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The song of the pig
They laugh, they dream, they don't tell porkies. So why are we such swine, asks Jeffrey Masson

Three years ago, my family and I were visiting Auckland, New Zealand, when we heard about a pig who lived on a beach. This pig was famous: schoolchildren came to visit, she had been proposed for mayor, and her neighbours were fiercely divided between those who thought a pig living on the beach was a bit of magic and others who feared she would devour their children. We found the beach, but Piglet, as she was called, had moved to a macadamia-nut orchard farther north. To cut a long story short, we met her guardians and wound up buying a house on that very beach. We heard many stories about this amazing pig who liked to go for a swim early in the morning when the sea was at its calmest and who enjoyed having children sit on her side, as long as they gave her a tummy rub before leaving.

She was immaculate, well-mannered, sensitive, intelligent, and kind to strangers. When we finally met her, we could see that you could not ask for a better neighbour or ambassador for farm animals. Her emotional life was particularly near the surface. She always let you know what she was feeling; most of the time it was obvious from the smile on her face, especially when she was swimming or playing with her small human friends.

But there were more mysterious aspects to her as well. She was sensitive to music and liked to hear the violin played. She especially seemed to enjoy music on the beach at night when there was a full moon. One of her guardians took a picture quite recently of her making the sweetest sounds during a night of the full moon, as if she were actually singing to the moon. The picture of Piglet singing is photographic evidence of her special affinity for music, water, night and moon.

It is another reason to believe that many animals ' pigs foremost among them ' may have access to feelings that humans have not yet known. Perhaps if we listen carefully enough to the songs that Piglet and her cousins sing at night to the moon, we may yet learn about emotions that could bring us a new and utterly undreamt-of delight.

An old English adage claims: 'Dogs looks up at you, cats looks down on you, but pigs is equal.' There is some truth in this. Pigs are more or less the same size as human beings and resemble us in many ways. Their organs are so similar to our own that pig heart valves are used to replace human aortic or mitral valves.

There is a quite wonderful quotation from W. H. Hudson, the great naturalist who lived for some time in Argentina, that perfectly describes the pig's attitude towards us:

'He is not suspicious or shrinkingly submissive, like horses, cattle and sheep; nor an impudent devil-may-care like the goat; nor hostile like the goose, nor condescending like the cat; nor a flattering parasite like the dog. He views us from a totally different, a sort of democratic, standpoint, as fellow citizens and brothers, and takes it for granted that we understand his language, and without servility or insolence he has a natural, pleasant camaraderie, or hail- fellow-well-met air with us.'

The fact that pigs will become extremely friendly with human beings, given half a chance, is something of a miracle, considering how we treat them. Perhaps pigs themselves are aware of our resemblance and so regard us as cousins. Handled with affection, even an adult pig might well become as friendly as a dog who has always lived with the family.

One has to wonder why the pig came to be despised by both Jews and Muslims. Was it its flesh that was distrusted, or the pig itself, as an animal? People have usually believed the former, claiming that because pig meat was so easily prone to spoiling and trichinosis, the consequent human diseases led them to avoid the meat.

But the late F. E. Zeuner, an expert on domestication, rejects this view, pointing out that pork is no more likely to spoil than any other meat in a hot country, and in any event there are tropical islands where pork is the main meat eaten. He proposes a human interpretation. Nomads would once have despised the settled farmers who bred pigs, and that feeling in some way transferred to the animals themselves.

It is undeniable that we share a great deal in common with pigs, though people have been reluctant to acknowledge the similarities. Like us, pigs dream and can see colours. They are sociable. (On warm summer nights pigs snuggle up close to one another and for some reason like to sleep nose to nose.) The females form stable families led by a matriarch with her children and female relatives. Piglets are particularly fond of play, just as human children are, and chase one another, play-fight, play-love, tumble down hills, and generally engage in a wide variety of enjoyable activities.

As Karl Schwenke points out in his classic book In a Pig's Eye: 'Pigs are gregarious animals. Like children, they thrive on affection, enjoy toys, have a short attention span, and are easily bored.' He reports that when pigs were put into a small pen, as they are on most farms, 'their world was instantly narrowed to each other, the food, and the sty, and as they grew, their world became smaller and smaller. The tedium of their existence soon became apparent: they were lethargic, exhibited ragged ears, had droopy tails, and rapidly acquired that dull-eyed glaze that swineherds associate with six or seven-year-old breeding hogs.'

One can witness the interaction and affection when pigs greet each other, snout to snout, sometimes with love grunts ' soft, open-mouthed greetings given when a pig is feeling amorous, or maybe just sweetly affectionate. Pigs can also be cliquish: an older new arrival may not easily find acceptance.

Like humans, pigs are omnivores. Though they are often fed garbage, their food of choice would be similar to our own. Kim Sturla, of the Californian animal sanctuary Animal Place, tells me that when she offers her pigs mango or a head of broccoli, they will always take the mango. She explains that they have a sweet tooth, and a pastry will always win over a healthy vegetable. Remind you of somebody?

They get easily bored with the same food. They love melons, bananas and apples, but if they have had them for a few days, they will set them aside and eat whatever other food is new first. We don't often associate pigs and cleanliness but, if permitted, they will be more fastidious in eating and in general behaviour than dogs. When offered anything unusual to eat, a pig will sniff at it and nibble gently.

Many people have found it disconcerting to look into the eye of a pig. One gains the startling impression of another person looking back at you. Pigs have small, rather weak eyes and appear to be squinting, as if they are trying to get a better take on the world. They seem often to wear a wistful look.

Dick King-Smith, the author of The Sheep-Pig (turned into the much-loved film, Babe) and who used to be a pig farmer, once said: 'Many times I've looked into a pig's eye and convinced myself that inside that brain is a sentient being, who is looking back at me observing him wondering what he's thinking about.'

When I recently visited Carole Webb's Farm Animal Rescue in Cambridge, I was introduced to Wiggy, a gigantic male weighing nearly a thousand pounds. As I came into his stall, he was busy picking out soft hay with which to line the straw in his self-made bed. He grunted when I walked in, looked up, and fixed me with his eye. It was uncanny, like meeting a person in the street whom you feel you know but cannot place. I looked away for a moment, embarrassed by the naked intimacy of his glance.

Juliet Gellatley, in her book The Silent Ark, describes visiting a factory-farm shed where she saw a large male boar, 'his huge head hanging low towards the barren floor. As I came level with him he raised his head and dragged himself slowly towards me on lame legs. With deliberation he looked straight at me, staring directly into my eyes. It seemed to me that I saw in those sad, intelligent, penetrating eyes a plea, a question to which I had no answer: 'Why are you doing this to me?' '

If we are to consider pigs as sentient beings with intelligence and a full range of emotions, perhaps we should feel guilty when a pig gives us that look knowing he will soon be off to his death.

This is an edited extract from Jeffrey Masson's The Pig Who Sang to the Moon (Jonathan Cape, '17.99).
' Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson 2004.
From Books First, '14.39, plus '2.25 p&p (0870-160 8080).
Masson is a Freud scholar and psychoanalyst

The ones that got away

Pigs have touched the imagination and drawn the sympathy of the British before. Only this week a wild boar made the headlines when it broke for freedom at Cinderford, in Gloucestershire, and vanished into the undergrowth of the Forest of Dean. But the most famous porcine escapers were Butch and Sundance ' the 'Tamworth Two' ' who escaped from an abattoir in Wiltshire in 1998, swam a river and went on the run.

Eventually they took cover in a thicket and refused to come out. Even the slaughterman, Jeremy Newman, who sighted them five days after the breakout, admitted: 'You can't be sentimental in this, but I say good luck to them. I reckon they got more sense than we have ' they showed a lot of initiative when they escaped. As soon as they caught sight of me, they made off as fast as their legs could carry them.'

After they were finally recaptured there were hundreds of offers to provide Butch and Sundance with a safe haven for the rest of their lives. They now live in an animal sanctuary where they need never again fear the slaughterhouse.

The entire escapade was made into a film last year by the BBC, starring Kevin Whately, Emma Pierson, Alexei Sayle and John Sessions.
 

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