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A modern history of the pig and why it changed my mind about consuming meat.
My stomach lurched as I walked into anatomy lab. Today was the day we were dissecting pigs. Today was the day I would see if I really wanted to be a nursing major.
I changed my major to journalism and philosophy the next day.
I’ve been eating pig my whole life. My friends and I ate Perkins every week in high school where I’d gobble down the Fab 5 – chocolate-chip pancakes, scrambled eggs and two strips of bacon. I never questioned it until I took an environmental writing class, where we read a section of E. O. Wilson’s book “Biophilia.”
“Pigs, and presumably their close relatives the peccaries, are among the most intelligent of animals,” Wilson wrote. “Some biologists believe them to be brighter than dogs, roughly the rivals of elephants and porpoises.”
I read this over and over again, shocked this was the first time I was hearing this information, distraught over why this kind of information seems to be intentionally kept out of the public eye. I concluded if people knew this, they would start to wonder why we eat our pigs but we don’t eat our dogs.
I conducted more research and found a book called “Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig” by Mark Essig.
“Studies show that pigs can figure out how mirrors work and use them to scan the landscape for a meal,” Essig wrote. “It can learn to perform tasks – open a cage, turn a heater on and off, play video games – more quickly than nearly any other animal.”
I noticed how eerily similar we are to swine while dissecting fetal pigs. We roughly share the same digestive systems, skin and teeth.
“Pigs get ulcers, arthritis, and diabetes, just like we do,” Essig wrote. “They’re also smart. They like to watch TV and drink beer, and, given the chance, they tend to grow fat and sedentary.”
According to a study by the University of Lincoln, pigs can also have cognitive biases and be optimists or pessimists.
Religion and culture influence pig history. Judaism banned pork in the first century BC, and Islam followed suit more than 1,000 years later. Christians ate pork but found it difficult due to prejudice found in the Old Testament, so they condemned pigs as lazy, filthy and gluttonous. Classism came into play when pigs were deemed unclean due to being eaten by mainly lower-class citizens.
“We use food to stigmatize foreigners, exclude nonbelievers, climb the social ladder, and kick others down a few rungs,” Essig wrote. “No food has played a bigger role than pork in shaping cultural identities.”
Human flesh tastes like pork according to Renaissance physicians and carnivores. The modern pork industry fully developed by the 1860s. Pigs were driven up a ramp called the “Bridge of Sighs” in Chicago to the top floor of a meat-packing plant.
A chain attached to the rear leg of each pig, the other side of the chain hooked to an overhead rail. The pig was hoisted in the air, squealing and kicking. Blood poured out of the pig after someone plunged a knife into the neck.
Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed corruption in the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards and the exploitation of immigrant workers.
“They use everything about the hog except the squeal,” Sinclair wrote.
The more I learn about the history and science of pigs, the more it scares me to know how quickly the human mind can rationalize unethical decisions when our stomachs start growling.
I feel it is actually imperative to support livestock producers committed to animal welfare in the current social and political world we inhabit. Brad Weiss
But statistics show people aren’t about to stop eating meat in large numbers. Brad Weiss advocates for supporting farmers who raise livestock ethically in “Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork.”
“I feel it is actually imperative to support livestock producers committed to animal welfare in the current social and political world we inhabit,” Weiss wrote.
I don’t expect anyone to change their mind about eating pork or meat from my writing. But I do hope to encourage people to think more carefully about what they’re eating and why they’re eating it. This isn’t just a political issue – it’s one of the most significant parts of life. Humans consume food every day and our choices affect other people, animals and the environment. Being more mindful of our choices and making decisions that better care for creation reflects the way in which our Creator cares for us.
American Earth : Environmental Writing since Thoreau. Edited by Bill McKibben; foreword by Al Gore. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States: Distributed to the trade by Penguin Putnam, 2008. Print.
Essig, Mark. Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015. Print.
Horton, Helena. “Pigs can be pessimists, scientists find.” The Telegraph, 16 Nov. 2016. Online article.
King, Barbara J. “How We Love Our Pigs: Local Food and Animal Ethics.” NPR, 18 Aug. 2016. Online article.