The first lines of the movie “Babe” say a lot about the dichotomy of pigs: “This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart and how it changed our valley forever. There was a time when pigs were afforded no respect, except by other pigs. They lived their lives in a cruel world. In those days, pigs believed that the sooner they grew large and fat, the sooner they’d be taken into Pig Paradise.”
Pigs have been maligned and misunderstood throughout history. But the fact is they are smart, clean, do not sweat, and do not overeat, although it is true that they will eat about anything—including their own kind AND humans. Growing up in Iowa, I read about farmers who had heart attacks in pig lots and their limbs, ears or noses would be nibbled away before they were found. Others—not so lucky—were consumed by the hogs. Or, after tornadoes, pigs would cannibalize badly wounded or dead pigs. They are not discriminating in their eating habits, and perhaps that is why humans malign them.
Say what you will about the porcine species, pigs have been a backbone of American sustenance since the first white explorers first landed on the shores of North America.
They have indeed, brought home the bacon for American families for hundreds of years. Like horses, pigs are not indigenous to North America but came to the New World with white explorers. Very hardy, adaptable, and low maintenance, they survived trips across the ocean in the holds of ships of Christopher Columbus in 1493, then Hernando DeSoto in 1539. They immediately became a staple of Colonists, who smoked the meat so it could last for months. And because pigs can eat about anything, they can forage for themselves. Sows have an average litter of 13 (the record is 27!), and two litters a year, so they multiply fast, making them an excellent livestock and a source of food, especially protein.
Pigs came to the New World from England, Spain, Portugal, and other countries. According to the Livestock Conservancy that works to preserve heirloom livestock breeds, the types of pigs imported were not well documented until about 1800. Then, three imported breeds - the Berkshire, the Big China, and the Irish Grazier - were mostly used to improve common stock. Pigs were an essential part of every farm, being used for home production of lard and pork.
Pig breeds were classified into two types: lard or bacon. Lard was used for cooking fat, baking, soaps, candle making, balms and medicines, fuel for lamps, mechanical lubricants, seasoning for iron to keep it from rusting, and wood and leather preservatives. These pigs were compact and thick, with short legs and deep bodies, fattened quickly on corn, and their meat had large amounts of fat in it.
In contrast bacon pigs were long, lean, and muscular and fed on legumes, small grains, turnips, and dairy byproducts. Bacon pigs grew more slowly and put on more muscle than fat. Most American pig breeds were considered lard types, with only the Yorkshire and the Tamworth classified as bacon breeds.
Different regions of the country had their own breed of pigs, based on settlers’ nationalities and markets. Pigs moved west with the settlers and many pioneer children had them as prairie playmates. Riding pigs, pig races, and greased pig wrestling in mud became fun and funny entertainments at county fairs, eliciting raucous squeals from indignant pigs and whoops from spectating people.
As pioneers moved West and the Midwest was settled with larger farms that produced corn, grain became a low-cost feed for pigs. Consequently, the biggest corn producing states became the biggest pork producing states. And most farms produced lard pigs and became more industrialized and pig breeds more homogenous.
During World War I and II, lard was used to manufacture explosives and the pig market boomed. But after the Second World War, when petrochemicals replaced lard for manufacturing and military use, the lard market collapsed. Other breeds such as Duroc, Berkshire, Hampshire, Poland China, and Yorkshire were used for bacon and meat. The old heirloom lard breeds were nearly lost. Today, only three breeds remain but with critical or threatened status: Choctaw, Guinea Hog, and Mulefoot. Choctaw hogs are descended from Spanish stock and raised by the Choctaw Indians. They are aggressive pigs, but very independent, adaptable, and excellent foragers. Guinea Hogs are a first choice for modern homesteaders—smaller, docile, and easy to raise. Mulefoot are active but docile, excellent foragers, and good for wet areas because they have solid hooves.
Up to World War II, pigs had always been an integral part of farm life and a food source for farm families. But with market pressures, fewer and fewer farms kept pigs. With the advent of huge industrialized indoor farms where hogs are kept in extremely close, often cruel confinement and fed corn for fast fattening, three breeds now dominate: Duroc, Hampshire and Yorkshire. But as the movement toward free-range, organic and sustainable farming and homesteading gains popularity, more heirloom breeds are coming back from near extinction.
In the mid-1980s, Vietnamese pot-belly pigs were introduced to the American pet industry and the fad went....well...hog wild. They ARE nice pets—affectionate, smart, curious, easily trained. But there’s a big problem with little pigs. They grow up to be big. In fact, huge. Today there is a terrible problem with short-sighted pig owners who fall out of love with their big, portly pigs. Recently, another pig craze hit the pet market: the teacup pig. First developed in Germany by crossing, the Minnesota mini pig, the Vietnamese Potbelly Pic and the German Landrace pig, it is considered the smallest breed of domestic pig in the world. But teacup piglets lose their diminutive size and become big too—how big is impossible to predict. But some grow to 500-800 pounds. There are perhaps more than a half million pet pigs in the U.S. today. But the majority will be dead or surrendered to an overwhelmed sanctuary by age two.
It’s not surprising that pigmania has found a place in social media legends. Hogzilla is a porcine megastar on the Internet and has appeared many places in many photoshopped transmutations. Originally believed to be a feral swamp boar in Georgia that weighed more than 1,100 pounds, other versions later showed up, such as a domestic pig named Fred killed in Alabama. These giant Internet pigs met sad endings. Hog Kong weighed 1,140 lbs. and was killed in Leesburg, FL in 2004. Coursey Hog weighed 1,100 lbs. and was killed in 2007 in Fayetteville, GA. But the two biggest pigs in recorded history were domestic pigs that lived happier lives. Big Norm (named after the character in Cheers) was a Yorkshire mix and weighed 1,600 lbs. He died of heart failure in 2008 on his New York farm. Big Bill was a Poland China raised in Jackson, Tennessee, to a ginormous size of 2,552 lbs. He was going to be exhibited at the Chicago World Fair in 1933 but had to be put down with chloroform when he broke a leg. But not before he made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. He was 9’ long and 5’ at the shoulder. He still holds that record.
Other more loveable porkers populate western culture and literature: Porky Pig, Miss Piggy, Babe, Winnie-the-pooh’s Piglet, Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, and Napoleon in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And don’t forget Arnold Ziffel of Green Acres, the precocious pig who would come uninvited to the Douglas home, turn on the tv, then sit in an arm chair. King Neptune was a Hereford hog used by the U.S. Navy during World War II to raise $19 million in war bonds and paid for the construction of the USS Illinois. There were also some scholarly swine billed as The Learned Pig in London in 1784 who supposedly could spell words and solve arithmetical problems and Toby the Sapient Pig who could tell time and read people’s thoughts. President Teddy Roosevelt had a pet pig named Maude in the White House in 1901-1909. Winston Churchill, too, appreciated pigs. “I am fond of pigs,” he said. “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. But pigs treat us as equals.”
PHOTOS: (1) A bridled and saddled boar. Circa 1900. (2) A little farm girl gleefully bottle-feeding piglets. Date unknown. (3) Arizona settler Sharlot Hall plays nursemaid to a quintet of piglets. About 1895. Sharlot Hall Archives, Prescott, Arizona. (4) Toddler Foster Tusler astride the family’s pet sow. Eastern Montana. 1902. Montana Historical Society. (5) Nebraska girl Hilda Nelson with her pet pig, Polly, about 1914. City dwelling Americans were asked to raise pigs during World War I to help feed the nation and its troops. (6) A farmer teaches his boy how to care for piglets. Circa 1918. Place unknown. (7) Hog killing time. Date/place unknown. (8) A sow’s average litter size is about 13 piglets. But 27 is the record. Sows can have two litters per year. (9) A World War I poster promoting pig raising to feed the nation and troops going to war. (10) This internet photo is believed to be an 11-year-old boy who shot a domesticated pig named Fred in Georgia in 2004. But Internet legends of giant hogs abound. (11-12) Teacup to Oh! Crap! Teacup pigs or “pocket pigs” are a new craze in the pet world. But the problem is they grow up, some of them as big as 500-800 pounds. Pet pigs are a pig problem in the U.S. as irresponsible pig owners no longer want their pigs once they are past the cute stage. (3) A promotional poster for the Disney movie, “Babe.”
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted August 27, 2019
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