Calling someone a pig implies that they are dirty, greedy, or otherwise unworthy of our respect. Yet in reality the pig is clean, odorless, and smart. The more we discover about the history and mysteries of pigs, the clearer it is that they demand respect rather than inclusion in our recipes.
What is a Pig?
Beyond the cute curly tail and the portly body, what is a pig? Classification of animals begins broad and narrows dramatically. In the wider sense, pigs are grouped in the order Artiodactyla. This order includes 211 species. All are even-toed ungulates, meaning they have hooves. The order Artiodactyls is divided into 9 families. Hogs and pigs, which are synonymous, make up the family called Suidae. This hog-happy family has 16 species. What is a species, exactly? Michael Taylor, author of Pot Bellied Pigs as Your New Family Pet (New Jersey: T.H.F. Publications) simplifies the science with this definition: “A group of similar animals that will freely interbreed under natural conditions.” (1)
The domestic pig that we’re all familiar with is called Sus Scrofa. Originally Scrofa and 15 similar species could be found throughout Africa, across Eurasia south of 48° N and on islands as far away as the Philippines and Sulawesi. Where humans go, pigs follow. As a result of being introduced to almost every country (generally for hunting) pigs now star in Australia, New Zealand, North America and various islands.
Writing about the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig in Rare Breeds Journal, Kiyoko Hancock says: “Each piggy has an amazing depth to his feelings, a real ability to communicate, and an affectionate nature coupled with a high degree of intelligence. (2) Although this comment is specific to the Vietnamese pot-bellied variety, these qualities are true of all domestic pigs. Wild pigs may also have these traits, but given humankind’s limited knowledge of many species of Suidae, whatever character distinctions these possess is sheer speculation.
The domestic pig is less of a mystery. Despite this, myths prevail. The most prevalent is that they are dirty. The reality is quite different. “They tend to keep themselves cleaner than most animals,” says the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. (3) Naturalist and author of The Whole Hog (London: Profile Books), Lyall Watson agrees. Recently he told the UK’s Guardian newspaper: “The first thing you learn when you walk with a pig for more than a day is that he has a latrine somewhere. That he will never do it anywhere else. In sties they don’t have much choice.” (4) What about their penchant for rolling about in mud? Far from being an indication of bad manners, this is an adaptive skill. Since pigs have few sweat glands they need this muddy moisture to cool themselves. It also serves to protect them from insect bites and sunburn.
Combine a lack of direct experience with pigs with pigs portrayal on television (think sweet-but-stupid Porky Pig) and it’s not surprising that most people are unaware of the pig’s intelligence. Yet pigs are intelligent. Like dogs they can be leash-trained, house trained and can learn tricks. Even circus tricks. Pigs are capable of walking on tightropes and jumping through hoops. They are capable of remembering things and can solve problems like opening a bolted door. (5)Other special traits include an advanced sense of taste. This is especially useful since their vision is flawed; having eyes on the sides of their head limits forward vision.
When did the pig transform from charging boar to peaceful pet? Many authors speculate that this occurred before recorded history. Yet the exact dates of this history are under debate. Juliet Clurtton-Brock; author of Domesticated Animals from Early Times (Enland: British Museum) believes that pig remains in the Pre-pottery of Jericho trace its relationship with man back to 7000 BC.(6) The World Conservation Union dates the pig’s Jericho domestication back to 8,500 BC and adds Europe, the Near East, southern Greece and north-eastern Iraq to pig-keeping places. Other experts contend that the fossilized records of pig-made hollows indicate that domestication began in the Far East around 11,000 BC.(7)
Fascinating yes. Specific no. More recently, detailed records highlight the specifics of man’s relationship with pigs. In his book, Nicobar Islands (New Delhi: National Book Trust), K.K. Mathur reveals the respect shown by this culture in India. He states that they “occupy an exalted place in the sentiments of the people”, enough for the Nicobarese to compose songs in their honor. Despite this the Nicobarese eat pork and hunt wild pinks. (8) The pet-to-pork transition can also be found in Asia and in Christianity. In Asia, both domesticated pigs and dogs were pets before they were meat. (9).
Being that its hoofed feet have left muddy tracks all over the world, it’s not surprising that the pig has also left an impression in mankind’s mythology. A love-hate one, however. Egyptians, while believing pigs to be unclean, thought sacrificing swine to the moon and Osiris would be highly appreciated. Further south, in the ancient Asian area of Malaysia and the Philippines, pigs were though to support the earth yet also cause earthquakes. (10)
Irish folklore imbues pigs with psychic and healing powers. In Southern Ireland it’s long been believed that hogs can see the wind, and that walking three times around a pig cures illness. A pig-positive perception is also shown in the name of Ireland itself. One of the ancient names for this region is Muic-Inis, or “Pig Island”. (11)
The domestic pig’s pink proliferation is in stark contrast to its relative the pygmy hog. Averaging 10 inches (20 cm) at shoulder height and weighing 26.2 pounds (11.8 kg), this native-to-India nest-dweller is aptly named. With less than 150 left, the World Conservation Union lists the pygmy hog as critically endangered. (12) This special species joins Sus barbaratus and Sus verrucos. Sus barbaratus is also known as the bearded pig. This large, grey, migrating pig is named after the rugged bristly hairs that surround his snout. Found in the islands of Southeast Asia, our bearded friend’s numbers are being chopped down along with his habitat. Adding insult to injury, since having his habitat destroyed drives him into farmlands to look for food, he is considered a pest. The 40,00- year-long practice of hunting him also demonstrates a lack of compassion. (13) Today Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), lists him as endangered.
Pigs as Pork
In The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig ( New York: Columbia University Press) author Claudine Fabre-Vassas reveals how from the Middle Ages to the present Christians have defined themselves through eating pork as much as the Jewish have distinguished themselves through not eating it. “The more we enjoy the piglet, the better Catholics we become,” declares one 18th century song. Although for Christians, serving pig as a main course has long been synonymous with serving God, before its’ slaughter the pig was a treasured family member similar to a child. Pig was welcome in the home, fed with care and cared for when sick. (14)
Although though Genesis 9:3 states that “every living thing will be meat for you,” it hastens to add, in Genesis 9:4: “But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” It doesn’t take a scholar or theologian to interpret this. Unfortunately people often interpret things according to their needs. Perhaps God was referring only to raw meat: One could argue that when cooked properly meat has no visible blood, so it’s okay to eat it. Or is it?
“With corporate hog factories replacing traditional hog farms, pigs raised for food are being treated more as inanimate tools of production than as living, feeling animals,” says Susie Coston. Coston is the Shelter Director for Farm Sanctuary With over 100,000 members, Farm Sanctuary is America’s leading farm animal protection organization. Their work ranges from legal and institutional reforms to hands-on rescue and refuge. Their 175-acre shelter in upstate New York and 300-acre shelter in northern California is home to over 1,000 rescued cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, goats, rabbits, ducks, geese and the star of this article…pigs. “Pigs come to us from many different situations. The largest portion of our current herd actually came directly from a factory farm in North Carolina– on their way to slaughter in Pennsylvania. When these pigs arrived most had very swollen leg joints, from standing on concrete. Most of the pigs came off of the truck walking on their knees- unable to stretch out their legs ful ly. It took months of intense physical therapy with some of the pigs to get them up on their feet again, but all did make it. Of the 40, 30 still reside here at the shelter.” That was 5 years ago. Today these same animals enjoy a warm, straw filled barn and their very own pond, not to mention the expansive pastures of Farm Sanctuary’s essential estate.
Sadly, Farm Sanctuary’s idyllic conditions are not the norm for farm animals. A September 30, 2005 report from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service states: “U.S. inventory of all hogs and pigs on September 1, 2005 was 61.5 million head… All inventory and pig crop estimates for September 2004 through June 2005 were reviewed using final pig crop, official slaughter, death loss, and updated import and export data.”(15) Sound cold? It’s appropriate language for a heartless industry. Today’s farming is big business, and business is booming. In 2004, the average American ate 221 pounds of meat and poultry, even more than 1990’s 199 pounds. (16) In the hog trade, 50 percent of American hog slaughter is dominated by 4 corporations. (17) Human contact is little more than being pushed into a transport truck for slaughter. Food, water and waste removal are automated. “In order for the industry to turn a profit on the low prices Americans have come to expect, most livestock are kept and slaughtered on factory farms, where animals eat corn- and soybean-based feed — 10 to 30% of which is often radically different from what the animal would consume naturally,” writes Jane Black in “10 Things Your Butcher Won’t Tell You”, which was featured in the October 11, 2005 issue of Smart Money magazine.(18)
And that’s the sanitized version. In Freefarmanimals.org, a Farm Sanctuary website, expert testimony is given from sources such as the Journal of Animal Science. “The Welfare of Sows in Gestation Crates: A Summary of the Scientific Evidence”(19) reveals the horror of modern farm life. While there natural lifespan ranges from 12-18 years, a breeding sow exists for 5. For most of this time she will be kept in a stall. The National Pork Producers Council recommends that this be 9.2 to14 square feet, or approximately 2×7 feet and 3.3 feet high. (20)This does not allow enough room to turn around, but comfort isn’t the goal. Production is.
The sow will leave this gestation crate only for one month periods when it is time to nurse her piglets. This takes place in a farrowing crate, which is about as comfortable as it sounds. Explains Coston: “After being impregnated, the sows are confined in gestation crates — small metal pens just two feet wide that prevent sows from turning around or even lying down comfortably. At the end of their four-month pregnancies, they are transferred to similarly cramped farrowing crates to give birth. With barely enough room to stand up and lie down and no straw or other type of bedding to speak of, many suffer from sores on their shoulders and knees.”
Since pigs are smart and trainable, why not keep them as a pet? Just like getting a dog or cat have different factors to consider, so does getting a pig. “Pigs are not maintenance free animals and are not as easy to care for as a cat or dog,” says the website of Pigs, A Sanctuary ; a West Virginia refuge for abused, abandoned, neglected and unwanted animals that specializes in the care of potbellied pigs and farm pigs. “Vietnamese potbellied pigs have been heavily promoted as house pets — the Sanctuary does not endorse this belief and does not believe that pigs should be raised full time as house pets.” Considerations listed in the Pro’s and Con’s section of Pigs, A Sanctuary, include allowing for the size of a potbellied pig-often over 130 pounds. And if you take on this commitment be aware that pigs live between 12-18 years. During this time, explains the Pro’s and Con’s section, pigs may struggle for dominance to establish themselves as “top pig.” Except without any other pigs around, you or a very surprised houseguest may be the one they struggle with. This can get dangerous. (21)
The owners of Washington’s Pigs Peace Sanctuary also warn against premature pigging-out. Like Pigs, A Sanctuary, Pigs Peace Sanctuary is a nonprofit 501©(3) organization. Also like its kindred refuge, the Pigs Peace Sanctuary is dedicated to providing a safe home for unwanted, abused or neglected animals in need . Their online FAQ page reveals that getting easily bored is an aspect of the pig’s high intelligence, and this boredom can result in raiding the refrigerator and cupboards and ripping up clothing and blankets to make a bed. (22) Veterinarian Lianne McCloud, a veterinarian and About.com’s resident guide to exotic pets, advises teaching your pig rules and boundaries to thwart bad behaviors and giving positive reinforcement. “Consistent rules, praise for good behavior, and correction/redirection with lots of repetition and patience will help produce a well mannered pig with a good relationship with its family.” (23)While Pigs, A Sanctuary and Farm Sanctuary sometimes adopt their pigs to suitable homes, Pigs Peace Sanctuary is more tentative: “High quality life long homes for pigs are hard to find and the adoption process is difficult,” relates their website. Pigs, A Sanctuary allows adoption of its animals, provided. They request filling out a written adoption application and require vet references. Farm Sanctuary also has high standards, so be prepared. “Adopters must be vegetarian. They have to have good vet references, proper facilities and fencing and a vet who can work with their pigs. That is the basic criteria for all animals from our shelters,” says Coston.
Howard Lyman is an ex cattle rancher whose current objective is “to educate people on sustainability and the dangers of current methods of food production”. This is a wonderful website with plenty of eyebrow-raising info from impeccable sources. http://www.madcowboy.com
Jane Black’s article, 10 Things Your Butcher Won’t Tell You is also an eyebrow-raising must-read. [http://www.smartmoney.com/10things/index.cfm?story=november2005]
Pigs, A Sanctuary. Thinking about getting a pet potbellied pig? This site has a wonderful Pros and Cons section. http://www.pigs.org/article.asp?article_id=3
The Frequently Asked Questions of Pigs Peace Sanctuary offers even more info about pigs. [http://www.pigspeace.org/faq/]
Veterinarian Lianne McCloud gives a wonderful summary of the nature and nurture of pet pigs. http://exoticpets.about.com/cs/potbelliedpigs/a/pbpexpect.htm
1. Taylor, Michael. Pot Bellied Pigs As Your New Family Pet. New Jersey: THF Publications. 1993.
2. Willis, Marguerite. A Straight…Pacific Rim Magazine, 1991.
3. Domestic Pig. Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Copyright © 2005 Fort Wayne Zoological Society. http://www.kidszoo.com/animals/Pig.htm
4. Nettleton, Paul. Dispeller of Pig Ignorance. The Guardian Newspaper. Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Domesticated Animals from Early Times. England: British Museum . © 1981
5. Guardian Unlimited: Science. Thursday, October 14, 2004. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/interview/story/0],12982,1326316,00.html
6. Oliver, William L. R. and Deb Joy, Sanjoy. Chapter 5.3: Pigs, Peccaries and Hippos Status Survey and Action Plan. [http://www.iucn.org/themes/ssc/sgs/pphsg/APchap5-3.html]
8. Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Domesticated Animals from Early Times. . England: British Museum. © 1981
9. Leach, Marian ed. Fried, Jerome. Assistant ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. NY: Funk & Wagnalls. 1972
11. Oliver, William L. R. and Deb Joy, Sanjoy. Chapter 5.3: Pigs, Peccaries and Hippos Status Survey and Action Plan. [http://www.iucn.org/themes/ssc/sgs/pphsg/APchap5-3.html]
12. Animal Bytes: Wild Swine Zoological Society of San Diego . © 2005 http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-wild_swine.html
13. Fabre-Vassas, Claudine. The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig. New York: Columbia University Press. 1997. Page 147. Secondary Source: Salisbury, Joyce E. The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig-Review. FindArticles. Journal of Social History. Summer 1999. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2005/is_4_32/ai_55084008#continue
14.Quarterly: Hogs and Pigs National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board.
15.U.S.Department of Agriculture. September 30, 2005. [http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/nassr/livestock/php-bb/2005/hgpg0905.txt]
16. Black, Jane. 10 Things Your Butcher Won’t Tell You. Smart Money Magazine. Published: October 11, 2005 [http://www.smartmoney.com/10things/index.cfm?story=november2005]
17. Wolfson, David, Beyond The Law: Agribusiness and the systemic abuse of animals raised for food or food production, Farm Sanctuary, 1999
18. Black, Jane. 10 Things Your Butcher Won’t Tell You. Smart Money Magazine. Published: October 11, 2005 [http://www.smartmoney.com/10things/index.cfm?story=november2005]
19. The Welfare of Sows in Gestation Crates: A Summary of the Scientific Evidence. Farm Sanctuary. [http://www.freefarmanimals.org/gc_evidence.html]
20. National Pork Producers Council. Swine Care Handbook, p.12.
21. Pros and Cons of Potbellied Pigs. © 2001-2005. Pigs, A Sanctuary. http://www.pigs.org/article.asp?article_id=3
22. Frequently Asked Questions. Pigs Peace Sanctuary. Date Accessed: December 1, 2005. [http://www.pigspeace.org/faq/]
23. McCloud, Lianne. Pot Bellied Pigs as Pets: What to Expect. Exotic Pets. About.com. 2005. About.Inc. http://exoticpets.about.com/cs/potbelliedpigs/a/pbpexpect.html