We picked up our pigs as weaners, as small as puppies, from a local breeder. We put them in dog cages in the back of our pickup truck and drove them home, careful to tarp them in for warmth. On the way, one of the tarp corners lifted. We stopped to fix it. So started a certain obsession with their care. We felt totally responsible for them, these four siblings, taken from their home, from their mother, from everything they knew, and thrown into a new world. Though we were pragmatic in that we realized they were for food, we took our jobs as caretakers very seriously. These pigs would not suffer under our care, under any circumstances. They would die for our sustenance, so the least we could do is give them a high quality of life, short as it might be.
The pigs acclimated to their new home, as we acclimated to them. We fed them each day, made sure they had water, hay, and were warm and dry. They got a salt lick, later, when one of the neighbours suggested “Hey, your pigs should have a salt lick.” Any time they were in any discomfort whatsoever, their needs were tended to immediately. Other than one small cut to the snout and a need to modify the weatherproofing of the shed, they did not need much. They are very clean, keeping their sleeping quarters much cleaner than an average modern child. There was a bit of work in the feeding and watering, but of a fulfilling sort, the kind that makes you smile more than not. At least for the first year.
Pigs give you many reasons to smile, be it the way they cuddle together for warmth, sprint to you when you call them, or snort happily when they are eating something they like. They have individual personalities and exhibit many of the emotions we do. They smile. They play. They fall into patterns of living, just as we do. They sulk. They bicker, bully and bitch. They get up in the morning, go to bed at night, and lounge inside as long as possible when the weather is miserable.
For months, we watched them grow. They kept expanding, slowly growing into the three sided shed and fenced pasture. They had a good life with lots of space to run around, a good shelter to sleep in at night, organic feed, deep hay beds, and hundreds of pounds of vegetables. And apples. We spent a good many hours picking apples for them, and they spent a good many hours eating
As they matured, their personalities changed. They shed some of their childlike ways and adopted those of an older, more beastly animal. They became more serious, meaner with each other. One time, nearer to the end, one of them went after Charlotte, nipping at her. A second one, and then a third started at her. I was laughing as it did not appear to be overly serious, but my wife was starting to get upset. I ran into their midst, drawing them away. They were surprisingly aggressive. I gave one of them a gentle kick away. Shoo, pig. Shoo shoo, pig. This did not work as it had in past. By this point they probably weighed a hundred and fifty pounds each. And there were four of them.
Faced with the option of fleeing from a relatively small group of pigs, or fighting, I decided to fight. “Just who in the hell is in charge here?”, I thought, as I gave the ringleader, the large male, a fairly stout yet still friendly kick, right in the ribs. He barely noticed, laughing almost, and all three kept coming.
“OK then. I guess it’s really on.”
I retreated a few feet. Emboldened by my apparent weakness, they quickly came for me. Their false sense of security was their downfall. I slammed a low roundhouse kick into the ribs of the largest pig, the leader. He squealed, and retreated. This show of force was not enough to convince the second one, who kept coming. I pivoted, changed angles, shifted my weight and fired off another kick to the ribs. Thunk. The pig squealed, took to the air and leapt away. I was definitely winning.
Pressing the advantage, I ran at the third one and gave her a light kick, and the fourth, just to let them all know who was boss. They wandered a bit and then regrouped. I charged them, yelling, before they could formulate an adequate plan. They scattered, confused, an army in disarray.
One of them noticed, finally, that there was food in the trough. Roughly eight seconds later, the voracious, anti-climactic little bastards were all eating happily, about four feet from me, calamity forgotten. I smiled just a little bit. My wife was saved, the pigs knew who was boss and all was well. That was about the only time they got nasty, and even then, it should be noted that it was entirely our fault; my wife was taking pictures of them, right down at their level, and we had not fed them. Dumb, with a capital F. We deserved the attack, as far as I am concerned.
Other than that, the worst they did was to dump their water trough or pile dirt on the electric fence. For awhile I think they made a sport of it, covering anywhere between three and sixty feet of the electrified strand. I would usually attempt to rectify this without turning off the electric fence, as it somehow seemed more sporting. Turning off the fence seemed like cheating the pigs out of something. I was almost always successful. Sometimes though, especially when it was wet, I’d get hit with a little blast of electricity. Inwardly, I’d chalk it up as “one for the pigs.”
As they reached their target weight, a neighbour made arrangements for a man to come over and slaughter them. Before he arrived, I decided that it would be cowardly of me to have someone else do it. When he came to do the job, I asked him to kill the first one, so that I could see it done. I’d do the rest. After some small discussion I handed him my .22 rifle and a couple cartridges, and we were off, neighbour and wife in tow.
We walked into the pasture. We entered the fenced area. Our audience stayed near the entrance. The weather was a rainy, dark day – it wasn’t raining, but it had recently, and threatened to start again at any time. It was also rather cold, the sky, grey, bleak.
It was a shitty, miserable day. I thought it perfect for the occasion.
The pigs sensed something was wrong. They were nervous, and they avoided the man. He walked slowly, trying position the gun for a shot. He used a technique I had not seen before, using the rifle with one hand, extending it like a sword, trying to place it ever so slowly in the perfect position, right behind the ear. The pigs avoided him, quietly, discretely, but with purpose.
We walked slowly among them as he waited for the opportunity. I was mindful of staying behind the action, so as not to hinder shot selection. He explained to me that the best place to shoot a pig was right behind the ear, towards the brain. Many people shoot them between the eyes. He did not like this way for fear of ricochets off of the denser skeletal structure found at the front of a pigs head. As he was explaining his perspectives on how to kill efficiently and safely, I could not help but think to myself that I wished the lesson could go on all day, as it would prevent me from having to do what I was about to do. Theory is often so much better than implementation.
Sadly, as is often the case, my daydreaming ended all too quickly with the sharp crack of a rifle. The next phase began as the man found his shot, and took it.
The gun went off, inches from the pigs ear. The shot was good. The pig hit the ground, dead. There was not much blood. The pig jerked and twitched, shaking back and forth, violently, like a brained fish. The sound of its body, hitting the earth, slapping the mud, whap whap, whump .. it not something I will soon forget. The worst part were the feelings I was overcome with. I was ashamed to look, to see my happy pig lying there, dead, twitching in the mud, as we all looked on. All I wanted to do was turn away, but I didn’t miss one single second. An invisible hand held me by the hair.
LOOK. LOOK AT YOUR CREATION.
We tied a rope around his front legs and dragged him through the mud, and where there had not been much blood before, there now was. It streaked the mud, frothy, ominous. It was everything I could do not to break down in tears. This was all my doing. All my choice. I sought this out. And it was just beginning.
The next part was easier. It consisted of using a front end loader to hoist the pig, by its back legs, with a heavy chain. When we had it a couple of feet off of the ground, I was given some advice on how to cut its throat. This, I did with efficacy, and without much emotion. Compared to what had happened previously, cutting its throat was nothing. The sight of the blood did not bother me. As I looked on, watching the life blood of this creature spill into the ground, I asked a question regarding killing the remainder.
“You drop them as quickly as you can.”
Without delay, I took the rifle, some bullets, and went back into the pen, wondering how long the blood stain would remain on the grass. How long would it remain, a reminder of this day? I tried to get near them. They were not having any of it, and I had a hell of a time getting close. After about five agonizing minutes of trying to find a shot, I had one. I squeezed the trigger, and felt it slide well past the break point. The damned safety was on.
I heard the man quietly say “safety” to let my wife and neighbour know what had happened. I took the safety off, and resumed the hunt, feeling a little stupid but pushing that emotion out as quickly as it came in. Shit happens, and there was no time for that.
It took me a good few minutes to find a position for a shot, and the physicality of the event was starting to become obvious. I was sweating, under stress and definitely starting to feel it. I finally lined up a shot on the second pig, from inches away. I squeezed the trigger. He dropped instantly.
Then came the third pig, who again took me a good bit of time to line up. When I squeezed the trigger, the gun went off, as before, but everything else was different. Rather than drop to the ground, the pig squealed and bolted ten or fifteen feet away. I did not even look at it. I re-chambered a round .. or tried to. There was some sort of malfunction and I ended up roughly clearing the chamber and inserting another round, as I exclaimed to my wife “Get me some more bullets!” I had several but wanted to be prepared in case things got worse.
I turned to the pig, who was sitting, and not moving too much, not making too much noise. Only seconds had elapsed, but they were filled with incredible turmoil, knowing that every second I failed to end the pigs life was time during which that animal suffered. I quickly positioned myself for a shot, and pulled the trigger. The pig hit the ground and began to twitch. Then it stopped twitching, and moved in a manner that made me think it might not be dying, just badly wounded. I looked over at the man, and he shook his head. The pig immediately started twitching again. It did not need another shot. In my agitated state I was not confident in my own assessment as to the pigs mortality. It was definitely dead, or in death throes.
I turned to the fourth pig, and noted a fairly significant pain in my ankle. During the debacle of the third pig I had apparently rolled it. It was rather painful, but next to everything else, nothing.
For another few minutes I tried in vain to get behind the last pig, but she would not let me get close. Realizing the futility of trying for the same kind of shot as before, I stepped back a bit and leerily took up an offhand shooting position. Having ruined the previous shot, at point blank range, I was not exactly brimming with confidence. It was an easy shot, but it wasn’t. My ankle throbbed, suddenly. My soul throbbed. My nose dripped. My bloodied hands were cold, rigid. My wife looked on.
From about fifteen feet away, I took aim, and as I did, I prayed, PRAYED that the shot would find its mark, and that the pig would fall down and die. Few times in life have I wished for something with such intensity.
I took aim at a point just behind her ear. I moved a foot or two this way, and that. She eventually settled, and quietly rooted in the earth. She smelled the last bit of dirt she would ever smell, dug up a last morsel from an earth she would soon leave. Then, she stopped for me. She stood still, and waited to die.
I did not make her wait.
And there, in the bloody mud, she ended.