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Pigs Is Equal
Gayle Boss

Dogs looks up at you, cats looks down
on you, but pigs is equal.

Old English adage, often
attributed to Churchill

 

Last summer, I signed up for “A Day on the Farm,” a group tour of a large Indiana swine breeding operation. Then I came home and re-read Charlotte’s Web. Something about the pigs I looked at that day—no, I mean something in the way a particular pig looked at me—made me remember the story’s singular pig, Wilbur. It had been at least a decade since I’d read the book to my children, four since I’d read it as a child myself. I didn’t remember that the story opens not with the pig, but with a bold eight-year-old girl, Fern Arable, who throws herself at her father as he is on his way to apply an ax to a newborn runt pig. For commonsense Mr. Arable, this is a necessary unpleasantry, a matter of expediency and efficiency. For Fern, it is a gross injustice:

“But it’s unfair,” cried Fern. “The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?”

Mr. Arable smiled. “Certainly not,” he said, looking down at his daughter with love. “But this is different. A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another.”

“I see no difference,” replied Fern, still hanging on to the ax. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”

Our first stop on the tour was the farrowing barn. A young Hispanic woman wearing latex gloves brought to the door a baby pig born a few minutes before. It lay neatly along her forearm, belly up, like a very small human baby, its pink skin soft and downy and warm to the touch. I wanted to hold it on my forearm, but the farm worker’s body language—and gloves—indicated this was not allowed. The piglet had to be protected from sicknesses I might be carrying. Besides, it was whimpering for its mother. The woman took the piglet back into the barn, and through a viewing window we watched as she laid it alongside eleven others suckling the teats of a sow splayed heavily on her side, snout tipped away from the many mouths.

The steel bars of her stall gave the nursing mother room to lie in this position or to stand. The farm manager standing beside us explained that if she could move about any more—say, if she wanted to turn around—she might crush her babies. She will lie on her side or stand facing the forward wall, until, after three weeks, the piglets are taken from her. The sow herself, I learned later, would have taken three months to wean them.

 

Fern Arable does get to hold the runty newborn, and not just once. Her father, asking that “the good Lord forgive (him) for this foolishness,” gives the piglet to his daughter, who chooses for him “the most beautiful name she can think of”: Wilbur. Fern holds Wilbur and feeds him from a bottle and gives him rides in her doll carriage. Wilbur has his own yard under the apple tree and a box full of clean straw for sleeping and mud along the bank of a brook to wallow in while Fern swims.

Every day was a happy day, and every night was peaceful.

But Farmer Arable’s foolishness has its limits. When Wilbur is five weeks old and eating more than milk, Mr. Arable tells his daughter, “He has got to be sold.” The selling price he asks, though, is only six dollars, and he asks it of Fern’s uncle, Homer Zuckerman, who conveniently lives just down the road so that she can walk there as often as she likes. Almost every day after school she visits Wilbur in his new home: a pen with a manure pile in the Zuckerman’s barn cellar that opens onto a yard. She sits on an old milking stool in the sheepfold next to Wilbur’s pen.

It made her happy just to be near the pig, and it made Wilbur happy to know that she was sitting there, right outside his pen.

 

***

 

Our next stop was a nursery barn where squealing three-week-old piglets are brought after being taken from their mothers. We pushed our faces against a viewing window. No one goes into the barn without a shower and change of clothes. Feces fall through a slatted floor into a shallow pit, which is flushed every two hours to an outdoor lagoon. Every precaution is taken to keep the animals free of sickness. Because they live bumping up against each other—forty to a pen—sickness would spread snout-to-snout in no time.

It is with their snouts, I learned, that pigs explore their surroundings. The farm manager told us this, but needn’t have. It was apparent. The pigs in each pen, eight weeks old and about fifty pounds apiece when we visited, pushed their moist tubular noses into whatever was near them and, other than the sides of the pen and the water cylinder hung from the ceiling, that was only other pigs. Sometimes, we were told, especially when they first come to this barn and are smaller and there is more space between them, they play a little, but mostly they eat and drink and sleep. As they grow there is little room for anything else.

When a worker stepped into the pen, though, the pigs roused. They rushed him, snuffling and lipping his hands, his boots, his jeans like puppies. Fifteen years working with pigs, he told us, holding his hand out to a nearby snout, including the five-hundred-pound sows, and none had ever harmed him.

 

Though Wilbur finds it lovely to have Fern near, he misses his walks with her, the rides in the doll carriage, and their hours at the brook. In his new home, he can walk about his pen, climb to the top of its manure pile, talk to the other animals, trot out into the barnyard, dig, scratch against the fence, and, if he is feeling particularly saucy, jump into the air and finish with a twist or a back flip. Even with these several options, Wilbur needs more.

“I’m less than two months old and I’m tired of living,” he said.

 

***

 

At the Indiana farm—called, in the industry, a “gilt multiplier production unit”—pigs are moved from the nursery barn when they are about two months old to what’s called a “finishing barn.” The one we saw had ten pens, eighty-five pigs in each. A few steps in any direction and a pig bumps into another. No viewing window here. We could look directly into the finishing barn over a half-wall with a curtain which could be raised or lowered. Ventilation and heat are controlled by computer. If pigs are too hot, they, like people, don’t eat as much. These pigs, we were told, have the genetic potential to grow at a rate of 2.2 pounds per day, if they keep eating. So keeping them comfortable is important to ensure that they gain every potential pound. What they eat also matters for maximizing their potential poundage. Livestock nutritionists with PhDs formulate their feed, balancing grain and grain by-products with added calcium, phosphorus, salt, vitamins, and trace minerals. Feeding stations are equipped with sensors that refill the feeders automatically, twenty-four hours a day. The whole environment of the finishing barn is engineered to bring pigs to 270 pounds in sixteen weeks, when they are sold by the pound to the meat packers.

 

At first his feed trough is an interesting diversion for Wilbur. Lurvy, the hired hand, fills it three times a day from a pail. Every meal is a surprise. Breakfast might be “skim milk, crusts, middlings, bits of doughnuts, wheat cakes with drops of maple syrup sticking to them, potato skins, leftover custard pudding with raisins, and bits of Shredded Wheat.” It all depends on what’s left over from the Zuckerman’s table or Lurvy’s lunchbox. But it isn’t long before Wilbur realizes that what he needs to thrive is something more intangible.

Wilbur didn’t want food, he wanted love. He wanted a friend—someone who would play with him.

 

***

 

The pigs in the finishing barn had grown impressively beyond the size of those in the nursery barn. Standing, eating, or sleeping all day, they had each gained about 175 pounds in thirteen weeks. What I noticed, besides how they crowded each other, were the notches and holes big as half-dollars punched in their ears. Though each pig was numbered, the holes told the informed eye the basics of its identity in a glance, including its near future: meat or mothering. All of them eventually end on a plate, but females with the best lines and strongest features will be held back from the slaughterhouse for two-to-three years, during which they will be inseminated, gestate, and birth five or six litters.

It was while I was staring at the piercings of one particular pig that it walked toward our tour group. I had never looked at an adult pig, up close. And it looked back. No, it stared back, eyes small for the head, fringed with delicate pale lashes.

I asked the farm manager—Matt, a man square and strong with the handling of hogs—about this pig. A female, he said, called a gilt because she had not yet borne any young. The holes in her ears told him that in three weeks she would be sold as breeding stock to another gilt multiplier production unit as large as this one. Later on the tour, I saw sows living her future: She will be led to a stall only inches wider than her body in an insemination/gestation barn. A plastic tube will be inserted into her vagina and a sac of sperm—genetically selected to ensure robust, not runty, offspring—will be fed through it. As piglets grow inside her, she will stand all day looking at the same wall, or at the sow on either side, separated from her by steel bars which she will sometimes chew. Tired of that, she will lie on one side or the other, staring at the ceiling’s steel beams. She will never see the sky.

Three months, three weeks, and three days of this. Then she will be walked to a farrowing stall of the same confinement to birth her young on a metal floor, not in the nest of straw or grass which instinct tells her to build. Three weeks later, stripped of her piglets, she will go back to the insemination and gestation pen. Back and forth, five or six times, until her uterus is deemed worn out. Then she will be shipped to the bratwurst plant.

The pig staring at me knew none of this. She had had a life, so far, of endless food, clean water, temperature-controlled housing, a sanitary pen, and, in the unlikely case she had gotten sick, immediate medical care. There was no threat in her gaze. The pig’s gaze seemed simply curious, a small attempt to make contact with the unfamiliar human being on the other side of the fence, a new hand, perhaps, to lip and snuffle.

 

Once home, I began reading about pigs. By most measures, I learned, they are fourth in animal intelligence behind chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants. Some tasks, like nudging a joystick for food, they perform as well as chimps. They have a keen ability to solve problems, like opening the latches of their pens, and animal experts consider them more trainable than dogs.

In 2009, an international team of biologists released the first draft sequence of the pig genome, a pig of the ruddy-haired Duroc breed. Even at a glance, said Lawrence Schook, one of the team leaders, “the pig genome compares favorably with the human genome. Very large sections are maintained in complete pieces,” though our respective ancestors diverged one hundred million-plus years ago. It is why damaged human heart valves can be replaced with pig heart valves and why drugs are given to pigs when scientists want to learn how they will be metabolized in the human body. A pig’s teeth resemble a human’s. Their intestinal lining is used to repair our ligament damage and extreme burn injuries. Like us, pigs have binocular vision and see in color. They can’t focus well, though. To see something—or someone—well, a pig will come close and stare.

 

***

 

Besides Fern, Wilbur finds a friend in Charlotte, a large gray spider. Hanging in her web in a high corner of the barn cellar door, she looks down and sees Wilbur’s intelligence, his curiosity, and generosity. Companioned by her, Wilbur grows contented—and fat. It is an idyllic life for all—until the day the old sheep tells him what she’s seen year after year: that when the cold weather comes Wilbur will be killed and served up for Christmas dinner.

The pig collapses in panic and sobs. Calmer, Charlotte devises a plan. One morning the farm wakes to a new, dew be-glistened web in the cellar door, “a pattern of loveliness and mystery,” in the center of which she has woven, in block letters, “SOME PIG!” News of “the miracle” sweeps through the whole county; people crowd the Zuckerman barn to see the web for themselves.

On Sunday… the minister explained the miracle. He said the words on the spider’s web proved that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders.

I was not on the watch for wonders the day I visited the Indiana hog operation. But when that gilt, penned in a space in which she would never see the sun, that kept her continually jostled against others, three weeks away from narrower confinement in gestation and farrowing stalls where, for the rest of her brief life, she could not take more than two steps forward or back, nor turn around, when she looked at me, intentionally, curiously, wonder—and heartache—did indeed come to me.

This was before I read any of the abundant anecdotal evidence—and not just from animal lovers—of the attachments pigs will form with humans who care for them with compassion. A pig named Pru pulled her owner from a bog in West Wales. Lulu, a pot-bellied pig, ran into the road and lay down until a car stopped; she brought its driver to the aid of her owner, collapsed from a heart attack. Animal behaviorists say that even after being mistreated, most pigs, like most dogs, will show affection to caring humans. And breeding sows in gestation and farrowing stalls can become “unresponsive, behaviour linked to depression,” according to scientists from the Scientific Veterinary Committee of the European Union. Banned in the EU after the fourth week of pregnancy since 2013, they will be phased out in New Zealand in 2015 and Australia in 2017.

Again Charlotte weaves a worded web: “TERRIFIC!” And again: “RADIANT!” More citizens from across the countryside come to see, and they see it is indeed true. Wilbur is terrific; he is radiant. Basking in their attention, Wilbur becomes more terrific and radiant than he already is. A spiral of perceptiveness and of terrific-ness, of radiance, is set in motion. Everyone becomes as enamored of Wilbur as the eight-year-old who prevented him being axed on the story’s opening page because she saw no difference between the pig and herself.

 

***

 

Pressed by organizations ranging from the brash People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to the compromising Humane Society of the United States, and many in between, nine states, like the EU, have passed laws to ban the use of gestation crates. As the fifth-largest pig-­producing state in the union, Indiana is not likely to be next. But a growing number of national restaurant chains (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King) have notified their suppliers that within a handful of years they will no longer buy pork from producers who keep animals in such confinement.

During our tour, Matt spoke more than once of “animal activists.” They had no idea, he said, what it takes to raise a pig, how much safer and more comfortable his pigs are than if they were allowed to root around outside in pastures. More importantly, though, animal activists have confused values. They have “blurred the line,” forgotten or forsaken “human exceptionalism,” our supremacy in the order of creation that not only allows but encourages humans to make use—good use—of other creatures.

As an example, he pointed to his 1,150-sow state-of-the-art operation: good not only for pigs, but also good for the world. The care and efficiency he exercises are the answer to feeding, safely, a growing global population with the means to pay for meat. “We are constantly asking ourselves, ‘What’s it going to take to feed ten billion people in the next twenty to thirty years?’” he said. “God quit making farmland a long time ago. We are called to figure out and apply technology… to produce food as efficiently as possible so that the less blessed can afford to eat a healthy, balanced diet while treating animals as the precious gifts they are.”

Several times Matt referred to “the miracle that God created in the pig.” He didn’t mean a particular pig, with a name, but the commodity “pig,” a “source for food and medical and health products.”

 

***

 

So proud of Wilbur are the Zuckermans that they take him to the county fair. There they bathe him in buttermilk until “the morning sun [shines] through his pink ears.” He is, in fact, radiant. The judges present Wilbur with a special award in front of a grandstand full of admirers, an award “in token of (their) appreciation of the part played by this pig—this radiant, this terrific, this humble pig—in attracting so many visitors” to the county fair. People have flocked to the charged space that Charlotte and Wilbur have created, a space where they see a pig differently than they ever have before.

Briefly. The traditional blue ribbon goes to a larger pig named, oddly, “Uncle.” His blue-ribbon value is not his radiance but his poundage, as meat. So Uncle’s glory will be short-lived. At the end of the fair, he will be summarily killed and butchered, cut up for bacon, chops, and ham.

 

Even in the world of Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur is a one-off creature, an unrepeated miracle. County farmers, presumably the Zuckermans, too, will still raise pigs for the plate. Though their pigs’ lives until slaughter will be more interesting, if not necessarily safer than the lives of the animals on the Indiana hog operation, they are still a means to an end: satisfying human appetite.

And the human appetite for pork, globally, is surging. Twenty-five percent of all pork produced in the US in 2014 was exported, a $6.6 billion value, and those exports are forecast to increase by six percent in 2015. Research at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, is helping hog production companies across the country raise more hogs more efficiently to meet the growing global demand. “This is our attempt to utilize this gift (the pig) with good stewardship to provide for the masses,” Matt said. And to provide for state residents. Indiana’s governor has identified increased hog production as a key growth sector for stimulating the state’s economic development. The Zuckerman farm in today’s world is merely a quaint hobby, not the production company our appetites and economies require.

 

Matt could be any one of my four brothers-in-law, who also support their families through animal agriculture. Rooted in the Reformed tradition of Christianity, he sees his work as the good fruit of that faith: an ingenious, creative, industrious, and caring response to human hunger. Every day at work he is loving God and loving his neighbors, near and far, all of whom he wants to have a diet as rich in animal protein as his own.

And loving pigs, too. At the beginning of the farm tour, Matt introduced himself by saying, “I love pigs.” He would like every pig to live as well as his, with no lack of nutritious food, fresh water, and sanitary housing. It is not cheap to provide the conditions he provides; many—maybe most—large-scale hog growers do less for their animals. The tour itself is evidence of the pride he takes in his business. While other hog production companies bar curious observers as trespassers, he welcomed us, our questions, and our cameras.

Taken aback by the gilt that looked me in the eye, I’ve wondered, do his pigs look Matt in the eye? Does he meet their gaze, and if so, what does he feel? Maybe gratitude. Or nothing akin to feelings he has for humans, like the baby granddaughter he kissed and bounced on his lap during the pork barbeque picnic he served us.

What I felt, leaving his gilt multiplier production unit, besides sad, was foolish—foolish for seeing in a pig’s gaze the possibility of a relationship, and wanting it; foolish for wishing my fellow farm tourists had also been startled that something akin to personality looked back at us from inside the pen. If all of us saw in every pig a Wilbur or Wilma—intelligent individuals capable of relationship with us—Matt’s way of life, and the work he sees as divinely appointed, a work of neighborly love, would fall apart. Like Homer Zuckerman, we couldn’t kill “the miracle that is the pig.” Our appetite for pork would sour; the market for it would collapse. Thousands and thousands of good people who support their families by mass producing pigs as units of meat would be bereft.

Matt and I were raised in the same Reformed Christian tradition, and we both still honor and practice it. We are the same age. In junior high, we learned by heart the same catechism. But somewhere along the catechism’s 129 questions and answers our hearts diverged. Maybe it happened earlier in our lives. I wasn’t raised on a farm, though my parents were and have Matt’s view of pigs. Somewhere, somehow, I began to see myself in animals and to empathize with them.

I do remember from catechism lessons that animals were created when God saw a particular deficiency in his new human: “God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone,’” according to the second chapter of Genesis. In the first, ideal world, animals are humans’ companions. After The Fall, humans make use of them. Matt lives in the world as it is, a world in which we use certain animals as food and must produce ever more of them. I’m trying to live in a world that is not, but, according to the scriptures, once was and could be, a world in which animals are again companions to our bodies and souls.

 

Gayle Boss is a freelance writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is at work on a book of Advent reflections titled, All Creation Waits: Advent, Animals, and The Mysteries of New Beginnings.

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