The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators - Gordon Grice (1999)
A hot place, the abundant foliage moist and gleaming like emeralds in the morning sun; deep humid shadows; at a little distance in any direction, visible wisps of steam navigating sinuously among the fronds of palm and fern. Blunt-winged butterflies the color of ripe cantaloupe flesh fumble drunkenly at massive flowers. Something larger is moving: a bird picks its way over the mossy ground, its massy hindquarters bobbing with its gait. It is like no bird you have seen, a sort of drab, bloated dove with useless, stunted wings and a buzzard’s hooked beak. Its frame is thick-muscled, its walk odd but hardly the clumsy stumble we have always read about.
Out of the undergrowth lunges a bigger animal, four-footed, dark-furred, with a high, ridged back and a long snout not unlike a rat’s. But this is no rodent. When it has seized the bird in its mouth, its forward momentum stops, and you can see that it’s a pig. Perhaps you’re surprised by its lean build; perhaps the snout seems unnaturally long—it tapers in and then flares out again before ending in a flat, cartilaginous disk of a nose. At the moment, however, what you notice most is the set of tusks curving out around the snout, which the pig, with short twitches of the head, is using to gut the panicking bird. The small wings beat futilely; the bird’s bright black eyes dart around and then become still. The pig is already headed into the sheltering green with his meal.
This was a typical death for a dodo. A fast runner, the bird was crippled by a trait common among animals that evolve on islands without predators: it had no fear of strangers. It died as hundreds of other island animals have, hunted down by predators whose standard of brutality was beyond their experience.
The dodo, a relative of the dove, died out about three hundred years ago—it’s hard to be exact because no one noticed it at the time. The reason for its extinction is complicated. Most people think human predation killed off the dodo, but that’s only part of the story. The dodo actually succumbed to competition and predation by a half-dozen or so invaders of its isolated habitat. Though none of these animals springs to mind when you hear the word predator, together they precipitated a dodo apocalypse. The culprits, which all arrived on ships, were the goat, cat, rat, monkey, human, dog, and pig.
Goats gobbled up the fallen fruit dodos liked to eat; they were competitors. The rest hurt the birds more directly. Contrary to legend, the dodos were graceful runners and could deliver a painful bite, and there’s one recorded instance of a man venturing near a nesting site and receiving a sound pecking from a gang of dodos. But these fighting and running skills didn’t go far enough to protect the dodo’s eggs and young from sneaking predators like cats and rats. In his recent book The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen presents good evidence the macaque monkeys that had already invaded Mauritius three hundred years ago are even today pressuring a certain endangered kestrel species by eating its eggs. The kestrel makes its nest in cliffs; the dodo’s nest, lying on open ground, would have been an easier target for the macaques. (Don’t ask why somebody brought monkeys to Mauritius; nobody knows.)
Humans shot the big birds or simply ran them down like barnyard chickens. Their bodies were so packed with edible meat that crews could provision their ships by gathering dodos for a few hours. Dogs, like rats, ate the eggs, which were bigger than those of geese. The dogs delighted in killing the adults as well.
The pigs on the islands were introduced in the hopes that they would establish a self-supporting wild population. Then they could be hunted by settlers and the crews of passing ships. The pigs roamed free, grazing and rooting for food. They were captured only for slaughter. The wild population took hold as planned. This success is hardly shocking, since the “European” wild boar has established branch offices everywhere from the East Indies to West Virginia.
A wild pig is quite a different animal than a captive one, and the captive pigs of today are much different than any, wild or captive, that lived three hundred years ago. A wild pig, even when well fed, looks lean and razorbacked. It’s long-snouted and hirsute. It rides high on thin legs. It has a set of tusks perfect for eviscerating other animals. Domestic pigs have tusks too, but most farmers trim them for safety reasons.
The tusks can amputate a human limb. Once, a friend of mine helped two friends trying to restrain a huge domestic boar so that its tusks could be cut. To control a pig, you put a loop of wire around its sensitive rooter (the flat disk at the end of its snout) and pull up. The pig holds still for fear of hurting himself. This boar caught on to the plan and tossed the men aside, refusing to let his nose be wired. One of the men decided to knock the boar unconscious so they could get on with the clipping. He swung a two-by-four at the boar’s head. The boar bit it in half in midswing. The men apologized and left the pen.
Pigs are omnivorous, living on nuts, roots, fruit, grain, bark, and carrion. They even eat chunks of coal, crunching it like hard candy. They also prey on live animals. Their menu of common prey items includes insects, frogs, lizards, snakes (even rattlesnakes), rodents, and lambs, but they will try almost anything, including fish and crabs and large land animals. In Argentina, where the boars get especially large, they prey on domestic rams.
Pigs were probably the most damaging predators for the dodo population. They were big and fast enough to hunt down the adults, but they would also have taken an omnivorous interest in the eggs and young. They had keener noses than humans and could hunt dodos even in the jungled parts of the island. Unlike dogs, they didn’t stay near human habitations; they avoided humans. They could strike anywhere. For a flightless bird that had never seen predators before, the pig was catastrophic.
The dodo holds a peculiar place in Western consciousness. It was the first animal we realized had become extinct in historical times. We understand it as an emblem of extinction, but few of us know anything else about it. For example, most Americans think the dodo was Australian, though it actually lived on the island of Mauritius.
The dodo is our emblem of extinction, but the myths that have grown around its demise are revealing. We have painted the dodo as a clumsy, freakish creature that deserved to die out—a myth so important to our idea of evolution-as-competition that it’s taught as fact to schoolchildren, so pervasive the bird’s name is a synonym for fool. It’s as if we must find deserving losers in the competition. This myth is probably a salve for our collective guilt about the way we treat the world around us, destroying other living things through our clumsy greed.
Paradoxically, the competing explanation, in which humans bear full responsibility for the extinction, is yet another bit of arrogance. It blames us for the actions of the so-called domestic animals that also exterminate species. In Mauritius, we can hold ourselves responsible for bringing in alien animals. But pigs, dogs, and cats are always exploring new territories, to the detriment of native species. The process is a necessary corollary of natural selection. We are mere accomplices.
We arrogantly see nonhuman animals as innocents at play in nature’s temple, potential victims of evil invading humans. But cats kill for fun, wolves slaughter more than they can eat, and pigs destroy the vegetation they depend on. Many animals are just as intemperate and greedy as we are, though we accomplish more in the way of destruction.
The facts force us to set aside ideas like “master,” “pet,” and “ownership” in favor of a subtler model. We do not “own” domestic animals, except in a legal sense that’s meaningless to other animals. We are their partners in an odd symbiosis that has altered us all—human, canine, porcine, feline, and the rest—into an agglomeration of strange species, a radical system that has remade every ecosystem it’s touched. If we have domesticated the other mammals, they also have domesticated us.
The chores done, we sat on the fence watching the castrated pigs at the trough. The weather had been dry and the dirt was in a fine powder when the rain began to fall. The drops were large. Each one sent up a puff of powdery dust. The pigs didn’t seem to mind the warm rain, and neither did we. After a while we went to a far corner of the pen to look at the spot where Cecil had thrown in the skunk. He had found the skunk that morning, road-killed the night before. All three of us had watched the pigs eat it, but we were still incredulous. Some black hair still lay on the spot, but that was all. No flesh remained, nor any bone, nor even the almost ineradicable smell of the skunk.
We decided to ride the cut pigs. Cecil went first. The pig he mounted turned a one-eighty and ran screaming under the sheet metal shelter, neatly scraping Cecil off. He rose covered with dust, a few fat raindrops giving him polka dots. “Very smart,” he said. “The horse never thinks to do that.” There were a few further attempts at pig-riding, all of them brief.
We went to look at the sow. She lay placid now, eight piglets crawling over each other for access to her dugs. Earlier we had seen her run to the trough, her quarter-ton bulk thundering with graceless speed, the piglets dropping from her dugs to squeal and writhe in the dust. No one suggested riding her.
“There were nine piglets,” Jim said. “She ate one.”
“He was a runt,” Cecil said, as if defending her. We watched. A sound like a distant waterfall rumbled in her throat. Her ears lay forward, concealing her eyes. On the back of one ear I saw half a dozen dark bits of shrapnel—fleas. I could see her skin through her sparse russet hair.
“That one old man fell down in his sow’s pen, and she ate him,” Cecil said. “Somebody went to check on him of an evening and found him. Found his bloody clothes, anyway.”
We watched the piglets paw at the sagging dugs.
Human predation on wild pigs goes back at least as far as our cousins the Neanderthals. Pigs are tough to hunt because their noses and ears are better than ours, and because they’re smart. Cornered, they fight viciously. Ancient falconers made a safe sport of the pig. They sent golden eagles to attack from above, while they watched from a distance. There was no chance of the eagle bringing down the boar. It was pure blood sport.
The European sport of hunting wild boar spread with the colonial expansion of Europeans and pigs. Massive dogs bred for silence and strong jaws follow the boar by scent. Mongrel dogs follow the boar dogs. Rude, cowardly, uncivil, these mongrels will sound the cry when the boar dogs have brought the quarry to bay. Men on horseback follow the mongrels.
The boar: crescent-moon tusks, uppers honing the lowers with each hostile gnash of the jaws. The massive boar dogs look like ants in a big boar’s fur. They clamp onto ears and snout and are tossed by the tossing head. The tusks seek any unprotected flank. They aren’t horns, they don’t stab in; they bite. Some dogs will die before the human hunters catch up. The wounds are long and clean, a desert highway drawn in blood.
The men hear the yelping retreat of the mongrels. A hybrid dog is truer to itself than a purebred. It values its own life. No breed like the gigantic boar dogs could live long without human intervention. They are bred for suicide.
Arriving at the scene, the men see what they can see—perhaps nothing but dogs dying. If the dogs have the boar cornered, the men must face a charge. In old Europe they carried a long pike to meet the charge. It was equipped with a crossbar to stop a stabbed boar from coming all the way up, because pain certainly wouldn’t.
A man on a horse was not safe. The charge of a big boar, say four hundred pounds, would flatten a horse. A near miss might be close enough for the boar to scissor the horse’s belly open, literally spilling the guts. A boar screams like—well, like a stuck pig. Like the shrill of a human child, combined with a cavernous rumble.
So much for the safest way to hunt boar in medieval Europe. There were other methods for the brave, including hacking at the boar with a sword from horseback, if you could afford to lose your horse, and your life.
Pure hunting of swine has never vanished, but it gave way to a subtler relation, a sort of partnership with one party less than willing.
The partnership of human and pig must have started when we settled down. We stopped following the migrating herds and stayed in one place, somewhere with firewood and running water close by, and when we did, our fatal flaw began to show, the flaw that best defines us to this day: our habit of making trash. Old bones and gristle, unusable scraps of hide, the feces of human and dog (the dog was already with us), broken tools of wood or stone or bone, plants cut to make room for our shelters, the husks and shells of our food—we made middens. Smorgasbords for the scavenger.
Pigs came for our refuse, rooted out our corpses, raided our crops. We had set an accidental trap: everything we cast off or set around us drew pigs in, and when they came close in the night we could kill them. They were good eating. Almost every part of a pig is edible, from feet and tail to that gristly disk of a nose, though some parts have to be soaked or simmered longer than others.
Conversely, the pig finds us utterly edible. Theories about the religious origins of burial tend to overlook the emotional realities people faced. We didn’t want to witness the eating of our kin: that’s why we began to bury them.
The folk wisdom of the late twentieth century explains the Jewish and Moslem taboos against pork as a recognition of parasites in the meat, but a better explanation lies in the stony ground of Palestine. There, people could not always bury corpses simply by digging down through topsoil. Cavities gouged from layers of limestone exposed in cliffs; natural caves; hollows beneath the roots of great trees—these held the dead. The tombs were sealed with rocks. A family owned its tomb for generations, so that when the Old Testament says a man went “to lie with his ancestors,” the image is more literal than may be readily apparent. This is the land where pigs were called unclean, unfit to eat or even to touch, because in this place the pig, that rooter of human leavings, devoured corpses, and the problem of keeping swine from the dead was never entirely solved.
Other cloven-hoofed animals, like the cow, were considered edible, but the pig wasn’t, because it “cheweth not the cud”: meaning that it does not have multiple stomachs, meaning that it doesn’t restrict its diet to vegetable matter, meaning that to eat the pig is to eat the human flesh it may have eaten. The taboo colors our image of the pig. William Golding made a pig Lord of the Flies (the term itself is a biblical demon-god’s name) in his novel of human degeneration. You see the taboo evoked in horror fiction now and again, the pig as eater of human flesh, or the human mistaken for pig and eaten by his friends.
In the book of Isaiah, the sins of a heathen people include sitting “among graves” and eating “detestable things”—mice, the blood of “unclean” animals, and the flesh of swine. The link between pigs and graveyards comes up again in a peculiar New Testament story of exorcism. Arriving by boat in a country abutting the Sea of Galilee, Jesus meets a man possessed by demons. Three different writers relate this story, and the details about this man vary according to the teller of the tale. He is variously naked, given to self-mutilation, a howler in the night, and a breaker of the chains his countrymen tried to bind him with. No doubt in later times he would have been called a feral man, and in the twentieth century a schizophrenic or an autistic. Matthew claims there were two such men, whom he identifies as swineherds.
All the writers agree the possessed come to Jesus from the tombs of the dead, where he lives as an outcast. He describes Jesus’ attempts at exorcism as torment, and names himself “Legion” because many demons inhabit him. Striking a bargain with the demons, who are reluctant to be hurled into “the abyss,” Jesus allows them to possess a nearby herd of swine. The swine rush over a cliff and into the sea, where they drown—an odd outcome, since pigs swim well, but that’s how the story goes. That last image, the pigs stampeding toward a suicidal dive, seems silly if you picture stubby-legged, pink-skinned, heavy-bellied domestic pigs. But picture instead a fleet, bristling multitude, their jowls flecked with foam, their tusks set at a slight gape for ready use.
The local citizens’ committee, hearing of these goings-on from the formerly possessed himself, shows an appalling lack of gratitude by asking Jesus to leave town.
The madman of the tombs and his companions, the swine. The story influenced Western thought for centuries. In medieval Germany pigs were subjected to exorcism before they were slaughtered. Even today people claim to be possessed by demons or multiple personalities, and the script they follow—the priest demanding names, the torment of the raveling truth, the frantic bargaining of the evictees—is the story of the swineherd.
To understand the pig, we should now take a long detour into the lives of insects and salamanders.
One warm spring day during World War II they brought the snowplow out in a little Ohio town. It pushed great drifts off the streets and onto the sidewalks. The drifts were thickest beneath the streetlights, some of them three or four feet deep. They weren’t made of snow.
They were made of mayflies. Each was brown, slightly furry, with transparent wings that jutted above its back at forty-five degrees when they were at rest— though in death they broke off and scattered everywhere; you found them sticking to windshields and freshly washed dishes. If you had seen a mayfly in the day or two before the swarm, you might have taken it for a mosquito, if you paid any attention to it at all. They are plain-looking creatures made noticeable only by their quantity, though water pollution now thins their numbers and prevents the great swarms that used to occur in the Midwest.
A mayfly spends its youth as a wingless carnivore before it crawls up a stalk of grass from the bottom of a creek. It hangs there drying until its back splits open and a winged insect painfully extracts itself, leaving its old aquatic self a withering shell. The winged thing crawls up the stalk a little farther and clings there, still as the dead, through the cool night and the following morning. Then it, too, splits a seam along the back, and a fully developed mayfly emerges.
Through a seemingly miraculous bit of timing we don’t understand, the mayfly finds that all its fellows have emerged at the same time. The males swarm that evening, forming clouds that eclipse the moon. The females come to watch the swarm and leave with a mate. They couple on the wing. The male is dead before he hits the ground. The female finds water to drop her eggs into. She’s dead by the morning, her carcass feeding a fish or cluttering a road.
The mayfly’s apparently short life is not so short. The adult only lasts a day or so, but the naiad form, the gilled predator that lives at the bottom of a creek or pond, lives for months or even years. In other words, the mayfly’s lifespan is about the same as other insects, but an unusually long proportion of it is spent in childhood.
The same phenomenon of extended youth occurs in various corners of the animal kingdom. Some species of June beetle live for three years as burrowing white grubs before emerging as adults late one spring to fly around eating and mating for a week or two. Some butterflies spend all but a day of their lives as egg or caterpillar.
There’s a salamander in Mexico that never sheds its gills and fins for lungs and legs. While other salamanders eventually prove amphibious, this one stays merely aquatic. It even reproduces in its tadpolelike state. So the Peter Pan syndrome in animals doesn’t have to include a short adult life following an extended childhood; it can involve a permanent childhood, with the adult sexual powers awakening in that youthful state where they wouldn’t normally occur. The principle is called neoteny. This broad term includes such diverse phenomena as extended youth and the retention of a single juvenile trait into adulthood, and it can apply to both anatomy and behavior.
The reasons for neoteny depend on the particular case. In one of the butterfly species I mentioned, neoteny seems to occur because the predators in that ecosystem, mostly birds, eat a lot of flying insects, but not so many crawling ones. By reducing the time it spends as a vulnerable flyer, the butterfly improves its odds of surviving. The human form is basically that of an infant ape. Our big toes don’t rotate into the opposed position to give us the grasping feet of adult apes; they stay parallel to the other toes, the position seen in a gorilla fetus. This trait makes us better at walking over open ground. We also have long childhoods; we reach puberty later than apes do. This apparently allows our brains to grow larger, and a larger brain results in extra intelligence.
Neoteny affects many mammals. For example, it’s normal in felines to be trusting, friendly, and curious as infants. Trust makes the kitten or cub capable of accepting parental care; a friendly demeanor helps the parent want to care for the cub; and play allows the physically underdeveloped animal to develop hunting skills by practice. Most wild members of the cat family grow out of these traits, because they soon outgrow the need for parental care and education and are ready to live a solitary life in which having other big predators around is no advantage except at mating time. That’s why so many people who buy a young tiger or mountain lion as a pet get attacked when the cat reaches breeding age. No longer in need of a surrogate parent, the cat begins to see the human as an enemy.
But domestic cats usually retain their childish features into breeding age. They continue to like being touched by their human companions, whom they treat as parents, and they return the affection. They like playing with strings and other toys all their lives. This neoteny is a survival trait, because it allows cats to live symbiotically with humans and therefore to be fed reliably.
Neoteny doesn’t have to affect the entire animal. It’s possible for an animal to have one juvenile trait in an otherwise standard adulthood. Sometimes neotenous traits appear in unexpected groupings. Researchers who tried to domesticate white foxes to simplify the harvesting of fur were stymied by one such grouping. They found that the juvenile trait of docility, which they could produce after a few generations of selective breeding, was accompanied by the mottled coat of a young canid. Of course, a mottled coat defeated the purpose of using the animals for their fur.
We don’t understand exactly how neoteny works genetically. Some biologists think there’s a special gene for neoteny which controls how other genes express themselves. Whatever the mechanism, the fetal development of an animal group provides it with a treasury of resources that can be exploited when necessary. Environmental pressures bring out some helpful adaptation derived from some early stage of the animal’s development. This happens in a few generations, a much shorter span than that required for most evolutionary adaptations.
Neoteny is a component—maybe the main component—in domestication. Most domestic animals reach adulthood with a mix of what would be adult and juvenile traits in their undomesticated counterparts.
We share some neotenous traits with domestic pigs. A wild boar is hairier than a domestic pig; our closest relatives, the great apes, are more hirsute than we are. Domestic pigs and humans both have relatively short snouts, as wild piglets and baby chimpanzees do. I’m not sure these traits have any particular advantage for either of us. Other neotenous traits, however, definitely affect the pig’s status as a domestic animal. For example, the ability to mate and conceive at any time of the year is characteristic of pubescent mammals, rather than adults. The domestic pig is useful to us as food because it reproduces far more often than wild pigs with breeding seasons, and can therefore supply us with more meat.
The pig’s neotenous ability to retain fat—literally baby fat—also makes it useful to us as food. Wild pigs are leaner. (“There’s hardly any meat on a piney-rooter,” a former pig farmer told me, using a local term for feral pigs.) We even enhance the extended youth mechanically, by castrating young males.
When domestic pigs escape, or are turned loose to build a wild population for hunting, something strange happens. After a few generations, the pigs look like wild ones—the long legs and snout, the color, the hairy hide. They have reverted. It’s precisely the opposite of the domestication process, in which those wild characters are extinguished (or rather, submerged to smolder) in favor of fat-building body styles. The changes we make in swine undo themselves in the wild.
There are myriad myths from almost every culture that claim modern man is inferior to some earlier race—giants, angels, gods, men of gold. There are fictions, from Tarzan of the Apes to The Jungle Book to Lord of the Flies, that wonder how wild we could get if we were separated from our own kind. There are science fiction stories in which our precarious civilizations collapse, some catastrophe turning us loose from ourselves. These are all, I think, reflections of our deep unease. We know how close we are to the wild. Much of our success comes from neotenous abilities: varying our body fat with the climate, reproducing without season to stay ahead of our predators and competitors, leaving our skulls unsutured at birth so our brains can balloon. We have not exactly evolved from the ape; we are apes whose changes, whose minds, are made of childhood dreams.
Witness the dissection of a human body. Try not to notice the surface of the body: the curve of the nose, the color of the hair—in short, the characters that mark this man as an individual. Do not see him that way, because we are about to delve beneath the surface.
The first incisions: a diagonal across each breast, then a long one that begins just below the sternum and ends at the pubic bone. The opening of the ribbed flesh with shears and retractors—a surprisingly loud, untidy process. A tour of the organs: the lobes of liver, the veins covering the heart like ivy, the mass of the pancreas, the single stomach, the haphazard loops of intestine packed in a filmy membrane, the kidneys you have always pictured as distinct little beans but which are really mere protuberances on the back of the body cavity.
Now witness the slaughter of a hog. The iron jolt as twelve-pound sledge meets skull: more a vibration of the ground than a sound. The thin knife finding an artery in the throat, an artery whose analog right now shudders against your own voice box. The blood erupting in crisp jets; the hog hoist by its hind feet, the wait for the last tangled stream of the blood. A winch dips the carcass in a barrel of hot water, preparing the hide for the scraping that removes the hairs. A cut down the middle to open the viscera, the stroke of an axe to break the sternum and let the ribs swing out like saloon doors. The rest is familiar from the cadaver: lobes of liver and the rest, even to the single stomach in its caul of fat— not several stomachs, as horses and cattle and even the pig’s cousins, the peccaries, have. The intestines in their filmy membrane look, as human intestines do, like long sausage casings—of course, these will be. As the guts come tumbling out together (close the intestine with a string and cut the anus out to keep the filth clear of the meat), look for the kidneys, stuck on the back wall of the body cavity.
The second-century physician Galen looked into the body of the pig to know the human heart—the law forbade him to work on cadavers. Galen’s findings formed the unquestioned laws of anatomy for over a thousand years. The age of empirical science transformed the human way of thinking, revealing the lies in many things we thought we knew, but it didn’t change our model of human anatomy: we still know it to be close kin to the pig’s. Anatomists call the pig “horizontal human” because of what we share inside, just as the human cannibals of New Guinea called their victims “long pig.”
The resemblance crops up in a hundred uses. People training to be forensic entomologists are presented with murdered pigs wrapped in sheets or buried in shallow graves, and asked to find the time of death. They deduce as if the corpse were human, because the same insects recycle us both. Experimental pigs are murdered, dismembered with axes and saws, thrown into condemned houses, and the houses burned down. Doctors study the bones to know how the evidence of murder alters in fire, because our heated bones go through the same shifts of color as the pig’s. Researchers try to find ways to pack more meat onto the frame of the pig. They’ve been splicing genes, adulterating the pig with the only domestic mammal that’s better at packing on pounds: the human. Doctors need proteins from human blood to treat hemophilia and heart attack, and gene splicing can make a pig’s milk rich in these proteins. Maybe you dissected a fetal pig in college biology and saw the human anatomy in miniature.
It is the kinship of pig and human that makes their meat dangerous to us. The parasitic worms we get from them are human parasites, equally at home in a horizontal or vertical gut. Our domesticated proximity, our insistence on feeding them our refuse and making them live penned in their own dung, gave them these gut-worms. They are like us inside, and also out. The array of pig colors includes smooth black, chocolate, rich tan, the sallow of ripe pears, pearl limned with pink—the colors of human skin. A human burned beyond his skin’s capacity to heal can be patched with living grafts of porcine hide, which does not sweat but will redden in the sun.
We humans eat 88 million pigs in a year, according to one estimate. Such consumption is a corollary of our own domestication, our insistence on settling and having buildings and books. Having outstripped the world’s ability to produce animals for our hunting, we must produce our own prey. To manage that, we breed pigs in great numbers and pen them on traditional farms or in mass confinements—“pig factories,” as some call them. I wanted to see how a confined breeding operation works.
The idea at the breeding farm was to keep from bringing in disease. We had to shower in, using shampoo and soap supplied by the company. We left our own clothes in the locker room and put on company clothes. A stock of undershorts, coveralls, and boots in many sizes waited on shelves outside the shower. They didn’t have my size in coveralls, though, and I had to walk around the place in a Quasimodo stoop.
The pigs were in stalls made of metal fencing, many of the stalls too small for the animal to turn around. The cement floors beneath them sloped toward drains with metal covers. My guide demonstrated his bravery by putting his foot into the stall of an irritable boar. The high rubber boot that encased the foot was patched with duct tape. The boar snipped; the man deftly yanked his foot back, causing the fence to ring with the impact of the boar’s teeth.
I watched the man check the young female pigs, or gilts, to see if they were in heat. Choosing a gilt, the man pointed to a region of her anatomy I had always considered private. “We call that the vulva,” he said. Apparently he thought the term had been invented in the pork trade. “You’re supposed to use gloves for this, but it’s kind of a pain in the ass to find any when you’re on the job.” He shoved his thumb up to the first knuckle in the gilt’s vulva. She shifted slightly, but made no protest.
“Wet,” he said, holding the thumb in front of my face so I could observe the mucus. “That means she’s in heat. The question is, will she stand to be mounted?” I tried to imagine how he would test her on this score. He opened her stall and prodded her into a larger pen. He came up behind her and pressed the heels of his hands down on the middle of her back. She froze.
“That means she’s ready for romance,” he said. “Otherwise, she’d have run off when I pressed on her.”
He led the gilt past the stalls of several boars and observed which boars got erections. “Let’s start with Ready Freddie,” he said to an assistant. He explained that he preferred to use experienced boars who could perform consistently. “Some of the young ones mount from the wrong angle or what have you.”
The assistant released Ready Freddie into the pen. Ready Freddie’s erect penis appeared to be about eighteen inches long. It was about as thick as a man’s finger, and the last third of it spiraled like a corkscrew. It bobbed dangerously close to the ground as he ran toward the gilt. She ran from him for a minute or two before standing firm. He mounted, his cloven hooves daintily folding back on either side of her spine.
The assistant stepped forward to lend a hand. He grabbed the boar’s penis and shoved its tip into the gilt’s vulva.
“That’s one of the really big innovations of the confinement breeding industry,” my guide said. “We help them plug in every time. If you were breeding on your family farm, you might just put them in together and hope for results. But the boar only mounts successfully a fraction of the time, and when he manages it, he takes a lot longer than what you’ve seen here. Our little manual assist raises the conception rate. Of course, some small pig farmers help with the plugging in, but we help with the whole fertility cycle. We monitor the gilt’s temperature constantly, so we can get her bred as soon as she hits estrus. It’s scientific, not like the guesswork of nor mal farming.” Then, to the assistant, he hollered, “Let’s do another for him, Toby.”
Toby went to check the other gilts whose temperatures showed them to be near estrus. I saw him walking in a crouch down the row of their stalls, thumb extended. “I have to keep an eye on Toby,” my guide said. “He’s one of these guys that will rape a gilt.”
“Rape a gilt?” I said.
“Force the boar on her, instead of letting her take her own time to stand. That way he can mark down that he’s bred her, but it’s sloppy work. The stress of it keeps her from conceiving.”
We’ve bred pigs for different cuts of meat. We can make them heavy in the rear for plenty of ham. We make them long for plenty of bacon. I knew of a boar eleven feet long and one thousand pounds, so big he broke the backs of two gilts he tried to mount. At a carnival, among tents housing freak shows and fossils, I came across a sign that read WORLD’S LARGEST HOG— 2200 POUNDS. I paid my dollar to get in and I saw him, a Volkswagen Bug of a brute, his back high as my chin, his basketball testicles jutting at the rear. Such a creature could never live wild: he was an artifact.
In 1268 a German court tried a pig for killing and eating a human child. The pig, found guilty of murder, was executed.
That was the first court trial of an animal in medieval Europe; others followed. Like the later crusades against supposed witches, the pig trial depended on belief in demonic possession. The courts believed they were trying sentient beings. The New Testament accounts of the swineherd colored the court’s reaction to an ordinary act of predation.
That act was probably real. The pig’s taste for human flesh is well documented. Historical documents refer to unprovoked attacks by wild pigs. During the reign of Charles I in England, when the Crown shipped in wild pigs for hunting to replenish a forest that had been hunted out, the pigs “became terrible to the travellers.”
Every citizen of a rural community knows a “true” tale of a man eaten in a hog pen. Generally, the incident happened “not too far from here”; the man was old; he died of a heart attack or a stroke while feeding the pigs; and “nothing was left of him but the shoes.” The repetitive formula of this story and similar ones marks them as legends—you have to be particularly suspicious of the heart attack diagnosed from the shoes. Nevertheless, a rare man-eating story proves well documented. Small children are the usual victims of domestic swine, but the swine take adults as well. Here is a true tale that sounds like a particularly silly version of the legends:
In 1938, in the little town of Harper, Kansas, a man raised hogs for his living. People would see him driving to the grocery stores in his old Model T Ford, which was equipped with a bed like that of a pickup truck. The stores gave him their old, unsalable produce, which he would load into the bed of the Model T and cart off for his hogs. Most people knew him only as Hog Slop Charlie.
A neighbor found a little of him one day. His remains lay scattered in the hog pen. The story most people settled on was that Hog Slop Charlie had died of a stroke in the pen, and his hogs had scavenged him. Of course, no one was there to know; they may have killed him. I have not been able to ascertain what happened to his hogs after he died, or whether anyone ate them.
A friend who fought in Vietnam didn’t like to talk much about his experiences there, but he told me that some of his worst memories involved pigs. He mentioned this fact as we stood looking into a pen in his barn. Inside the pen were Vietnamese potbellied pigs, a sow and her litter. The piglets were old enough to root around in the hay. One of their brothers lay dead, half-buried in hay at the center of the pen. His swollen slit of an eye swarmed with blue-black flies. His body ended behind the forelegs. His mother had eaten half of him. He was the runt.
“Pigs eat anything,” my friend said.