The Days of Swine and Roses

By Judith Stone|Tuesday, September 01, 1992
RELATED TAGS: ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE
It would have been enough if all zoologist David Fraser had done was to blow the lid off vampire pigs. But he did it in verse.

Fraser’s article in the Canadian Journal of Animal Science, Mineral-Deficient Diets and the Pig’s Attraction to Blood: Implications for Tail-Biting--coincidentally, the title that Walt Whitman originally proposed for Song of Myself--begins thusly:

A growing pig will seldom quail

From chewing on a neighbor’s tail.

At first, this unendearing act

Arises simply from the fact

That pigs by nature root and chew

When they have nothing else to do;

But thus engaged, a pig may find

That neighbors, bitten from behind,

Secrete a red liqueur whose flavor

Many swine appear to savor:

At first a nip, and next a swallow,

Then nastier results may follow.

Equally at home penning poetry or pigs, Fraser is a member of the Animal Behavior Team of the Center for Food and Animal Research, a government-run experimental farm in Ottawa, Canada. His job is to solve the porcine behavior problems that complicate pig production--problems like tail-biting, the nastier results of which can actually send prospective smoky links on an untimely trip to hog heaven.*

A pig’s strongest urges are to root and to chew on things, says Fraser. That’s how they search for food and explore their world. Put them in a barren environment with concrete floors, steel walls, and all the food they want, and bored pigs start chewing on each other.

Pigs gnaw their pen pals’ caudal corkscrews (recreational tail- chewing, Fraser calls it) quite companionably--until they draw blood. Then rampant vampirism ensues and, to quote a famous media hog, Th-th-th-that’s all, folks. They’ll start harassing the pig with the bitten tail, sometimes to death, Fraser says.

He and his colleagues studied the Pigula effect in two experiments involving a pair of ersatz tails made of cotton cord, one of which had been soaked in pig’s blood. A computer measured the popularity of each chewing target, first among pigs fed a normal diet, then among those served food bereft of various minerals.

Salt deprivation, the researchers learned, led to the greatest increase in biting of the bloody tail model. They concluded that one way to reduce tail-biting might be to provide adequate sources of salt. (I suggested margaritas, but experiments with human subjects at a local watering hole showed that the introduction of salty tequila-based beverages actually increases recreational tail-biting. So I guess a good motto for pig farmers would be, Don’t give pigs a snort; they already have one.)

To fight the boredom that contributes to the tragedy of tail- biting, Fraser suggests that farmers provide their swine with an alternative chewable object, perhaps impregnated with a flavor yummy enough to compete with an oozing tail. A rawhide pork chop, of the sort enjoyed by puppies, would be a really sick choice.

Provocative science, all this, but a proper subject for verse? Fraser, 44, bristles at the suggestion that his poetry isn’t kosher. I began using rhyme to make scientific points about pigs more memorable and palatable, he explains. For example, when I address groups of veterinarians or farmers, if I’m talking about how to design a pig pen so the animals will dung properly and not mess up the pen, I have a little verse on dunging habits. Which is pretty much how Shakespeare got his start. (In fact, Hamlet was originally called Piglet.)

Fraser felt he could make points the same way in scientific journals. To his surprise, the journals agreed. For example, a recent article on sibling rivalry among piglets in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology began with this summary:

A piglet’s most precious possession

Is the teat that he fattens his flesh on.

He fights for his teat with tenacity

Against any sibling’s audacity.

The piglet, to arm for this mission,

Is born with a warlike dentition

Of eight tiny tusks, sharp as sabers,

Which help in impressing the neighbors;

But to render these weapons less harrowing,

Most farmers remove them at farrowing.

Fraser’s research was designed to determine whether teeth actually confer a competitive advantage on their owners, and whether teeth clipping at farrowing (birth) hurts a piglet’s chances of survival. His conclusions?

We studied pig sisters and brothers

When some had their teeth, but not others.

We found that when siblings aren’t many,

The weapons help little if any,

But when there are many per litter,

The teeth help their owners grow fitter.

(And why shouldn’t siblicidal brood reduction be the stuff of literature? Isn’t that the story of Cain and Abel? Ham and Shem? Ham and Eggs? Jackie and Joan Collins?)

Fraser and his colleagues have also helped design a farrowing pen for sows that minimizes accidental crushing. When she lies down, occasionally she lies down on her piglets. The response of pig producers in the past has been to put the sow in a very tight little stall called a farrowing crate, which restricts her natural movements. We’ve come up with a design for an alternative farrowing pen that’s wide at the top but narrow at bottom, preventing her from crushing her piglets, but offering freedom of movement when she’s standing. A heat lamp keeps the piglets over in another part of the pen when they’re not suckling. (Heat lamps? Why not stereos? Recent experiments in Illinois showed that cows gave 35 percent more milk when they listened to Elvis. Perhaps porkers will fatten more efficiently to Baby, I’m a Hog for Your Love, by the Grateful Dead. Why not cellular phones, so they can make porcine to porcine calls? Why not valet porking?)

Fraser has also been studying devices that allow pigs to drink naturally without splattering their cages. For an animal with a reputation for untidiness, pigs are totally thrown by a messy pen. Pigs are very sensitive creatures, Fraser says. Just call one lard ass and watch it squeal. If it’s drafty, or they’re crowded, or their diet isn’t quite right, pigs get restless, there’s group strife, they lose their appetites. Pigs are very like people. (Except, of course, that while a young human grows up dreaming of being a football player, a young pig grows up dreaming of being a football.)

Pigs are extremely sensitive to heat. That’s the point of Fraser’s dunging poem: if pig producers fail to provide an environment that’s cool and ventilated, the pig, in the absence of mud, will attempt to cool itself with something nastier.

And if he fails to find some mud

To coat his hide and cool his blood,

Well--piggy doesn’t seem to mind:

He makes do with the homemade kind.

Unhygienic? In a sense,

But keeping cool takes precedence.

There’s even something called porcine stress syndrome. (I’ve seen it in human males who don’t respond well to PMS.) When pigs are being shipped in a hot truck on a hot day and fighting breaks out, Fraser says, the combination of heat and exertion will cause one percent of genetically susceptible pigs to drop dead. It’s not unlike the human phenomenon of malignant hyperthermia, a rise in body temperature after anesthesia.

As a child, Fraser felt certain he was fit to live with pigs, but fate decreed that he wasn’t. I grew up on a southern Ontario fruit farm with no animals, alas. I didn’t care too much about other critters, but I wished we had pigs; I’ve always regarded the lack of pigs as a form of cultural deprivation.

In fact, one of the conditions of my marriage was that I could have a pet pig. But I’ve never had one because the disease policy at work makes that impossible--you can’t have a pig at home if you work on an experimental farm. But my wife runs a bed and breakfast that serves a great deal of bacon. His four children lean toward rabbits and fish (as pets, not entrées).

We did have geese, though, and the reason is peculiar. We raised strawberries. Geese will eat almost any plant that exists, but they won’t eat cotton or strawberries. To ‘goose cotton’ means to run geese in a cotton field so they’ll eat the weeds. And you can goose strawberries too. That saved us hours of mindless labor. I attribute my fondness for applied animal behavior to seeing such a useful application at a young age. Given that plus my love of pigs, there was only one career I could follow. Fraser took a degree in psychology at the University of Toronto, specializing in animal behavior, and a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

He thinks pigs and poetry go together like pen and oink, or maybe Penn and Teller. I’ve always been able to remember by heart a lot of the gems of English verse, and one night I found myself lying in bed thinking how instead of A. E. Housman’s Loveliest of Trees we should have Loveliest of Pigs, and I started to do a parody along piggy lines.

His favorite works are not, as you might imagine, those of Sir John Suckling, Francis Bacon, or Algernon Swinburne. Fraser’s taste in pig- lit is eclectic. He likes Pygmalion, of course, and he’s a fan of Charlotte’s Web and Animal Farm, of the episode in the Odyssey in which Circe turns the crew into pigs, and of the P. G. Wodehouse story Pig-Hoo-- o-o-o-ey! which involves a prize sow called the Empress of Blandings. He is neutral on the subject of Pigasus, the hog who ran for the American presidency in 1968--yes, pork barrel legislation was his specialty. And he claims not to be familiar with Arnold Ziffel, the porcine protagonist of the sixties sitcom Green Acres. Yeah, right. (Although I understand his pose; in certain company I feign ignorance of Lisa’s part of the Green Acres theme, even though I know full well it’s New York is where I’d rather stay. / I get allergic smelling hay. / I just adore a penthouse view. / Dah-ling, I love you but give me Park Avenue.)

Listening to Fraser wax lyrical about the humble domestic hog-- Sus scrofa, in pig latin--you can’t help but develop a rooting interest in this remarkable and fascinating creature. Pigs go from weighing about two pounds at birth to more than two hundred pounds--market weight--at the age of six months. If a human baby grew at that rate, by the age of six months the child would weigh half a ton. And the mother sow is producing milk to support that growth not for one offspring, but for ten. It’s an absolute tour de force of lactation!

Fraser intends to continue enlivening his scholarly papers with doggerel--or piggerel, if you will (and if you won’t, I’ll do it myself). And he’s completed a book-length manuscript, Loveliest of Pigs, featuring parodies of Blake (Porkyr! Porkyr!), Shakespeare (Snuffle snuffle, toil for truffle, snorter dig and trotter scuffle . . . ), and Carl Sandburg (The hog comes in / on dirty black feet . . . ). He’s saved the wurst for last--The Sausage Men, pace Eliot:

This is the way the world ends

Not with a whim but a banger.
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