Monday, January 16, 2006

The Story of Pig

He whipped off his baseball cap and scooped her up. She fit neatly inside with room to spare, she was that small. As he looked around for the other one, a part of him was already regretting the snap-second decision. On the other hand, what could he have done? He'd just shot and killed the mother. Unable to locate the other, he stuffed the impossibly tiny, squealing female into his backpack, readied the sow to pack out, hoisted her onto his back and walked out of the hills.

Just earlier, he'd found himself in an impossible situation. Up in the hills, wild boar hunting with his roommate, he'd suddenly come across a boar in a thick patch of brush. Unable to determine the animal's gender, the boar's sudden, menacing rush towards him left him with no way to retreat quickly. Reacting in self-defense, he aimed and pulled the trigger. Only when the sow fell, did he see the two babies. One scurried away into the brush, lost instantly. The other got scooped up into a baseball cap, and so begins the story of Pig.

From his experience in raising hogs for show for an FFA high school project, he knew what to do. He stopped at the farm store on the way home to buy a nursing bottle and milk replacement. He made a bed of straw covered with a cardboard box shelter and set it out on the fenced-in patio of his apartment. Because of the demanding feeding schedule, he brought her to work with him, keeping her cool on the floor of his pickup truck and sometimes in the field beside him in a wire surround so she could get air and sunshine. The rest of the crew at work soon adopted her as their mascot. She was cuddled, bottled fed and well loved.

I first saw Pig when she was about 4 weeks old. My son had me sit on the couch in his apartment, covered me with a blanket from feet to neck, then handed me a bottle. He opened the sliding door to his tiny patio and in streaked this small, squealing, hairless, pink and copper critter who skittered pell-mell across the linoleum floor, righted herself, launched up my blanket-covered legs, latched onto the bottle nipple and proceeded to noisily drain the contents, all in what seemed like 30 seconds. The bottle empty, she melted into my arms and promptly fell asleep, her little piggy legs making small piggy-dream movements as little piggy sounds emitted from her tiny piggy snout. I was smitten; helplessly and hopelessly in love. Undone by the trust this small, motherless, feral creature placed in me to keep her safe while she slept.

Pig thrived and grew. And grew. She outgrew the patio and the apartment. She outgrew the floor of the pickup truck. She upturned the wire surrounds that were to keep her contained at work. And then one day when she was about 3 months old, my son called to ask if Pig could come live with me and my husband. She was no longer a baby and she needed to be safely contained. Putting her back into the wild was out of the question. She had bonded with humans and would not have been safe.

Now, you must understand something: I'm an animal person. I was one of those tom-boys who ran feral in my youth, bringing home any number of stray animals, from lizards to jack rabbits, from a clutch of motherless blue jays to an injured pheasant, and all manner of stray kittens that "followed me home". I grew up racing around on my hands and knees pretending I was a horse. Had the whinny down to a perfect mimicry. Probably in self-defense, my parents got me a horse when I was ten and I continued to own horses until I started having kids. My darling husband, on the other hand, likes cats. Period. Cats are cool. When I knew I was to spend the rest of my life with him, I put into what we jokingly called our "marriage contract", in very small print, that I had to have a horse. He, being madly in love, and most probably in a moment of passion, agreed. To his never-ending chagrin, as it didn't stop there.

So when asked if Pig could come live on our 2+ acres with a horse, 3 dogs, 4 cats, 2 turkeys and a small flock of chickens, in my mind it was already a done deal. We had the room. We could outfit one of the carport bays as an enclosure. What was the problem? The horse already had the adjacent carport bay. We didn't keep our cars in them. Pig and the horse would keep each other company. The look on Clay's long-suffering face as I rattled off these points was painfully comical. His protestations defeated before he could utter a word. I'm sure, then and there, he must have realized just what my parents went through.

Pig came to live with us the next weekend. By that time she weighed about 40 pounds. Wild boars do not normally put on weight in the same way that domestic pigs do. They have to be leaner (and meaner), thus quicker, in the wild to survive. Pig was quick. She could scurry from one side of her new stall to the other in the wink of an eye. She was also a bit daunting. She had small, sharp teeth and could, and would, playfully albeit painfully, nip. Sharp, tusk-like teeth grew from her lower jaw. Her favorite show of affection was to swing her massive head to the side and hit me at about the knee. I grew painfully aware that I would have to be very careful when in her pen. I also had to remind myself that this was no domestic pig, no matter that she lived in a domestic environment. She was what is called a feral pig; her ancestry being wild boar crossed with an escaped domestic pig, many years back in her lineage. Her head was huge and her snout was very, very long. She had beautiful, thick, coarse, copper and sable-colored hair down her back. And, she could talk.

Pig was a very vocal animal. It was only when she was in a deep sleep that she wasn't talking about one thing or another. She would grunt and squeal as she re-arranged her "furniture" on a daily basis. She would talk to the horse in the stall next to her. I caught them once in a conversation wherein my lovely Arab mare was looking over the stall fence at Pig and Pig was looking up at the mare. They were both engaged in a comical "conversation" of equine nickering and porcine grunting.

In her stall, Pig had a heavy wooden structure with 2 steps that measured about 3 feet wide by 2 & 1/2 feet tall. She also had a heavy wooden box shelter that she could burrow into and toys that she couldn't bite to pieces, one such being a large, heavy rubber ball. (Note the use of the word heavy - a key element in mitigating destruction by a feral pig.) She loved to dig holes, some of them quite deep wherein she would deposit a toy, her ball or even her steps. Each day she would rearrange her furniture amid sounds of wild squeals and grunts, digging a hole or two only to cover them up and dig another elsewhere.

During the first few months living with us, I would put a dog harness on Pig, snap a leash to it and open her gate. Instantly we were off and running, Pig squealing with what I interpreted as delight and me whooping and laughing behind her, being pulled this way and that, sometimes at a dead run. Those days were not to last. She grew daily and soon outgrew the harness, then another, then another. One day she was just too large and too strong for me to handle and her running days were over. I thought of letting her roam in the yard, but that idea was nipped in the bud when she immediately ran under the fence, down the road and onto the county road at the bottom of our lane, with me rapidly in pursuit. After stopping traffic in both directions for about 15 minutes, amid some hilarity from the drivers, I finally was able to get a rope on her and pursuade her to come home.

I mentioned that Pig talked. She had a voice for every part of her life but the voice she used when she heard mine was different from any other. I cannot describe it well, but it was different. Softer with a kind of sing-song lilt to it. When she had grown way too large for me to safely enter her pen (over 150 lbs. at this point), I would kneel outside the gate and reach my hand through the rails. Pig would come over and lie down next to the gate, rolling over so I could scratch her belly, the contented grunts and warbles in her sing-song voice creating a constant chatter.

A year and some months passed and Pig eventually weighed over 200 pounds though she wasn't overfed. Because of her sedentary life she put on weight like a domestic pig and I believe that these excess pounds took their toll on her. She developed what seemed to be neurological problems along her spine. One of her hind legs would periodically give way and she wouldn't be able to stand. She also developed a way of holding her head off to one side as though a muscle was in spasm. Finally, I had to admit that she wasn't a very happy pig anymore and I started looking for an animal sanctuary where she might have more room to roam, lose weight and be with other pigs. I searched the Internet, I made phone calls, I talked to veterinarians. No one wanted to take a pig. The animal sanctuaries, as far away as Tennessee, took all sorts of farm animals except pigs because their digging is so destructive to the land. Another year went by and I still hadn't found a suitable place for her. I had already dismissed the idea of giving her to an independent farmer as I couldn't be assured that she wouldn't come to harm. Her lameness became more and more pronounced and she fell down more and more often.

Not wanting her to suffer anymore, I slowly and painfully came to consider the idea of humanely ending her life. I called around to local butchers but not one of them would come out to our property to do the job. I would have to bring her to their place of business to a holding pen where she would be handled like any other meat animal: waiting to be herded into a chute, the smell of blood and fear all around, and then get "knocked" on the head, followed by being stuck in the carotid artery with a long, sharp knife-like instrument, after which she would bleed to death on the ground. I couldn't do it.

More months passed. Pig's lameness became so acute that she spent most of the day laying down and when she did get up it was with tremendous effort on her part. In the end, I came to the conclusion that since we were responsible for the state of Pig's life, we had to be equally responsible for ending it ourselves. I talked to my son, then in vet school, and asked if he would come up the following weekend to humanely put Pig out of her misery. He arrived on a Friday afternoon while I was still at work and, after scratching her belly for a while and talking softly to her, he shot her in the head. She didn't know a thing. One minute she was grunting contentedly and the next she was dead. Just like that.

My son and my husband worked quickly to gut, skin and hang her carcass so that when I got home from work, all the "messy" stuff had been dealt with and disposed of. Painful as it was to me, knowing she was to be killed, seeing her carcass hanging there didn't have the impact on me that I'd been expecting. This was a carcass, not Pig. After it hung for 24 hours, we spent an afternoon, well into the evening cutting and wrapping the meat. We wrapped shoulder and loin roasts and cut the rest up into stewing pieces. We saved tremendous amounts of fat to render into lard. And for the next year we ate Pig's meat, sharing it with our friends and neighbors, always acknowledging where our bounty came from and carrying her memory inside of us.

So that's the story of Pig. To this day I can hear her soft grunts and warbles as she spoke to me. I can see her looking at me with her deep, brown, intelligent eyes. And I will be forever grateful for having been a part of her life. Will I ever raise a pig again? It's highly unlikely.

(This was written because I had to get it out of my head, but also because I was inspired by Kate Hill's post from across the pond at Kate Hill's French Kitchen Adventures. Do visit her site. She's an amazing woman.)

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