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Big Boy, the plus-sized pig, remembered

1,200-pound hog was a giant tourist draw at Russell Orchards for 12 years

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By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / September 20, 2011

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IPSWICH - It’s a rare pig that gets to die of old age, but Big Boy was no ordinary pig. In this pocket of the North Shore, he was a celebrity, and his fame was based on one simple fact: He was gigantic.

For nearly 12 years, young and old alike crowded around his pen at Russell Orchards to gawk at him, to feed him, and to say, again and again: “That’s one big pig.’’

How big? The truth is that they were never able to weigh him, but his owners estimate that at his peak, he weighed about 1,200 pounds.

But in late August, the pounds and the years finally caught up to Big Boy. The staff at the farm will not say how he died, or what happened to him after that, only that he has gone to “hog heaven.’’ This is an intentional strategy; they know that many of their customers had a connection to Big Boy, especially the children, and they want to be sensitive to those feelings.

“Once you give an animal a name,’’ said Miranda Russell, the co-owner of Russell Orchards, “it’s hard to think of it as bacon.’’

But what has transpired since Big Boy’s death has come as a surprise to Russell and her family. They knew people liked Big Boy but they didn’t know just how much.

“The story is not that Big Boy died,’’ Russell said. “The story is that it’s a story.’’

There have been online eulogies and tribute videos. One person sent them a poem; another wrote a song in his memory. “I have people stop me everywhere to offer their condolences,’’ Russell said.

But the news has not reached everyone, and people still come daily looking for Big Boy.

“I’ve known him since I was 5,’’ said Yazmeen Shahin, a 15-year-old from Gloucester who had brought an Italian friend to Russell’s on Tuesday to meet Big Boy. “I’m depressed,’’ she said.

For Jennifer Hevelone-Harper of Ipswich, breaking the news to her three daughters, ages 4 to 8, that their favorite pig was gone took a little finesse.

“I told them the pig was old, and a lot of pigs die young and end up as bacon, so we talked about how he had a nice life for a pig,’’ Harper said.

Big Boy was, of course, no accident. He was basically engineered to be a tourist attraction, because there is only way for a pig to become so large: They need to be fed, and they need to be spared.

Yet it turned out that Big Boy was unusually suited for his job. He had good genetics - he was able to get really big, and remained quick on his feet when he felt like rising to them - and certainly outlived expectations for a pig of that size, said his veterinarian, Dr. Bryan Parrott, who said Big Boy was the largest pig he knew of in this region.

But beyond the girth, Big Boy’s many fans said that he had an equally outsized personality.

“If pigs could be a diva, Big Boy was a diva,’’ said Patrick Henry, who was his primary caretaker. “He would play to the camera. He knew his value as an entertainer. He knew when he had an audience. He would nod his head, pointing down to where he wanted people to drop an apple or a donut. He loved Chinese food. He really would eat almost anything.’’

Anything, he said, but pork.

It is apple-picking season at Russell Orchards, and their parking lot fills up each weekend with tourists looking for a touch of the country. Russell Orchards sells its own fruits and vegetables, homemade wine, and Big Boy’s beloved cider donuts. And while it draws 100,000 visitors a year - a lot of that has to do with the fact that it is just up the road from the very popular Crane Beach - the farm lacks the fireworks of many agritourism destinations in. There are no corn mazes or haunted houses. They have a small menagerie of animals, though they’re mostly for meat, not for petting. Their only gimmick was the giant pig. And now he is gone.

But before there was a Big Boy, there was a giant hog named Inga. It’s a tradition at the farm, and so too will Big Boy be replaced.

“I think we’re going to let him be the one,’’ Miranda Russell said as she walked to Big Boy’s old pen and pointed at its new tenants, two six-month old piglets named Darryl and Darryl (a nod to characters on the old “Newhart’’ television show).

The Darryl she pointed to was the larger of the siblings. At the moment, he looks like an ordinary pig. But soon enough, and with enough donuts, he could rise to icon status using what is now a tried and true method at Russell Orchards.

“Essentially,’’ she said, “we’ll let him stay.’’ And the other Darryl? Russell smiles and says nothing.

It’s a rare pig that gets to die of old age.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.