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Potbellied Pigs and the Natural Order

May 28, 2014

David Waltner-Toews

More than four decades ago, when I was a callow young student of English literature at a small Mennonite college in Indiana, I had some friends who adopted a piglet as a pet. The animal made a pink and jovial, if hypochondriac, companion, trotting about their upstairs apartment as if he indeed had been bred for the high life of the urban captive. Unfortunately for my friends, their landlord in the apartment below was not as pleased as they with the clattering of tiny feet across a hardwood floor or the squealing of anticipated discomfort, and gave them the usual ultimatum: you or your pig. This being the late 1960s, when pigs were paraded out as presidential candidates and compared with policemen, it seemed a particularly piquant snub to the landlord that they packed their bags and moved out, pig and all. Not long after, they had one of the fine house-and-garden parties for which they were known. It was a pig-roast, richly festive and touched with sadness. In retrospect, I think that pig, despite his odd life, came to a happier and more honest end than many of the animals who have evolved with us.

Robert Desowitz, in a fascinating book on parasites and their people entitled New Guinea Tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers, tells the story of how, after the Indonesians annexed the half of New Guinea they call Irian Jaya, some of the tribespeople there began to suffer from a strange affliction. The people affected would go into fits and sometimes throw themselves into the fire and be badly burned. An investigation revealed that the source of the problem was a pacification gift from the President of Indonesia – pigs from the island of Bali. The pigs brought with them not only their innocent hams and the president’s best wishes for an unrebellious life, but a parasite which in people can sometimes migrate to the brain and make a cyst there.

For most people in urban North America, far removed from survival needs and blood sacrifices, the contractual arrangement which recognizes the mutual dependence between people and the rest of nature, the one demanding mutual respect and payments due, is rarely reflected upon. We make nature our plaything and create the illusion that life costs nothing biologically. I cannot help but wonder, is North American fascination with Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs and other “third world” pets – such as parrots, monkeys and some snakes – a way of becoming friendly with the earth’s diversity, or is it, more darkly, just another form of pillage? And what will be the cost? For biologically, there is always a cost.

I first saw the little, black, pot-bellied pigs of Southeast Asia while working in the islands of Indonesia, where they are called babi cina (literally, Chinese pig), which through a linguisto-political trick is rendered into English as “Bali pig”. I don’t imagine my wife will ever let me forget the day I leapt from our minivan in Bali with a camera to try to get my first picture of them as they scampered away into a field – while she was bent over on the seat suffering from a near-death experience with food poisoning. Despite their fat, loosely folded skin, sway-backed bouncing run and sagging bellies, they were too smart and fast for this foreigner to catch on film. It is of course in the nature of visitors to see a tropical paradise such as Bali through post-card lenses.

The Balinese might describe them differently. Relatives of the domestic pig, descended from the wild boar, Sus scrofa, whose history as a food animal goes back, along with the dog, some 5000 years in China, the potbellies are members of a clan of hundreds of locally adapted breeds of pigs, bearded pigs, warty pigs, and babirusa scattered throughout south and east Asia. Selected over centuries, they grow up to be less than 100 pounds, about the right size for a family meal, so that the availability of refrigeration, to save the leftover meat or transport it to market, is not essential. They are rugged, scavenging omnivores, roaming the streets and fields looking for garbage to clean up. Like many farm animals in that part of the world, they appear to be wild, but if you actually tried to steal one, you would quickly discover that (like North American cats) owners and pigs know each other quite well. They are a no-maintenance cost animal of the kind detested by multinational feed and animal genetics companies. From an energy conservation and ecological point of view, for the future of a crowded planet, they are an ideal animal, and an ideal source of food.

Like Wilbur, the pig in E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web”, they are animals of keen intelligence, which is not surprising given their scavenging abilities under difficult circumstances, as well as being lively, trainable, and, to some minds conditioned to view animals as post-card pictures or animated cartoons, cute.

Having seen them in their natural habitat, I was more than mildly surprised and disturbed to see one come in to the university veterinary clinic at Guelph suffering (ironically) from a gastrointestinal disorder as a result of an inappropriate, pampered North American diet. I was even more surprised to learn that there are more than 8000 of them kept as pets in the United States and that they fetched a price of $500 to $5000 or even higher.

I have a nightmare. I imagine a terrible conspiracy of the excessively wealthy white North Americans against the poor people of Bali. In this nightmare, the little critters are Dysnified, if I might coin a word, which in North America is as close to sanctification as popular culture will allow. According to the Gospel of Mickey Mouse, we cannot eat Bambi and his friends of course, nor should anyone else. Having made the little pigs too cute to eat, we then look the other way as our compatriots – the analogues of the mercantile armies of the old empires who followed the missionaries – offer large, white, energy inefficient and ecologically destructive Amerocanadian pigs as a substitute to the Balinese. It’s just a bad dream of course. It will never happen. But I worry just the same.

There is one essential truth in Darwin’s discoveries that has yet to sink into our collective consciousness: we are all part of the natural order. Neither cute little pot-bellied pigs, nor ducks, nor rats, nor people nor cats are outside of the intricate natural physiological web of our living planet. When ducks die off because of human intrusions into wetlands, or chickadees flourish because of artificial bird feeders, or cats are hit by cars or whales die because of environmental toxins, the question we face is not one of what is natural versus what is “unnatural”. Since the bounds of our experience define the bounds of what is natural, it is impossible for anything to be unnatural. The questions we face are: how can we balance the biological integrity of birds against that of cats and insects? How can we relate to pot-bellied pigs honestly?

These are value-laden ethical questions, bound to stir up trouble and anguish. What kind of world do we wish to have? Which kinds of animals do we value? We will all die, as will all the animals we live with – as, indeed, will the planetary organism of which we are a part. Death is not the issue; death gives boundaries and urgency to a more important question: how can we most honourably live together before our deaths?

The little pot-bellied pigs of south China and Southeast Asia evolved over thousands of years to fit a particular socio-ecological niche. They are not dogs, nor cats, nor are they Wilbur, the fat white Yorkshire pig. Having evolved in the tropics with little hair covering their bodies, pot-bellied pigs need a warm sleeping environment (60-70 degrees F), and may dig into and shred their nests if uncomfortable. In fact, it is probably cruel to prevent them from engaging in their natural inclinations to dig in the dirt. On the other hand, they are like water buffaloes and Californians in that they do not sweat, and hence require shade and a cool pool in hot weather. Having evolved on a rough and ready diet of food scraps and coarse vegetation, the highly refined corn-based diet of North American fattening hogs, if used at all, should be supplemented with fresh vegetables, forages, and fruits. Having evolved as scavengers, however, they’re not really fussy, and can poison themselves by eating plants like rhubarb leaves or lily of the valley.

In order to satisfy our “refined” surroundings, the male tusks need to be cut yearly, so we don’t get hurt handling them. The hoofs might need trimming if the pigs don’t get out and around enough. As well, the pigs need to be protected from people who might want to lift them by the front legs, dog-like, as this can dislocate their shoulders, or flash bulbs, which can frighten them. The female delights of sexual arousal every three weeks, and assertive nature of the female pigs, may wear a bit thin on some owners and require reproductive control. Of course, they will need vaccinations for various diseases such as parvovirus, erysipelas, leptospirosis and some diarrheal agents.

The keen intelligence of the little pot-bellies has been honed in the struggle to survive in difficult circumstances. I am not surprised that they are affectionate, and can be toilet-trained if you are willing to take them out every four hours during the day. In the end, however, I cannot believe that it is a sign of respect to that intelligence, nor a credit to ours, to make those animals our playthings – no matter how well we care for them.

Are we doing them a favour to take them out of their home environment and introduce them to the aches and pains of old age (10-15 years in a potbelly)? A quick death in the prime of life – and as one whose father died suddenly and unexpectedly I do not say this lightly – may be one of Nature’s favours. What we do not like, of course, is that for some animals whose evolution has been closely entertwined with our own, we may be called upon to act as Nature’s hand in this. We would just as soon pretend that death has nothing to do with us, which is why we eat meat but want to avoid the subject of slaughterhouses. We want to own pets, and preserve them from an honest death.

What it comes down to, then, is this: just a little respect, in life as in death.

William Youatt, in an 1855 treatise on “The Hog”, tells the story of a gentleman from Caversham, who, having purchased two pigs at Reading market, had them conveyed home in a sack. The following morning, finding the pigs gone, he raised a hue and cry; that afternoon, he was apprised of a sighting of two pigs swimming across the Thames River near his home. A second sighting was reported near a crossroads, where the pigs were seen with their noses together, “as if in deep consultation”. The destination of their journey turned out to be the farm from which they had been conveyed to the Reading market, a distance of some nine miles. The farmer, being an honest man, returned the pigs to the purchaser in Caversham. The pigs, being both intelligent and stubborn, repeated their homeward journey the following day. The story illustrates, we are told, the “great sagacity” of swine. We are not told the ending.

I confess that when I see the little Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs garlanded and leashed and pampered, I imagine them commandeering a leaky vessel and navigating the seven seas back to their tropical home. A hot place, yes, a place where it’s man eat pig and pig eat scraps and they’re unlikely to get ice-cream. It’s a place where, even as they are being eaten – indeed only as they are being eaten – that they can help to give new life to the parasite Taenia solium and in so doing both repay a debt to nature for having been given life, and extract a cost from people for having taken life. It’s home, then, and one of the few places left on earth where a small pig can still make an honest living.


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