So what's your favorite animal? Of course most of us would probably pick dogs or cats since they have provided us with great companionship through the years. But the animal I find to be the most interesting is the pig.
The pig has had an incredible history in its service to mankind. Two interesting books on the subject that I recommend to the reader are Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig along with Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat which discusses the cruel treatment of these noble creatures by our modern factory farming.
The pig was among the first food animals domesticated by man which eventually became a reliable food source for a countless number of civilizations throughout history. Unlike other domesticated animals like sheep and cows which required land to graze, the pig could live just about anywhere that had garbage or table scraps to feed them. In fact, the pig also served as a sanitation service before more modern methods came along.
And unlike other large domesticated animals that reproduce offspring one at a time, pigs are very prolific and grow very quickly. A sow can produce 2 litters of about 10 piglets each per year. To ensure a reliable source of food in the New World settlements, pigs were brought across the ocean by Columbus along with other explorers. Once a small starter population of pigs was dropped off in the newly settled land, it didn't take long to acquire a sizable population to provide ample subsistence for the settlers.
Today, pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world even though Muslims who comprise almost a quarter of the world's population abstain from it.
But pigs are interesting for more reasons than just their value as a source of food.
This is from Pig Tales, Page 19:
Pigs are by far the most intelligent animals we have domesticated. Research shows that a pig has the mental capacity of a 3 year old human. They have been taught to solve complex puzzles and even play computer games. And pigs have been our constant companions throughout the rise of modern cultures.
In addition to being exceptionally intelligent, pigs are very sociable and affectionate along with often possessing many personality traits that we normally associate with humans. So not surprisingly, there can often be a blurring between their role as a food animal and as a companion for their owners.
This is from Lesser Beasts, Page 188:
When a cottager kept a careful account of his expenditures on a pig he sent to market and upon selling it calculated that he had made three shillings. "Not much profit there," he was told. "No," the man replied. "But there: I had his company for 6 months."
And this is from Lesser Beasts, Page 191:
Pig killing was a communal ritual, a break in the rhythms of daily life, a sign of the passing seasons. It was a solemn occasion - the pig was a friend and did not want to die - and a time of celebration. This drama was peculiar to pigs because cattle and sheep were rarely kept around the house. Only pigs were cuddled and then killed, their horrifying human like shrieks piercing the neighborhood. One girl recalled that during the slaughter, she would "creep back into bed and cry," remembering how she had fed cabbage stalks to her beloved swine. The next day, however, she happily dipped her bread into pork gravy made from the same pig's flesh. She was just a girl, she said, "learning to live in this world of compromises."
But today, the quaint interaction between the farmer and his pigs has been almost totally replaced by factory farms where thousands of pigs are doomed to a life of severe confinement and often cruelty before meeting their ultimate fate.
For the reader who wishes to learn more about the issues concerning pigs and factory farms, there is this NPR interview of the author of Pig Tales, Barry Estabrook.
So where do we go from here? No, we are not all going to become vegans. And no, we are not going to be able to totally eliminate factory farms. But there are some incremental improvements we can and should make.
First and foremost, we need to eliminate the ridiculous animal welfare double standard we have for companion animals as compared to those animals we use for food. For example, inflicting cruelty to dogs can result in a prison sentence and widespread public condemnation like what happened to NFL quarterback Michael Vick while inflicting even the worst conceivable cruelty to a pig is, to my knowledge, not even illegal.
One more example. What if someone were to keep a dog in a transport crate for an indefinite period of time? I know, I'm sick to even think of something like this. But sows whose function is to deliver and nurse their piglets are often subjected to this exact treatment in what are called gestation crates. Subjecting animals of this level of intelligence to this cruel treatment has been known to make them insane! Indeed, gestation crates are considered to be so cruel - even by factory farming standards - that they are now banned in the UK and partially banned in the European Union. But not in most of the US.
The driving force behind all of this is profits - the more animals that can be squeezed into the smallest space - the more money can be made. Regulations requiring humane amounts of living space per animal would go a long way towards alleviating their suffering.
Yes, I know. Food animals like pigs are different than companion animals because the food animal is bred to serve us at the dinner table. True enough. But common decency demands that we at least do our best to avoid inflicting any needless pain or suffering on any living creature!