The Unexpected Genius of Pigs
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London SE1 9GF
First published by HarperCollins 2018
© Matt Whyman 2018
Illustrations by Micaela Alcaino
Cover layout design © HarperCollinsPublishers 2018
A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library
Matt Whyman asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
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Source ISBN: 9780008301224
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This book is dedicated to my dad
A simple lesson
Keeping pigs taught me a great deal about myself, and very little about the animals in my care. In the years that Butch and Roxi were part of my family, I discovered that my patience could be stretched almost limitlessly. I also realised that things I had considered to be important didn’t really matter, like flowerbeds and much of the fencing surrounding the garden. As a father of four young children, I was no stranger to hard work and responsibility. Even so, no amount of nappy changing could have prepared me for the muck I faced on a daily basis. The experience brought me closer to my wife, Emma, in the never-ending challenges presented by our porcine pair, but not once did we give up on them.
Above all, for all the trials, escape bids and destruction, I learned about love.
Life before pigs
Looking back, I have only myself to blame. We live in the West Sussex countryside, in a brick and tile house on the edge of woods. There is a garden where our children used to like to play, and neighbours on each side. For some time, I’d kept chickens in an enclosure at the back. The area was defined by a picket fence that crossed behind a small apple tree and attached to the front corner of the shed. In effect, it was a paradise for poultry. My six-strong posse poked and scratched about in an abundance of space, and always sailed to the gate to greet me whenever I wandered down to see them.
When a fox attack put paid to all but one of my flock, it prompted me to ask what animal might deter a repeat visit. What I had in mind was something that would send out a clear signal, like a crocodile, a pool of piranhas or an angry bull. I wasn’t being serious when I suggested a pig, though I’d heard they often spooked foxes. For Emma, it was reason enough to go online and do some research. When she found a type that could supposedly snuggle inside a handbag, it was a done deal.
‘These aren’t normal pigs,’ she pitched to me. ‘They’re minipigs.
To be fair to Emma, she had done her homework. It’s just that at the time this amounted to trawling through a raft of irresistible pictures of impossibly small pigs in baby booties, and scant hard facts about what set them apart from your everyday swine. All she could do was take the word of the few breeders that she found who specialised in minipigs. According to them, pint-sized porkers grew just 12 inches high, which is roughly the same as a Terrier. They were smart, child-friendly, easily trained and happy to live under the same roof as us.
Emma did tell me a lot more about them, but I had stopped paying attention when she delivered the clincher by assuring me I’d barely notice them. By then, my family were totally sold. A run-of-the-mill piglet costs about ?30. For an eight-week-old minipig, you’re looking at anything between ?500 and ?1,000. Despite the hit, Emma believed it would be an investment. ‘The children will remember this,’ she said. Looking back, she wasn’t wrong. It’s just that I don’t think the experience shaped their lives in the way she had hoped.
Butch and Roxi
The new arrivals pitched up in a cat basket. In a bid to butter me up, perhaps, Emma nominated names I’d once proposed for two of our children only to have them dismissed out of hand. As per the breeder’s sales pitch to Emma, they were no bigger than kittens. Perfectly pig-shaped and honking in a high pitch, my first thought was to check their bellies for battery compartments. They just seemed too good to be true. Over the course of their first weekend with us, the sibling pair were effectively magnets for the attention and affections of Emma and the children. As I worked from home, writing books in an office at the front of the house, I used the opportunity to slip away to the typeface.
Then Monday arrived. With the children at school, dropped there by my wife on her way to the office, the task of looking after Butch and Roxi fell to me.
From that moment on, the gap between pig-keeping fantasy and reality opened up like a chasm. From where I was sitting, in front of the computer trying to write for a living, they drove me to distraction. Thoughtfully, for the pigs at any rate, Emma had decided to locate their little ark in my office so that I could watch over them. In a sense, that’s exactly what I did, spending more time peering over my shoulder at a string of interruptions than facing the screen.
Contrary to popular belief, pigs are hygienic creatures. They’ll create a toilet as far from their sleeping quarters as they can. In our house, despite the litter tray Emma had installed in my office, that meant trotting into the front room and slipping behind the television in the corner. Noise-wise, they weren’t too bad. In fact, the snuffling and grunting was really quite soothing as I worked. It was only when the phone rang that the atmosphere soured. It might have been something to do with the frequency of the ringtone, or perhaps pigs just like a singsong. Whatever the case, Butch and Roxi would respond by squealing away. It’s tough enough trying to come across as a professional in a home environment. Now, it sounded as though I was working out of a barnyard.
An animal of mass distraction
Of course, everyone knows that taking on a young pet can be testing. Dogs need to learn you’re the boss, while cats take a while to work out how to manipulate you to their advantage. Pigs are a lot like toddlers. They can be gentle and inquisitive souls and then break into a tantrum when things don’t go their own way. Unlike little kids, as I found out, they don’t grow out of this behaviour. Over time, it just becomes more forceful and out of place in a domestic environment.
What’s more, there are strict rules and regulations to observe, as set out by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). In giving pigs any kind of food that’s been in a kitchen, for example, I risked contravening various biosafety laws. It could earn a hefty fine, but our little livestock didn’t know that. Nor did the youngest of my children as he toddled around with a biscuit in hand and two little pigs trailing after him like low-level jackals. Ultimately, you only have to witness a minipig having a meltdown because you won’t share a sandwich to recognise that life might be easier for everyone if they moved outside.
Butch and Roxi lived inside with us for just a very short time. As the novelty wore off, it very quickly became clear to me that the house was no fit environment for a pig of any description. They’re purpose-built to dig about in the soil, seeking out roots and buried treats, not jam their snouts into the wine rack or flop about in front of the TV waiting for the lottery results. Surprisingly, it didn’t take much to convince Emma and the kids. While they had also come to recognise that this special breed of pig didn’t require carpet under hoof and central heating, I think they also craved a little peace. To be sure they didn’t change their minds, I adopted some ex-battery hens to befriend my sole surviving bird and then played the fox protection card.
And so it was, with a clutch of post-institutionalised chickens perched on the handle of the toolbox beside me, I converted the side of the shed into cosy sleeping quarters for Butch and Roxi. The fencing seemed sturdy enough, I decided, having given it a shake, and there was more than enough space for everyone to peacefully cohabitate.
The growing presence of pigs
In the clear light of day, once the turf war between pig and poultry settled down, it became clear that Butch and Roxi were no longer quite so mini. Roxi developed the fastest. In fact, there was a period when she appeared to look bigger every single time I went out to serve up their beloved pig nuts for breakfast and supper. They also fattened themselves up somewhat by gorging on all the acorns that dropped from the oak tree, along with the leaves when they fell in the autumn.
While Roxi rivalled our late German Shepherd dog in size, Butch compensated by becoming stockier and transforming into a mighty excavator. Having taken over the chicken enclosure, the pair turned it into a cratered mess of mud. I felt so sorry for the birds that I would let them out onto the lawn. Around that time, unwilling to miss out on the party, one of the pigs learned how to lift the latch on the gate. Lashing it shut kept them in check for a while. Butch and Roxi responded by growing big enough to prise away the picket fencing with their snouts.
Surveying the remains of the garden one day, as the pigs slept off their hard work inside the shed, I refused to be defeated. I set about strengthening the fencing – effectively an epic bodge job – and just assumed that our minipigs must have reached their full size. Which makes me laugh in retrospect.
Size and spirit
As time passed, and friends or neighbours visited, they’d often catch their breath on seeing the honking great beasts amid the craters and spoil heaps that was our garden. Within a year, Roxi stood thigh-high to me and had developed a taste for house bricks. She kept rooting them up out of nowhere and then crunching them into powder. A pink pig with dark splodges, she had bat-like ears and a face that could best be described as ‘shovel-like’. She was densely built as well; a solid mass of muscle, fat and obstinacy. Had we let her stay in the house as a piglet, we’d have needed a winch to get her out.
Butch wasn’t quite so monstrously big. In the right light he could even have passed as cute. He was all black with an elongated belly and a soulful expression modelled on Yoda from Star Wars. Castrated at an early age, because frankly, the consequences of leaving him intact were unthinkable, our male minipig also reminded me of a henpecked husband around Roxi. She really did rule the roost, much to the displeasure of the chickens. Had she taken to crowing at sunrise, I don’t think any of us would have been surprised.
Without a doubt, it was a struggle to serve the growing needs of our little livestock. The bolstered picket fencing felt like a dam containing rising waters, but it held all the same. I can’t be as positive about the six-foot close-board garden fencing that formed the back of the enclosure. I panicked the first time I found a splintered, pig-shaped hole in it one morning, and spent the whole day tracking them down. The second and third time was equally troubling. When it happened again I began to wonder if they had been sent on purpose to test the boundaries of my patience.
Around this time, Emma took it upon herself to contact the breeder. Butch and Roxi didn’t exactly match the pictures on the website of cute little creatures curled up in a shoe box, and so she reached out to address it with them like a consumer’s champion crossed with an avenging angel. I have no doubt that my wife would have taken them to task in a reasonable manner, while leaving them in no doubt that passing off pigs in this way was something that had to stop unless they wanted a tall and angry blonde on their doorstep. As it turned out, I can only think that another disgruntled minipig owner had got in before her, because the breeder was no longer trading.
Even when Butch and Roxi behaved themselves, there was no ignoring their ever-increasing size. Despite the squealing, and the fact that our garden looked like a battleground, our neighbours were surprisingly understanding. I lost count of the number of times I had to pre-empt a noise complaint by popping round to apologise. I ended up giving away all the eggs produced by our chickens by way of compensation. In conversation about our plight, they seemed to recognise that we had no idea what we’d let ourselves in for. I dare say they quietly considered us to be foolhardy and impulsive in falling for the idea of keeping pigs as pets without due diligence, and they’d be right.
Where there’s muck …
In some ways, however, we were lucky. Despite the sacrifices, we just about had the space to serve Butch and Roxi’s welfare. Their upkeep dominated our lives. I even called a halt to my work as a novelist to write a cautionary tale about the experience in the form of a memoir. So, what happened here? Had we been conned?
While belatedly attending a pig-keeping course, a conversation with the wise old boy running it opened my eyes to the reality of our situation. He believed the long-standing interest in pigs, and the money that the idea of a miniaturised version could command, led some people in the business to cut corners. ‘Minipigs aren’t a recognised registered breed,’ he told me. ‘Anyone can mate two small-sized pigs, but there’s no guarantee that the offspring will stay small. That would take generations of strictly controlled breeding. Maybe we’ll see such a thing in thirty or forty years from now,’ he added, though it offered little comfort. ‘But what you have are two mixed-breed pigs.’ As for their status as brother and sister, the man took one look at the photograph I showed him and chuckled to himself.
So the minipigs were a myth, it seemed. Piglets passed off for profit. A unicorn for our age, or perhaps just for people like us who were drawn to the idea of a pig as a pet. Yes, small breed pigs exist, like the Vietnamese pot belly and the kunekune, but much depends on your concept of size. The idea of any adult pig that could fit inside a handbag is nonsense. In fact, an adult pig could have that kind of thing for lunch if you left it lying around. The fact was Butch and Roxi were two very expensive bog-standard mongrels. But despite it all, we cared for them deeply. In a way their presence served to bring us closer together as a family under fire.
Now, we’re not the kind of people who would ever give up on their pets. It was hard work, but Emma and I learned a great deal about responsible pig-keeping, and that has its own rewards. Winston Churchill once observed that in looking a pig in the eye you will find an equal peering back at you. I’m not so sure. Those times I levelled with Butch and Roxi, usually in pleading with them to just give me one day without grief, I found two grunting creatures meeting my gaze with more lust for life and sheer determination than I could ever muster. It was also a bonding experience. We were in this together, man and pig. Throughout, my wife and I always wanted to do the right thing for them. We had been ill-prepared and enchanted in equal measure. And yet no matter how much they tested us, Butch and Roxi’s welfare was always our priority.
I can console myself a little by the fact that we weren’t alone in falling for the minipig myth. Other households had invited them into their homes with the very best of intentions, only to find they’d outgrow their welcome. Across the country, animal sanctuaries began to accommodate pigs that were as large as they were lonely and sad, which was the last thing we wanted to do. Our pigs were a part of our lives, even if they had come to dominate every aspect of it. Emma and I agreed that Butch and Roxi had just as much right as us to a happy and fulfilling existence, and we pledged to do everything we could to furnish that for them.
The unexpected genius of pigs
A long time has passed since I called myself a pig-keeper. The emotional scars have healed and the grass has come back with a vengeance, thanks to all that compost. I can look back on this episode in our lives with fond memories, and even smile to myself at some of the escapades that left me seething at the time. As well as encouraging us to give up eating meat, thanks to a heightened respect for animals and their welfare, it’s left me with a fascination about what makes pigs tick. We invited a pair into our world and they trashed it, but what’s it like in their world?
Now that I have pig-free time and space to think, I’m interested in finding out more about life through their eyes. I have no doubt, from my face off with a pair who had my measure from the start, that this is a species with hidden depths. I’m not suggesting a pig has a penchant for algebra, painting or poetry, but there’s something extraordinary going on between those ears that I’m keen to explore. In some ways, I think, it’s a perfect storm of instinct and intelligence that means when a pig puts its mind to something it always gets what it wants.
Pigs aren’t just smart, they’re also strikingly sociable. Butch and Roxi were inseparable and, though not siblings, were they companions by necessity or genuine soulmates? Roxi would regularly use her size and heft advantage to shove Butch from the feeding trough, while our boar was quicker on his trotters and could scurry away with an apple in his jaws before she could catch up. So, they jostled for food and yet served as comfort blankets for each other at night in a kind of intimate snout-to-backside arrangement.
As for escaping and running away, I could guarantee that no matter where Butch and Roxi ended up, I would always find them together. So do pigs form loyal friendships as we do, or undertake feuds with one another? And what’s with the need for a partner in crime? Can they love and loathe, offer comfort, or share wisdom and advice? Are they playful or mischievous, truly lazy or actually greedy, as we often say when suggesting someone is behaving like a pig? Free from the technology that links us, how do they communicate and what do they say? And what is it that drives them to dig from dawn to dusk in order to unearth a single acorn? It’s all a mystery to me, but one I’d like to pick apart in a spirit of curiosity and enthusiasm in order to understand them better.
With help from people who have looked a pig in the eye far deeper than I ever managed, I intend to learn more than I did from all the mistakes I made as a reluctant keeper. Not just about pigs and their personalities – and we’ll meet quite a few – but what it means to connect with these animals and to recognise that they lead lives that can be just as complex, challenging and rewarding as our own.
Windows to the soul
Looking a pig in the eye, as Churchill famously discovered, can be an unnerving experience. Levelling with a dog in the same way will instinctively tell you that you’re in charge, while most cats simply turn away dismissively, but a pig prompts pause for thought. Nose to snout, gazing into those little orbs you’ll find a depth of contemplation to match your own. A pig will blink just like you, batting eyelashes like the wings of a resting butterfly, and invite you to glimpse a spirit as shining and sophisticated as your own.
They’ll also grunt, in a primal way, as if to remind you of their origins.
A pig in time
The ancestral line from today’s domestic pig dates back between nine and 13,000 years to the European Wild Boar. Still in existence today, these are powerful, bristle-backed beasts, long in the skull and often dark in colouring compared to their pink and hairless cousins. They stand on broad shoulders that taper towards their hind legs, like a large breed dog in a heavyweight division.
Also known as Sus scrofa, variations of the wild boar can now be found from Africa to Asia, the Far East to Australia, and in a variety of habitats, including forest, scrub and swampland.
They live in groups and move around depending on what resources are available to them. For a variety of reasons, wild boars are drawn to areas of dense vegetation. In short, their world revolves around three elements: food, water and protection. They can find this in undergrowth and beneath leaf canopies near rivers and streams, but it’s also something humans can provide – which is where the connection between us was first forged.
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