Thursday, January 25, 2007

Pig Love

Pigs may "speak" the same emotional language as all other sentients – same desires, same hopes, same loves – but they look like us doing it – wrinkled noses, smiling lips, round cheeks, bare bellies and all – and the feeling of resemblance is probably mutual. They smile, spy, inquire, scold with their eyes, they gape in wonder, they cheat with calculated coolness, they slump in defeat, they shrug in confusion, they laugh out loud with open-mouthed enthusiasm, they play pranks, they play video games, they take showers, they get drunk given half a chance, they wallow in the mud in the best sense of the word: literally, copiously, with innocent and earthy abandon, they raise families together, swap nanny duties, sing to their babies while nursing. They sleep prodigally, and dream vividly, and they do it together, as a form of communion, communication and community building. They have favorite friends and favorite foes. They hold grudges, they forgive. They make eye contact with the clear understanding that eyes are where questions are asked, and answered. They fall in love like we do – to the exclusion of everyone else, madly, passionately, desperately in love.

Lucas, for instance, is in love with Petunia. There are eight other sows in his adoptive sounder. He eats with them, hangs out with them, cribs with them. They're friends, they do what friends do – play, banter, argue, bicker, make up, learn from each other, tease each other, forgive each other, keep each other warm, share the pleasures and perils of the soul together. Ernestine, Agnes, Bessie, Elsie, Iris, Charlotte, Sienna, and Sunshine. None of them compares to Petunia.

Petunia is wild, independent, self-sufficient. She walks alone, sleeps alone, eats alone, ignores the pig sounder, ignores visitors, ignores Lucas. She is a maverick, a loner, happiest in her own company.

To most sanctuary residents, she is someone to avoid. To Lucas, she is someone to adore – well worth leaving his hard earned place in his adoptive sounder for, well worth leaving his other projects and explorations, worth forsaking food and water for. She stops him dead in his tracks. She is compelling, arresting, electrifying. With her, in her presence, he seems to find that mysterious something he craves, that something which is worth pursuing even at the risk of unleashing Petunia's wrath.
Lucas is a risk taker. An explorer. Driven by pigly "what ifs?", "what elses?", "whys?", "hows?". A sui(dae) generis adventurer. Happiest in unknown territory, happiest if there's resistance, a force to push against, life that doesn't yield, but pushes back, like a sort of dynamic stability. A swinely swashbuckler. Driven by the need to influence the world around him rather than conform to its offerings (and his constant questioning and challenging of the world inevitably changes it). What, to others, is only a towel drying on a fence, to him is a potential link, a possible portal into something much bigger. What, to others, is the wild and furious pig known as Petunia, to him is wild, dangerous, virgin territory – a place no one else is willing to go, and the only destination that interests him – something irresistible.

Most of the time, his hunch that there is more to things than meets the eye is confirmed. For instance, pulling on that towel was far more than a tug on a soggy piece of terry cloth drying on a fence. It ended up being a cataclysm. It resulted in a series of events that brought down the entire fence, released a small flock of quarantined chickens into the pond yard, almost caused them to drown, and created a commotion of a magnitude that no one looking at that small napkin would have imagined. Similarly, jumping off the truck that was taking him and his family to their final fattening place was far more than a leap. It resulted in a series of events that saved his life, secured his future, and opened a new world. Literally.

He is a discoverer. Consumed with porcine curiosity. Driven by questions – those silent, inner currents that move us, sentients, to know, grow, go farther. You can almost hear the irresistible question behind Lucas' every imperious action. And it's almost impossible not to want to know the answer. "What if I chase a horse?" "What if I bathe in the drinking water fountain?" "What if I push this baby stroller around, screaming baby and all?" "What if I break into the people house, tear open the feed bags and spread the feed around?" "What if I keep returning to the sounder that rejected me, time after time?" "What if I leave the skyless pit I was born into?" "What lies beyond its crushing cement walls?" "What if I pursue Petunia, the baddest, meanest pig around?"... And he throws himself into these questions, with total fearlessness, total abandon. The answer seems to be worth the risk or asking. It's not just moxie. It is an explorer's personality, curiosity and cross.

Had he not escaped, he would have been caged, shoulder to shoulder, with thousands of other young captives like himself, fattened in the dark stench of a pig farm, crammed in a truck with dozens of other terrified victims, driven to the slaughterhouse in his final, frightened journey, and killed in cold blood, execution style: no hesitation, no mercy, no remorse.

Someone with Lucas' personality would have fought to his last breath. He would not have accepted his tragic life as inevitable. He would have struggled, scraped, screamed, expressed more vocally, and more visibly than others the absolute despair of being a suffering soul buried alive in a cement grave, condemned to a short, excremental existence, murdered for a taste. He would have lost.

By contrast, a docile pig like Oscar would have frozen in silent despair. He would have focused every bit of his energy on enduring, suffering, bearing the unbearable. He would have tried to accept, not challenge, the relentless misery inflicted on him. He would have spent his short time on earth like most farmed animals – taking the beatings and the mutilations, and the sunless hell of his existence, the way abused children take the abuse: as though it were deserved, as though the abuser's perverse pleasure were their only worth, and their only identity – without that, they are nothing.

Lucas is one of the few pigs in the world who is unscathed by the atrocities of farming. He's been free most of his life. Free to experience the world's terrible beauty on his own terms, and free to be increased by it, or crushed by it. Free to be deeply wounded and deeply healed. Free to grow from his own mistakes. Free to fall in love, and fall hard. He does.

He approaches Petunia, usually at dusk, when everybody is out, active, and eagerly anticipating dinner before the long night's rest. He is well aware of the danger – Petunia bit, boxed, bashed, pushed, plugged, punched, slammed, slugged and threw him down before. But he approaches her anyway.

He swaggers suavely towards her, snorts sweetly, tiptoes behind her, what's left of his tail, politely, submissively down, head bowed, eyes courteously averted. She either ignores him or scolds and spanks him. He comes back for more – nose in the breeze of her being, eyes half-closed, as though inhaling the rarest perfume, mouth parted in an ecstatic smile, and emitting a series of soft, gurgling whimpers to sweeten her mood, cooing in her ear like a dove – singing to her in languages that she may not understand but her heart may, will, must. And he, the unchallenged Bad-Bold-Beautiful-Bodacious Boy of the sanctuary, lowers his head, blinks shyly, and whimpers submissively when Petunia shoves him.
There is no mistaking that Lucas' stream of infatuated sounds at Petunia's side is a serenade of love, submission, supplication, seduction, scintillation. Nothing compares to Petunia, nothing distracts him from her. He follows her around while she is engrossed in foraging for tasty tidbits. She totally ignores him. He totally ignores her food finds. Even though he pretends to be interested in everything she uncovers, eats, and praises in low, contented grunts, he never even tries to touch any of those delicacies. It's just a way to get closer and stay closer longer, while she is occupied with that morsel. It's not the food, it's the fact that their noses are on the same scent-length, and, while she is rapt in her found treat, she suffers his cheek touching hers.

This is where he wants to be. This is his hog heaven. He has a whole sanctuary, a whole world of freedom to explore – and he does – but what he craves most is the small, dangerous, mysterious world that unfolds only at Petunia's side. He loves her. She is his greatest, most burning question – one that you can almost hear behind his every suave move, and perhaps the only Lucas question you almost don't want to know the answer to. "Will you love me back?"

Petunia doesn't love him back. She loves Chris.

Petunia was born into a pig farm. One of the millions of innocents who are forced annually into a life of abuse and degradation, told in words, in gaze, and in touch, every minute of their bleak lives, that they are contemptible, ugly, filthy, disgusting, unworthy of love, and unworthy of life, and thus deserving of the mutilations, the beatings, the deprivations, the torment, the terror, the atrocities we pile onto their heaving bodies in the name of our amusement, whatever that amusement may happen to be – ham, bacon, hot dogs, handbags, punching bags, doggie treats.

As a piglet, Petunia was subjected to the routine pig mutilations – tail docking, ear notching, teeth scraping – as a youngster, she was chased, taunted and tormented by teenagers, as an adult, she was starved, neglected and abused by her keepers. So it's not surprising that, today, Petunia avoids contact, defends her boundaries, acts tough, trusts no one. It's not surprising that the presence of others disturbs her, and that she, who was kept perpetually vulnerable and dependent, craves the safety of a space she can control.

What's surprising is to realize that Petunia's choice of seclusion is not the result of the abuse she endured, but simply her natural talent. Her ability to escape within, to shut the violent world out, and her vulnerable self safely in, is how she survived the dark times. Solitude is also how she relaxes, regenerates, processes, learns, makes meaning. She enjoys her own company, probably because she is more aware of her own feelings than most – which makes for a rich, interesting, densely populated solitude, a space worth visiting, defending and returning to. Whatever she hears, sees, feels, whatever subtle shifts in mood and consciousness she senses around her, can only be perceived without outside interference, it seems, in the quiet confines of an out-of-the-way mudhole, an empty barn, an open field. Petunia relishes her isolation with mystic abandon. Of course, most of us don't perceive Petunia as a mystic. To most of us, she is more like a minefield: seemingly calm and innocuous, but suddenly and dangerously explosive. Proceed at your peril. Enter Petunia's personal space and she will threaten. Come closer, she'll push and shove. Closer still, she'll bite. Leave her alone, and nobody gets hurt.

Only in her times of restlessness does she voluntarily leave her solitary world. Those are the times when the food tastes bland, the water stale, the straw bedding stings where it used to soothe, the mudholes are just plain muddy, the usual comforts are comfortless, the times when she wanders aimlessly from place to place, paces from barn to barn, from half-finished mudhole to half-finished mudhole, from group to group – inviting interaction only to reject it, acting the way we do when we've shed an old skin but haven't grown a new one to replace it – the times when something is struggling to surface: a new awareness, a new question, a painful memory.

Those are the only times when she tries to enter the pig barn, maybe seeking a sense of community, or family, or maybe hoping for guidance from kin who may have had the experience she is struggling to understand. At those times, the company of other pigs no longer seems to feel like an intrusion, but more like a possible solution, and the solitude she usually protects so fiercely, seems more like a prison than a safe haven.

She approaches the pig barn with her tail down, head bowed, eyes averted – not the usual Bigger-Badder-Beastlier-Than-Thou Petunia, but a smaller, humbler version of herself – petunia. But she doesn't even make it past the barn door. The minute Agnes, the matriarch, lays eyes on her, she chases her away in protracted, slow speed chases over the countryside. At the end of each "chase", both are so exhausted, they sleep where they drop – usually on opposite sides of the pig barn: Agnes, too tired to make it inside the pig barn, Petunia, too exhausted to cross the yard and go to her barn.
The scene may be repeated the next day, and the following but, soon, Petunia returns to her solitary, independent ways; eating alone, sleeping alone, roaming the sanctuary by herself, digging and savoring her own mudholes away from the madding crowd, needing no one, acting again like the pig she wishes she were – the tough, independent, invulnerable, untamed, dangerous minefield of a pig – and hiding again the vulnerable, wounded person she knows herself to be. From everyone but Chris. With him, she is unafraid.

When Chris is near, almost wings unfold at her sides. In his presence, her crushing invisible burden lightens, her full body armor dissolves, her beaten body glows from within, her broken heart hums like a beehive. Chris is allowed to lay his hands on her battered back, hold her scorned body in his arms, touch her scarred throat, and she closes her eyes, slows her breath to a melody, seems to lift her massive body on the very tips of her hooves, as though ready to receive and return something rare – that substance we generate and release into the world when we love – and she absorbs the benediction of this touch that enlivens, that gives tenderness and expects nothing in return, that contradicts, opposes and, maybe, can begin to erase what she had been told in words, in gaze, and in touch all of her "food animal" life: that she is contemptible, ugly, filthy, disgusting, unworthy of love, and unworthy of life, and thus deserving of the mutilations, the beatings, the deprivations, the torment, the terror, the atrocities piled onto her heaving body in the name of human amusement, whatever that amusement may happen to be – ham, bacon, hot dogs, handbags, punching bags, doggie treats. She responds with cooing, melodic sounds, small, rhythmic nods of the head to the beat of music you can almost see in her body, and a warm, unguarded stillness, a softness, an open display of vulnerability, a window into the depth of her great broken heart.

What you see at that moment is difficult to watch. You see the beauty of her living heart, and the lambent, limpid, illuminated soul. You also see the depth of its wound, and the near hopelessness of its mending, and her inextinguishable hope, need, desire that she may return to wholeness, and her belief that this man, who tells her in words, in gaze, and in touch that her life matters, will not only help her nurture this improbable, brave, new heart, but help her bear it.

Joanna Lucas
© 2007 Joanna Lucas
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.