A bilingual pig and a Cuban balsero iguana are among the stars of Jungle Island

Meet Miami's bilingual pot bellied pig and Cuban rafter iguana

Jungle Island has two residents who have become among the favorites of visitors: a "bilingual" pig that's affectionately called "Gordita" and an iguana that arrived with Cuban rafters.
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Jungle Island has two residents who have become among the favorites of visitors: a "bilingual" pig that's affectionately called "Gordita" and an iguana that arrived with Cuban rafters.

Her name is “Ace” but she answers to “Gordita.”

Born in Hialeah, this 4-year-old pig knows more than 400 words in English and Spanish, according to her trainer. Together with Rex, a balsero iguana that came from Cuba “before Obama repealed the wet foot, dry foot policy” the duo are among the most popular attractions at Jungle Island in downtown Miami.

“Pigs are among the most intelligent animals in the world,” trainer Marisela Gutiérrez says. “Gordita is a Cuban-American pig because she was born in Hialeah, but her ethnicity is Vietnamese. She was raised as a puppy and does not have the tail curled like most pigs.

“She’s a very smug little pig. She has her own bed to sleep on and she loves playing with children,” Gutiérrez says. “When the word diva was invented, she was the first to use it.”

When the word diva was invented, she was the first to use it.

Marisela Gutiérrez, trainer

Eager to show off her intellect, Gutiérrez faces the animal with a finger raised.

Siéntate Gordita,” she says, and the piggy obeys. Then she repeats the same command in English, “Sit down,” and Gordita again obliges, receiving treats as a reward.

Gutiérrez has no doubt of the pig’s fluency is both languages: “She’s bilingual because all of the other trainers speak to her in English and I only speak to her in Spanish.”

While Gordita likes children and treats she has an aversion to water.

“I tried to bathe her once and people were about to call 911 because her screams were heard all over the park,” Gutiérrez said. “Another day it was raining and she did not want to go out to the show. We had to get an umbrella for her to walk out. While I was soaked, she was protected by the umbrella and the audience was cracking up.”

With a popular Celia Cruz song playing in the background, Gordita parades before the children and their parents, receiving ovations for her speedy responses to her trainer’s commands.

Gutiérrez also has a close relationship with Rex, an iguana that lives on rocks that came to Miami some 26 years ago aboard a raft.

“Rex is the only Cuban in the world who does not speak,” Gutiérrez jokes. “That says a lot.”

Rex is the only Cuban in the world who does not speak. That says a lot.

Marisela Gutiérrez, trainer

The iguana arrived at the park as a donation. It apparently was brought to Miami by Cuban rafters, though it is not clear if the iguana was transported as a pet or as a last resort for food, if needed.

He is 27 years old and feeds on fruits and vegetables. The species nest in places excavated by crocodiles and inhabit cliffs with thorny vegetation.

“When they are young, they eat beetles to get protein, but when they grow up they prefer to be vegetarians,” Gutiérrez says.

Rex does not climb trees or change color, as most of the other iguanas that inhabit the park do.

“He has three eyes. A third especially made to detect possible threats from the air and avoid being devoured by the predators (such as owls and hawks).”

This type of iguana is only found in some regions of Cuba, as well as in Mexico, Haiti and Jamaica, Gutiérrez says, adding that “the largest ever found was about five feet long and was recorded in Camagüey, in central-eastern Cuba.”

The trainer says she understands that some people do not like zoos because animals are held in captivity. But the parks are intended to enlighten.

“The problem is that not everyone can go to Africa or to remote places to appreciate the beauty of a penguin, for example,” Gutiérrez says. “Here we do environmental awareness work and teach people to love animals, to feel the same passion that motivates us every day.”

Gutiérrez’s love for animals comes from her childhood. Born in Cuba, she emigrated to the United States at the age of 5.

“I remember that during a fundraiser, the neighborhood kids bought a bunch of chicks. Everyone else’s died, but I raised mine as a pet. When I got home from school, I would put a little rope around his foot and and take him out for a walk around the block. I even slept with him,” she recalls.

Although she is a technician in echocardiography and a specialist in cardiovascular diseases, Gutiérrez alternates her work at Mount Sinai Medical Center with the care of animals on Jungle Island.

“There is no better place to relax and get filled with positive energy. This is my refuge, here I rejuvenate so I can share my life with the 5,000 patients I tend to,” she says.

“I turn off the cellphone and forget about the world in here. Spending time with them fills me with joy, the only requirement they have is to receive a little affection,” Gutiérrez says.

As a trainer, Gutiérrez says it is important to have a close relationship with the animal.

“Not all of them get along with you. They, like people, have days when they wake up in a bad mood. Little by little you get to know them and feel when they are in good spirits or not,” she says.

“We do not train them, they train us. They do what they let you do. They show you what they like and from there you train the animal. You mold yourself to their liking.”

Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba.