At play, at peace with the plan

October 16, 2012

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series that chronicles the author’s effort to understand our relationship to the animals we eat.

I used to think there was a bright line between pets and livestock, but I don’t anymore.

Sure, there are animals that are clearly one or the other. If the American Kennel Club has a standard for it, it’s definitely a pet. Anything with “broiler” in its breed name? Livestock.

But when you’re spending time with an animal, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s got a “P” or an “L” on its dressing room door. It’s just you and it, face to face, and the label doesn’t have the power to tell you how to feel. I’ve known some charming chickens and some very annoying dogs.

Call it livestock all you want, but that won’t insulate you from the appeal of a pig.

Although I’m just finding this out now, it seems that it’s not news to a lot of other people. Rumor has it — and no one will come clean and either confirm or deny — that bets are being made on our pigs. Well, not on them, exactly. On us. As our local friends visit Spot, Doc and Tiny (and they do), and our remote and virtual friends read about them, see pictures of them and watch them on the stycam, it’s clear to all that the pigs are more “P” than “L.” And nobody kills and eats their pets.

There is a contingent that believes — and another that hopes — we’re not going to be able to do it.

I can see why. Although, going in, we knew we’d grow fond of the trio, we didn’t know just how likable pigs are. They’re cute, they’re active, they’re always excited to see you. They run around together, and sleep in a pile, and don’t ever get seriously upset with each other or with us. They’re never in a bad mood. And they play games for the sheer pleasure of it.

My husband, Kevin, and I have become intimately familiar with games pigs play. The first, played early and often, is Roll the Pig Down the Hill.

I suspect this game is well known in the pig-raising world and is one of the reasons all the books tell you that the ideal pig pen is flat. But because we live on a slope, there was no way around it. There’s barely a level spot to be found in the pigs’ 2,000 square feet, and the steepest slope is near the gate and the feeder and the pig house, where the pigs spend most of their time.

They were very young and small when they discovered they could use this to their advantage. We watched one day as Spot sneaked up on Doc, who was snoozing in a patch of sunlight, and gave her a good, hard shove. Doc rolled almost all the way down the hill before she recovered her footing. It’s a slippery slope.

I know pigs can’t laugh. I know it. But you shoulda been there.

When they were small, Roll the Pig Down the Hill was their favorite game. Once they reached about 100 pounds, it was supplanted by Roll the Farmer Down the Hill. The pigs play this game at every opportunity, never having heard the adage about not rolling the hand that feeds you down the hill.

When the pigs started with this game, it was easy for the farmer (and I use the term loosely) to win. But as they grew and outweighed first me and then Kevin, the balance of power shifted. They have a low center of gravity and quadrupedal stability. What do we have? Well, free will and opposable thumbs. These advantages, while significant in the wider world, are of limited utility in Roll the Farmer Down the Hill.

Losing at this game is unnerving. Getting knocked down by an animal that outweighs you by 50 pounds, and having her two friends come over to check out the interesting new phenomenon of prone person, is a little bit scary. Big, strong animals, no matter their temperaments, seem significantly less charming when you’re on the ground looking up at them.

You might have missed the story, a while back, about a farmer who went out to check his pigs and then went missing. A week later, they found his dentures and figured out he’d met his end in the pen. We might have missed it, too, if half our circle of friends hadn’t helpfully forwarded the link.

The point isn’t that pigs are man-eaters (it’s likely that the farmer died in the pen, of non-pig-related causes), it’s that they’re big and strong and can, even if it’s just by mistake, take a piece out of you.

Free will wasn’t cutting it, so we changed our strategy.

The way to win at Roll the Farmer Down the Hill, we discovered, is to avoid playing by distracting the pigs with a better game. We thought tetherball might work, and Kevin hung a big buoy from a tree. Although the pigs seem to like their new toy, and nose it around now and again, it’s not nearly as interesting as the Farmer. The one they can Roll Down the Hill.

There’s only one game the pigs reliably prefer, and that’s Corner the Snacks.

Although they get their standard-issue swine feed in a feeder they can eat from any time, we put pig treats (which are many and varied) in an eight-foot trough Kevin made by splitting a length of PVC the long way and using one half as the base and the other half as the basin. We thought this would let us distribute food along its length and prevent squabbling, but it hasn’t, really. Whatever morsel one pig is after, that’s the very one the other pigs want.

To protect that morsel, and the ones nearby, the pigs try to climb in the trough, covering the food with their bodies and preventing their penmates from eating it. That buys us enough time to check the feeder or put fresh bedding in the house or clean the waterer without being challenged to another round of Roll.

These games are the fun games. But, increasingly, it’s the endgame that’s on our minds. The pigs are approaching slaughter weight: Doc, the biggest, is well over 200 pounds. We have about another month to go.

“How can you do it?” our friends ask, as they watch us with the pigs. There’s the same kind of pleasure, the same kind of silliness, the same kind of bonding, as with other animals. Pet animals.

How will we do it?

With sadness, certainly. With tears, probably. But with absolute commitment.

You can’t know for sure what it’s like to raise an animal until you actually do it. While we knew, from the beginning, that feelings would be engaged, we had no idea exactly which feelings those would be. But we were determined that, no matter how petlike the pigs turned out to be, we would kill them and eat them.

Doing otherwise would be an inexcusable capitulation to sentiment. Is it really better to keep three pets that will keep eating — and growing — until, together, they weigh as much as a car? What’s the endgame there?

We also don’t know how we’re going to feel about cooking and eating pork that had a name. The meat from one of these pigs is going in our freezer; we’re raising the other two for friends. It will be a new experience for us when the answer to “what’s for dinner?” might be “Spot chops.”

There, we have an out. If we found it distasteful, we could give the pork away. But that would defeat the purpose of the enterprise, which is to ensure that the food we eat has a decent life.

And there’s the rub. If you’re committed to humanely raised pork, you’re committed to eating a charming animal. Kevin and I are absolutely committed.

So, if you’re making bets on whether we can bring ourselves to do this, I think the smart money’s on “yes.”

Haspel is a freelance writer, formerly urban, now hunting, fishing and raising her own food in the wilds of Cape Cod. She writes about it at www.starvingofftheland.com, where she has a 24-hour feed from their stycam and is blogging regularly about the pigs’ progress. She will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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