Pig appeal

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.

Why?  Why is it that some animals have what seems to be an inherent appeal to people, while others don’t?

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.

30 people are having a conversation about “Pig appeal

  1. Well Tamar,

    I’ve been a vegan, I’m currently a vegetarian learning about fish for my son because he needs more protein. I don’t prefer pigs not exist. I prefer that if people are going to eat pigs (and cows and chickens and well, whatever) that they do so in a manner that causes the least amount of suffering. Which actually seems to be your philosophy as well. If I was wealthier I might eat more meat, but the #1 suggested fish on the humane/environment list is $23 a lb at whole foods right now. The open range grass fed beef is pretty pricey too.

    Since I can’t manage to raise animals that way myself, I choose to do what I feel is the more ethical thing and not to eat them. I do get free-range organic eggs and cheeses, and I attempt to get them from family farms that claim humane practices. It’s a plus of living in the midwest that you can do so. I am pleased when hunters cull the deer herds here, there are too many and most hunters are hunting for food. I will go ahead and stick with my belief that hunting for fun vs. meat is a bit creepy.

    There you go, some of the vegan/vegetarian crowd may be closer to your own philosophy than you think.


    • Karen — Thanks, very much, for taking the time to add your take to this discussion. I think you and I are just about on the same page, both on raising meat (I believe it’s our obligation to do it conscientiously) and on hunting (for meat [or protection of livestock or crops], only — and I will add that I’ve never met a hunter who disagrees). Eating a primarily vegan diet, with some dairy, some fish, and some eggs, is undoubtedly good for human health, as well.

      I’m a little gun-shy on the vegan front, as I’ve been on the receiving end of the no-meat onslaught every time I write about raising animals to eat. I don’t mean to malign vegans; I have a respect for people who are true to a principle, even if it’s a principle I don’t agree with.

      Thanks, again, for adding your view.

  2. We agree wholeheartedly; pigs are great fun. When we raised them they ran loose in the orchard and you always knew where my husband was…they were always gathered around whatever he was doing supervising carefully. As far as butchering is concerned people tend to say “how can you eat your pets?” (goats and pigs) Well, what better life can they have than to live well, be cared for and loved, killed painlessly, and grace the tables of ourselves and our friends? Is it better to load them in a trailer and haul them to the local auction to be purchaced by God knows who; and be treated God knows how, or be shipped to a feed lot somewhere, and no matter which, be thoroughly traumatized?
    The more you love them, the less you are willing to go that way…..

  3. If we move to Bishop, CA, pigs and possibly a cow are things we have spoken of raising. Just tonight we were planning the butchering of a turkey for the guy who built our coop. Our daughter asked if when we “butch” the rest and cook them… can she please have a leg? They have been raised with care,and respect under the best conditions we could give them. And when the girls I go to school with ask “don’t you feel bad?” I reply no. They are far better off than the turkey bought in a store. I have taught our girl in the process where some of her food comes from.

    Doesn’t mean I don’t envy you your bacon.

    (BTW, have any suggestions on finishing a turkey before butchering?)

  4. Kind of gives a new meaning to the phrase “playing with your food”.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying your charges, and I think it’s cool that they can entertain you on the way to becoming dinner. Why not?

    I would raise a pig if I didn’t live in town on only a half-acre.

  5. Here’s the thing about blogs — the people who enjoy reading this, and who bother to comment, are generally people who see the world in much the same way that I do. If you didn’t, you would have stopped reading a long time ago.

    In a lot of ways, I like that — I get to talk to people I like, people who often know more about what I’m doing than I do. And, as I’ve said before, I’ll pit the Starving commentariat against any in the blogosphere. I just don’t want to forget that the wider world is a different place. A place where people don’t want to read about cute piggies getting slaughtered.

    Luckily, when I write about these things for the Washington Post or the Huffington Post, I am reminded. In spades.

    And, Brooke, as for a finishing diet for turkeys — the usual one is corn, for about a month. We did acorns, because we had them, and that worked very well. (You have to grind them up a bit first.)

  6. I read (somewhere – probably Temple Grandin) that pigs’ welfare is markedly improved by the addition of new objects in their pens. In fact, pigs view each bale of straw as a ‘new’ object because their attention to detail is so finely honed that a different configuation of the same material constitutes different in a pig’s mind.

    Straw, Tetherball, apples – you’re being very considerate pig looker-afterers.

  7. Thank you, so very well said. I wish I had the means to raise my own animals for food. Hopefully your words and others who speak out can change the way our meat animals are perceived, treated and slaughtered. We have become so far removed from our food.

  8. I agree with you in principle, but I’m not sure I could get to know my food well before killing it. I do by $15/pd bacon from the farmers market to try and ensure that my food is not factory raised. this also leads to being mostly vegetarian when eating out, as I presume most restaurants buy factory farmed meat.

  9. With apologies to MC Hammer

    I like big butts and i cannot lie
    You others just can’t deny
    That when a piggy walks by with a big plump haunch
    And sporting that rounded paunch
    You get sprung

  10. Jen — I’m going to have to go back and read Temple Grandin specifically about pigs. The bigger they get, the more important it is that we keep them entertained.

    Jody — Thanks. Yes, we have become removed. So much so that a pig is a sort of novelty. But I know I’ll never see bacon quite the same way.

    KJ — Wow. $15/pound is pretty steep, even for well-raised bacon. I admire your commitment. And you might be surprised about getting to know your food. You get a lot of time, as the animal grows, to come to terms with it, and you find yourself getting used to the idea of slaughtering. At least I have. Had you asked me a few years ago, when I was your neighbor in Manhattan, I suspect I would have said the same thing.

    Laura — Oy!

  11. “Pigs have lives only because they are raised for food.”

    I know what you’re saying, but don’t forget that pigs are quite adept at thriving in the wild — even those who were formerly domesticated. They score off the charts on the “cleverness ” scale. Ever seen a feral cow?

    • Pete — That’s true. But feral pigs must also necessarily (sometimes) be food — or they’d overrun us. Large, smart, fertile animals? We have to keep their population in check and make sure they never, ever have the Internet.

      • Perhaps the Internet and fast food is the solution to the feral pig population exposion. Just give them Worlds of Warcraft and a steady diet of Big Macs, and see what happens.

  12. Nice pig update. I’m still jealous.

    It struck me that you don’t mention turkeys in this post, Tamar, and I know you’ve previously described them as “charmless.” I’m raising two this year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about your assessment of them, mostly because I disagree so strongly. I find them very charming, far more so than chickens. They’re curious about people and what we do around them, and they’re much, much less nervous than broilers. So they interact more. Goofy they certainly are, and I concede they are cute only in the so-ugly-they’re-cute manner. As for cleverness, they were late when the brains were distributed. But despite their proverbial stupidity, I think they’re smarter than our laying hens, and the laying hens have years of experience on the turkeys. I even enjoy hanging out with the turkeys and have gone so far as to break one of my cardinal rules of livestock. The turkeys got names: Ebenezer and Griselda. I won’t have any problems offing either an Ebenezer or a Griselda, so it’s okay. Pardon me going on like this, it’s just that I usually agree with you, so this was surprising to me.

    • Kate, I’m delighted that you enjoy your turkeys. One of the things I’ve learned, keeping livestock, is that animals are individuals. It’s quite possible that some turkeys are charmless and others, less so. As it happens, we have one turkey this year we’re rather fond of.

      I will post about turkeys very soon. Turkeys, and the colossal mistake we made. Stay tuned.

  13. Pigs win on another important “C” which is Consume-ability. Pigs grow very fast and big on just about anything quickly (6 months!) producing delicious meat, fat, hides, bones, tusks and of course, bacon! Dogs, cats, crows and such don’t grow as fast or as big, as fast or are able to turn as varied a diet into high quality easily digestible protein and lipids for us.

    Our dogs are also a lot more intelligent than our pigs so the dogs make excellent work mates, helping to run the farm.

  14. But your pigs could exist as pets, if not, they could go to an animal sanctuary. Never let your philosophies become more important than your compassion. Our philosophies should serve us not drive us. Would you eat dog or cats? They don’t exist for food. A lot of people have pigs as pets. If they exist because we slaughter them now, it doesn’t mean it has to continue this way. I understand you will be killing and eating the pets, as you have stated you don’t want emotions to get in the way. But, it’s okay to listen to your heart sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with that or changing your mind because you may have deep regrets later. Surely your pets have the desire for life as much as you do? Have you watched the debate in Melbourne Australia, “should meat be off the menu?” I recommend it, especially Phillip Wollen’s famous speech that begins…((Applause))

    King Lear, late at night on the cliffs asks the blind Earl of Gloucester “How do you see the world?”

    And the blind man Gloucester replies “I see it feelingly”.

    Shouldn’t we all?

    The entire speech and debate can easily be found in You Tube.

    Yes factory farming is terrible, but killing is killing.

    • There is no moral difference between eating a pig and eating a dog or cat. The reason we — Americans — eat the pigs but not the dogs is simply a matter of enculturation. We’ve grown up with the idea that a pig is food and a dog is a pet, and so it disgusts us think of eating the dog. But that’s not a moral precept, by any stretch.

      And I disagree in general that moral precepts should be the products of feelings. Plenty of our feelings — jealousy, anger, the aforementioned disgust — could lead us in very treacherous directions when untempered by reason. And, yes, I’ve read James MacWilliams.

      • Tamar, it is entirely possible that many of us have eaten dog or cat. I have eaten at some restaurants that were pretty shady, and I suspect that the pork and chicken might have come from a more cost effective source, if you will.

        Oh Dunderbeck, Oh Dunderbeck! How could you be so mean?
        To ever have invented the sausage meat machine.
        For all the neighbor’s dogs and cats will never more be seen;
        They’ll all be ground to sausage meat in Dunderbeck’s machine!

      • How many arguments based on “reason” have lead people down treacherous paths? Just look at our violent human history and you can find many ideologies based on what was perceived at the time as quite reasonable that ultimately lead is to genocide and war.

        • So it’s “reason” (as opposed to reason) that’s responsible for war, eh? Couldn’t be anger, jealousy, greed, lust, pride, vanity, or any of those other emotions.

  15. Are you saying feelings should not be involved in decision making at all? It doesn’t need to be so black and white, there is a balance. Feelings should not be dismissed entirely. You are succumbing to the Western biased philosophical approach to analysis that leaves out matters of the heart. You might be interested in a new study that recently came out demonstrating that analytic thought suppresses empathy and vice versa. You can’t rely on just cold hard logic: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121030161416.htm

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