Beyond the Books: Frankie the pig proves therapeutic for Muscatine elementary school

Frankie the teacup pig joined the Franklin Elementary family in November.

Many schools could use the services of a therapy dog, but some simply can't afford the five-figure price tag.

Franklin Elementary School in Muscatine was seeking a comparable alternative, and found one on a farm -- sort of.

Trina Hepker, a special education teacher in her first year at Franklin, was browsing the internet in search of the perfect animal to serve as a classroom pet to her handful of students with special needs.

Dogs, miniature horses, and aquatic species were among the many suggestions she found.

Weighing the budget and lack of interaction, Hepker felt none were appropriate for the school.

A teacup pig, on the other hand, seemed like the right fit.

"There was some research backing up how students with autism react to them," said Hepker. "Students with behavior disorders, they feel like there's a comfort there."

Hepker felt she was getting the quality of a therapy dog, but in a smaller, cheaper package.

Frankie, a three-month-old teacup mini potbelly pig weighs in at right around six pounds, and costing $500, 1/24th the cost of a trained therapy dog, according to Franklin Elementary School Principal Jason Wester.

Frankie became part of the Franklin team in November, and Hepker said she's already teaching the students responsibility.

"Whether it's feeding her, watering her, they pick out the droppings," said Hepker. "They shake the rugs and the pillows out. We haven't filed nails yet, but they, with an emery board, can file her nails and take care of them that way."

Wester said Frankie has a calming presence for many students with special needs.

For others, she motivates them to socialize and learn.

"They see Frankie and they grab a book," said Hepker. "They might sit on the couch and they read to her."

The students also practice counting as they fill an empty one-liter bottle with Cheerios, Frankie's favorite snack.

The average life span for a teacup pig is 12-15 years, so Frankie is expected to be a fixture at the school for years to come.

As Wester puts it, "There's a good chance that Frankie's longevity might exceed Trina and my longevity. We'll be in our sixties by then."

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