Columnist: Pigs in transit
“Trust me Wilbur, people are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.” — E.B. White (1899-1985), “Charlotte’s Web,” 1952.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Caroline and I lived in bucolic splendor on Smith’s Neck in Old Lyme, Connecticut, we kept two pigs. They were seasonal: arrived in the spring as piglets, departed in the fall as full-grown hogs.
It was a symbiotic relationship: we fed them for six months; they fed us for six months — a never-ending cycle of nature at work. Of course, it would only be fair to point out that, of the four of us, Caroline and I got the better of the bargain.
We were fortune that a good friend lived on our property who acted as “pigman.” It is an an honorable profession, made famous by P.G. Wodehouse in his Blandings’ stories. Like his fictional predecessors, George Cyril Wellbeloved, James Pirbright and Monica Simmons, Lenny lovingly cared for the pigs. He delivered them as little squealers, ensured they were well-fed and watered, and then, at the end of six months, carted them — reluctantly — to their final resting place in Salem, Connecticut.
Capital and labor split the spoils evenly. Like “The Empress” of Blandings’ fame, our pigs lived well, but without names. We could not call a pig “Wilbur” in May and have him — or her — for breakfast in December.
Their pen, which was about five hundred yards from the house, had a beautiful view of the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound. It was one of my favorite destinations on weekends. Unlike Lord Emsworth, who was tall and droopy, I was unable to drape my shorter, stouter frame across the fence that enclosed the pig emporium, but I tried.
“Dakota,” our black lab/golden retriever combination was fascinated with the pigs. She would spend hours circling and sniffing their home.
The fence around the sty was solid and too tall for her to see over. However, early on she discovered a knot hole at eye level. She would spend hours watching them with her one good eye. If I went to the other side of the pen, I could see that inquiring eye tracking their movements. She saw them grow from smaller than her to considerably larger.
Pigs are intelligent animals, as George Orwell described in “Animal Farm” — ranging just behind great apes, dolphins and elephants in brain power. For example, I was amazed as how quickly they learned to get drinking water flowing by pressing their snouts against a water pipe.
Pigs are used for medical research, as they share common characteristics with us — similar chest and abdominal muscles, along with thoracic and abdominal organs. Embryonic pigs were used for dissection purposes when I was in high school biology class.
With an estimated 2 billion pigs in the world — and 73 different breeds — there is little danger of them becoming endangered, even with 115,000,000 being slaughtered every year. Not to worry — the average sow gives birth to just under 20 piglets a year, a replacement rate not seen in most large mammals.
Pigs are a big business. Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah, for example, raises and markets 1.2 million pigs a year. Its parent Smithfield Foods produces six billion pounds of pork a year. Ours was a boutique operation.
Pigs live in a variety of environments, from tropical rain-forest in Southeast Asia to the icy colds of Siberia. Pot-bellied Vietnamese pigs are used as pets. Domesticated pigs in Europe, known as truffle hogs are used to ferret out that delicacy.
Despite a reputation as being dirty — they love to wallow in mud, but that is primarily to keep cool — pigs are remarkably clean. They have the misfortune, though, to incorporate within their rounded bodies delicacies we love, and they inhabit a world where most men can still outwit a pig.
History tells us that the first domesticated pigs were seen in China 6,000 years ago. And the pig remains one of the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac. They represent fortune, honesty, happiness and fertility. Hernando DeSoto is credited with bringing the first swine to the new world in 1539, where they have proliferated.
They have stocky bodies, small eyes, large ears and short, curly tails. Winston Churchill liked pigs. He once said, “Dogs look up to man. Cats look down on man. Pigs look us straight in the eye and see an equal.”
But it was hard for me to look our pigs in the eye, as I knew their fate.
Our pigs arrived weighing 20 to 30 pounds. Some might call them cute, but they were obviously pigs. Ours were probably American yorkshires, but I have forgotten.
Over the course of the summer and early fall they would add 150 pounds. Good food, a relaxed atmosphere and little strenuous exercise made for contented pigs — at least during their short lives.
As summer turned to fall and the leaves changed color and the first frost was felt, I knew their days were numbered. I would walk down to the sty, lean on the fence, toughen my mind, straighten my spine and ponder on the fact that what I was seeing would soon become a freezer filled with rashers, sausages, chops and roasts. Such thoughts made easier any feelings of guilt I had.
Before freezing nights would cause water in the pipes to burst, Lenny would back his truck up to the pen. A ramp, sprinkled with corn, would be lowered that led from the pen to the bay of the truck.
The unsuspecting pigs followed their snouts into the back off the truck. By the time they realized where they were, it was too late. Lenny was already driving them north.
Only once was I able to watch this final act. Even though nameless, they were not anonymous. I had spent too many hours observing them, witnessing their camaraderie, watching them dig into the cool, damp soil on hot muggy days, sleeping away others. It was sad to see them go, but I knew that what would return would be neatly packaged and taste delicious.
All living things must die. In “Charlotte’s Web,” E.B. White has Charlotte say to Wilbur, as she is dying,“After all, what’s a life anyway? We are born, we live a little while, we die.”
Well, life is more than that. It is true that we, like our pigs, live our lives in transit. But, if we leave the world better than we found it, if we provide something for others after we are gone, we have done some good.
Wilbur felt that way about Charlotte. Our pigs set a similar example. Their lives had meaning, as our filled freezer would attest. And our lives were enhanced by their presence.