Tarquin was a bit of a ham, but so adorable: Peita-Leah Cowell was left devastated when her pet pig died. Martin Whittaker tells a love story

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Indy Lifestyle Online
At a windswept pet cemetery overlooking a beautiful Devon valley, Peita-Leah Cowell stoops to lay some fresh daffodils on a grave. She's come to pay respects to Tarquin, her Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. There are mostly dogs buried here - a few Spots, the odd Rover and a Major or two. But among all the names, there is only one Tarquin.

Tarquin died in January of a brain tumour. Peita-Leah's eyes still moisten when she recalls his death.

'For weeks I had a tissue in one hand, Kit-Kat or Mars bar in the other - I eat chocolate when I'm unhappy. I put on a good three-quarters of a stone and I looked like I'd taken up boxing. My eyes were all swollen. It was terrible, it really hurt. It was a physical pain.

'My son Daniel was very seriously hurt when he was six. He was run over and there was a chance he wasn't going to pull through. I would say the feelings I had then were on a par with losing Tarquin.'

Peita-Leah is pet-mad. The garden at the back of her Georgian house in Plympton St Maurice, near Plymouth, is a perilous place to step, what with four dogs, five cats, numerous rabbits and guinea pigs. She also has a parrot called Wolfgang Amadeus, and she once owned two monkeys. So she thought she knew all there was to know about domestic animals.

But when Tarquin first snuffled his way into her life, previous pet experience went straight out of the window. Looking after a pig was more like parenthood. Peita-Leah was so preoccupied with Tarquin that from day one, she kept a diary about his little piggy ways. Now she has turned it into a book, Pig Ignorant, and has had 2,000 copies printed privately.

'I love pigs,' she says. 'They're fabulous animals, the uglier the better. I like the look of them. The way they run their lives.'

In her book, she likens the excitement of Tarquin's arrival from a breeder in Northampton to that of expecting her first child. 'We decided to call him Tarquin because we liked the sound of it. His middle names were Moriarty Gruntfutuck. Moriarty because I liked the Goons and Gruntfutuck because it just sounded right.

Throughout the Cowells' home there are eerie traces of Tarquin. There's a greasy patch in the hallway, next to a frayed piece of carpet. 'He used to sleep there,' explains Peita-Leah reverently. On the wall above it she has a large framed photo of him. It's almost like a shrine.

Then there are the waist-high, thick steel plates attached to the kitchen, dining room and back doors. 'He used to bite his way through doors. If he wanted entrance to a room that I was in, and I didn't want him in at the time - crunch] I didn't realise that no way was an ordinary door going to hold Tarquin back.

'He was quite naughty. I would put him in the dining room when he was naughty, like I used to with the children when they were small. I said, 'Go to your room'. He used to turn round and really mutter.

'I'd put him in here and leave him for about five minutes - just like a toddler. Then I'd open the door and say: 'Now are you going to behave yourself?' And he'd make a smile. He had a smiley face.

'He used to come out and he'd be all right for five minutes. But if he was in the mood he'd do something even naughtier. He ripped the wallpaper once, and came back with it in his mouth to show me he'd done it.'

How do you stop a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig trashing your home? Easy, says Peita- Leah. Buy a water pistol. 'If he was chewing wallpaper and taking no notice of me, I'd get my water pistol and squirt him.

'I was bonding with him. I didn't want to destroy that bond by smacking his snout, and I didn't know how he would react to that. With dogs you can tap their nose, can't you? So I wanted to punish him without him being frightened of me.

'My husband loved him. Adored him. He didn't want him just to be mine - he wanted him to be a family pet, so he took as much interest and time in him as me.'

Her husband, Richard, 39, is a former law student who is now retired on a private income. He spends much of his time playing golf and re-waging the battles that Napoleon lost, using toy soldiers.

'He would feed him one day and I'd feed him the next. So Tarquin regarded both of us as parents. If I didn't respond when he was calling me, he would call Richard.'

Call? How did he call? 'He called me 'Muuum Muuum',' she says, issuing a low bellow. 'And if I didn't respond, the next one was 'Naaa'. That was him calling Richard. If he wanted food or to come down from the garden and I didn't respond, that's what he'd call.'

Did she treat him like a child? Yes and no. He wasn't a baby substitute, but the relationship was very different to all the other animals.

'I loved him so much. It's quite something when a pig trusts you, and will come and sit on your lap. Their first instinct with humans is to run away.'

Tarquin grew to more than 150lb. His lap-sitting days over, he was banished to the garden, where the Cowells built him a comfortable sty. They gave him a transistor radio because he seemed to like the babble of the local station.

When they went on holiday, they could no longer consider taking the pets to boarding kennels. Instead they employed a pet-sitter to live in while they were away.

On his birthday, they pinned up cards and gave him a special treat. On his last birthday - New Year's Day - he had half a melon filled with strawberries.

A few days later, he fell ill. 'Richard went out with a chopped-up salad. He came back and told me, 'I don't think Tarquin's too well. He hasn't got up and doesn't want to eat.' I went haring up there.

'I felt him and he was terribly cold. The vet came out and gave him an injection to help with his breathing. He said he'd come back in the morning.

'We covered Tarquin in a big sleeping bag and Richard got some hot water bottles. The next day I wouldn't go up with the vet. I was so frightened he was going to be dead. I couldn't handle that, so I stayed in, watching from upstairs.

'The vet said he'd had a stroke. He said the best thing we could do was get him to an animal hospital.

'Next morning, bang on nine o'clock, the phone went. I just knew. Richard answered the phone. The vet said he'd died at 4am. They think the stroke was caused by a brain tumour.'

They buried Tarquin at the Meadow Wood pets' garden of remembrance in Churchstow, Devon. 'I didn't go. I wanted to remember him alive. Richard went, instead.

'Afterwards, we both cried and cried and cried. It was awful - initially, neither one of us could comfort the other one.

'Richard told me not to look out of the window upstairs. He knew every time I did it was just like a slap in the face. We always used to see his little face looking out when it was raining, or watch him snuffling down by the gate.

'I thought I heard him once or twice after he'd gone. It was awful. I also dreamt about him a lot after he'd died.

'Until Tarquin, I don't think I realised how deep a relationship you could have with an animal.'

(Photographs omitted)