This is the latest from the Washington Post pig series.
It’s official: we like pigs.
At least, we like our pigs. We visit them several times a day. We scratch their backs and give them showers and bring them treats. We hung a big buoy in their pen so they can play tetherball. And, when we’re not actually down at the pen, we waste a great deal of time watching them on the StyCam.
A great deal of it must be their ability to connect with humans, which explains the enduring popularity of dogs. But it doesn’t quite explain cats, who generally have their own agendas that don’t include humans except as providers of food and petting. And why are hamsters and gerbils so much more popular than rats, which are much smarter and more interactive?
And, while we’re wondering, why do we find ourselves with affinities for certain wild animals, but not for others? I love crows, although I don’t interact with them at all. I just read a couple books that document their exploits, and then saw a video of a crow using a jar lid as a snowboard, and I was hooked.
I have a theory. Our affinity for animals is driven by the Four Cs: connectedness, curiosity, cleverness, and cuteness.
Dogs win on all four. For cats, it’s curiosity – what doesn’t kill them makes them more lovable. Rats, although they’ve got it all over gerbils on the first three, lose on cuteness, partly determined by the ick factor of seeing them in dumpsters, subway tunnels, and crack houses. (Although I’ve actually seen them only in the first two, and rely on hearsay for the third.) Crows win on cleverness alone.
One of our hens, George, has earned her Most Favored Chicken status by her drive to investigate any vehicle with an open door, trunk, or hood. Ducks, though, were such big losers on every other measure that even off-the-charts cuteness couldn’t save them.
Pigs, like dogs, score on all four. When we walk down to the pen, they come running to the fence to greet us. When we go into the pen to fill the feeder or clean off the waterer, they mill around, sniffing and grunting. If we give them something unfamiliar, they gather round, trying to figure it out. They learned how to use their feeder and waterer, both of which require action on their part, in about seven seconds. And, although they’re not quite as cute now as they were when they were piglets, they’re still awfully appealing.
Which brings us to the inevitable question – why raise such charming, engaging animals only to slaughter and eat them?
But I think we should look at it from the other side. If everyone knew first-hand just how charming and engaging pigs are, perhaps there would be a stronger societal commitment to treating them better.
Pigs have lives only because they are raised for food. And a humane death – one that is virtually painless and which they don’t see coming – is not incompatible with treating a pig well. What matters is the kind of life they lead up to that moment.
Turning away because you can’t stand to see a charming, engaging animal slaughtered for food, and then buying cheap bacon in a little plastic tray, is what’s at the heart of all the excesses of factory farming. Gestation crates happen when you’re not looking.
If you’re a vegan, you’d prefer that pigs not exist; I understand that. But, if you’re a carnivore, the best thing you can do for meat animals is to get to know them. Make friends with a pig, and then see how you feel about the bacon in the little plastic tray.