Anthropomorphizing farm animals is inevitable. We project personalities and our own foibles on the animals under our care. It is an act of giving voice and character to the individuals with whom we develop relationships through daily contact.
As fellow omnivores, hogs fall into a category all their own. We view them quite literally as a source of food. We stand and admire the hams, the sides, the fatback, the hocks, and the jowls. It is a process that allows us to gain distance emotionally from an animal that can be quite personable one on one, responding to its name, waiting patiently for a back scratch and not so patiently for its dinner. On the whole, hogs are rather benign creatures … when raised singly or in pairs.
However, put four or five, ten or twenty, or several hundred together and those endearing individual qualities quickly morph into a mob mentality. Like attendees at a Trump rally baiting reporters, a pack of porcines want their red meat served raw and they want it now. No longer do they view you as the benevolent lord doling out favors and rewards. Instead, you are now a meal that has conveniently walked right up to the plate.
Yesterday I was feeding a group of hogs in the woods, four boys now grown to 125-plus pounds each. We still feed them by hand twice a day. But around this age — let us call it the teenage years — hogs are hungry all day and all night, a bottomless pit of insatiability. Wading through them to the trough with a feed bucket, their grasping mouths pulling on your pants, becomes an increasingly problematic exercise. One of those boys yesterday took a good long bite on my calf. It hurt. I booted his butt in retaliation, and he turned his attention away from me to an easier dinner at the trough, shoving his brothers out of the way. This happens every cycle in raising hogs. For us, it is the sign that it is time to fill up the self-feeder and let them eat as they want when they want.
The bite by the hog reminded me of a conversation with a local extension agent. Forty-some years ago, as a teenager, he had helped an old dairy farmer, doing odd and distasteful jobs as requested. This old farmer also raised a couple of hundred hogs, kept out in a large field.
One of the more unpleasant tasks of any livestock farmer is disposing of dead animals. Some bury them, others haul them into the woods for the scavengers to find, and some try their hand at mortality composting. On a large farm, death can be a weekly event. This dairyman (in a practice not practiced by our farm, I hasten to add) piled up any bodies of dead calves on a flatbed truck.
Each Saturday he took the truck to the hogs, the teenage boy on the bed. As they drove through the gates on the very first day, the teenager was instructed to start throwing the calves off the back, one at a time. The farmer then called his hogs, who came running. As the agent recalled, if you’ve never experienced a large sounder of hogs running at you, it is a fearsome sight and sound to behold.
About this time, the farmer slid open the back window of the truck and voiced these words of wisdom: “Whatever you do, don’t fall off the truck.” The hero of our story, standing on the slippery surface of the bed, grabbing the putrefying calves, began to heave them off into the mass of agitated hogs. Horrific sounds of bones crunching followed, haunting the extension agent, now nearing retirement, even to this day.
Which gives us this week’s teachable moment in farming and life: when dealing with a mob, whatever you do, don’t fall of the truck. It could ruin your day.
Reading this weekend: Loosed Upon The World: an anthology of climate fiction. And, Small Is Beautiful: life in a local economy by Lyle Estill (not particularly well-written or relevant).