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The stories of the Crommyonian sow and the Caledonian Boar have made me reflect on what intense life-forms pigs are. I admire pigs–and not just because I love to eat them. Uncooked and on the hoof, the pig is amazing…and also alarming. The familiar Eurasian swine has two manifestations: domesticated (Sus scrofa domestica) and wild (Sus scrofa). The former is big and pink and tailor crafted by human to be easily controlled and scrumptious on the table. However, domestic pigs keep the smarts of their wild kin. They are the cleverest creature in the barnyard except for the farmer (usually) and that’s saying something considering how cunning goats are. Thanks to their intelligence and their strength, farm pigs sometimes get away from us. Within only a few generations, domestic pigs return to their wild type—bristly, furtive, and angry. There are feral pigs just about everywhere humankind has been except for the frigid polar regions. The creatures spread across the entire Pacific Ocean on the canoes of intrepid sea-farers and on isolated islands they have sometimes outlasted their hearty tenders: even in the modern world there are islands with pigs but no humans.
As invaders, feral pigs are immensely successful. They flourish in Australia, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and on innumerable islands. Swine are omnivorous grazers. Their tremendous sense of smell, along with their strength, smarts, and speed, allows them to run roughshod over unprepared ecosystems.
Pigs are fecund, breeding quickly and having large litters. As social animals, pigs communicate via grunts, squeals, and snuffles. A “sounder” of wild pigs is therefore quite adept at avoiding predators and capitalizing food resources. Such groups of wild pigs are controlled by one or two big dominant sows (males are either solitary or form small bachelor groups). Woe upon anyone who backs a wild or feral pig into a corner. The animals have substantial mass, a low center of gravity, powerful tusks, and a bellicose desire not to be eaten. Even domestic pigs can be dangerous. To quote Wikipedia, “pigs can be aggressive and pig-induced injuries are relatively common in areas where pigs are reared or where they form part of the wild or feral fauna.”
There are well-known taboos against eating pigs in many cultures and religions. Some groups feel they are dirty–and indeed swine are strangely similar to people and can bring a host of pathogens and parasites to someone who handles pork carelessly or lives to close to a pigsty. These similarities have also given pigs a large role as laboratory animals, and when we get easily replaceable artificial organs they may come from transgenic pigs (the super intelligent “pigoons” from Atwood’s Oryx & Crake were among the scarier creatures of contemporary science fiction). Brushing those ideas aside, modern agriculture has excelled at producing safe pork. Nearly 100 million tons of pork was consumed worldwide in 2009 (over half of this by people in China).
That’s a lot of pig butchering! But to reiterate the point of this post, being delicious has brought success to the pig. There are over 2 billion pigs worldwide, making the animal one of the most successful large mammals on the planet. Pigs can get away from our farms and go feral. It’s a rare occurrence, but it happens often enough that there will always be wild pigs as long as there are people. No matter how many pigs we eat, they will always be successful organisms maintaining a massive cloven footprint on the earth.