaptable to many climates. Their coat can be coarse or silky, with or without spots, and any combination of cream, black, or red-brown. Another distinction of the breed: two small tassels of hair and skin that hang below their jaw. Called pire pire, they could be purely cosmetic or perhaps helpful if a predator went for the throat and pulled the pire pire away instead.

Wild pigs and most other domestic breeds would destroy a pasture by rooting into the soil. Not the Kunekune. It not only grazes neatly but can also thrive on an all-grass diet. The Zoo’s herd is turned out in a green pasture to snack in the summertime.

The Zoo formerly kept Yorkshire-Duroc pigs, a big-bodied crossbreed that produced large litters. As they looked for something more appropriate to an educational farm, Zoo staff considered three heritage breeds: Kunekune, Guinea hogs, and the Mangalica, a Hungarian breed. Newland says the Kunekune has thrived at other zoos, and they were confident it would be a natural fit here.

“They’re small, they’re self-sufficient, and frankly, they’re cute,” she says.

Land of Milking Shorthorns

Speckled, spotted, and dotted with happy cows—that describes the pasture at the Wells Fargo Family Farm. Breeds represented here are the Brown Swiss, Black and White Holstein, Red and White Holstein, and two heritage breeds, the Dutch Belted, and Milking Shorthorn.

Milking Shorthorn calf born April 2021 at the Minnesota Zoo.

The Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit committed to protecting endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction, classifies the Dutch Belted as critical in its Conservation Priority List. That means they estimate there are fewer than 2,000 left in the world. The Milking Shorthorn is threatened, a lesser status that acknowledges how few of this breed remain: less than 5,000.

The Milking Shorthorn is a multi-purpose, slow-maturing British breed raised for beef, dairy production, and draft work. The breed may have its origins as far back as the 1500s, becoming widely popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 1800s. It’s easily identified by its distinctive speckled or roan coat. They are great for small and hobby farms, and are good grazers that don’t need corn, soy, or intensive calories to thrive, Newland says.

The Zoo acquired their Shorthorn as an embryo that was then implanted in a surrogate cow of a different breed. This is a best practice for the Zoo because it maintains the genetics of the purebred cattle, Newland says. Also, an embryo cannot carry to the Zoo the cattle diseases common on other dairy farms.

If not implanting an embryo, cows are bred via artificial insemination. This is safer and simpler than keeping bulls at the Farm, which would come with the significant challenges of unpredictable, unsafe behavior by bulls.

A Rare Bird

The wingspan of the Minnesota Zoo’s commitment to heritage and rare breeds is wide. It extends to the poultry barn too.

“When we were restarting our chicken program fresh, there were a lot of breeds to consider,” Newland says. “Being here in Minnesota, we wanted a breed that could handle both heat and cold.”

Buckeye chickens in the yard at the Wells Fargo Family Farm at the Minnesota Zoo.

A heritage poultry breed with roots in the Midwest was raised to be just that.

“Buckeyes are heat and cold tolerant, easy keepers, and good layers,” she says. “Not too many breeds you can say that of.”

The Buckeye chicken is a dual-purpose breed raised for eggs and meat. It originated in Ohio and is named for its reddish-brown plumage—the color of the nut of the buckeye, Ohio’s state tree. The breed was developed in the late 1800s by Nettie Metcalf. To this day, it is the only U.S. breed created by a woman. Unfavored by the commercial poultry industry, its numbers dwindled, and it is now designated as threatened by the Livestock Conservancy.

Newland says in their first year at the Zoo, the Buckeyes are proving to be calm and friendly. They arrived as day-old chicks this winter and are now full-fledged adults laying brown eggs in the nest boxes and pecking away the summer days in a shaded yard. With roosters among them, they’ll be able to maintain and perpetuate a healthy—and rare—flock for seasons to come.