As 2006 was drawing to a close, my task was simple – find a pink piglet with a curly tail. The role of said piglet was to strut the red carpet in the company of movie stars for the world premiere of Charlotte’s Web right here in Melbourne. Originally, Paramount Pictures had sought the services of one of the original porcine stars of the movie who had since retired to Edgar’s Mission to make a brief comeback for the sojourn and brush with paparazzi. However, after explaining the will power of the then 200-plus kilos of Daisy, Pompy or Lily Pig and the logistics of moving said 200-plus kilos of porcineness along with the chances (or lack thereof) of success, a better course of action was determined. On the surface the task at hand seemed a relatively simple one; after all, piglets abounded at piggeries throughout the state, yet sadly curly tails did not. And herein lies a not so pleasant tale about the lot for farmed pigs.
Just ask anyone who has spent time with a piglet or two and they will recall with much joy the piglet’s determination to remove shoelaces, zippers, mobile phones, sunglasses, contents of pockets including a crumb that has escaped extradition on numerous washings, along with performing complementary handbag searches. Yet on commercial pig farms, none of these things abound, in fact the greatest stimulus these intelligent beings can find are the wiggly little tails of their buddies. However, history has shown that the chewing and biting of piglet’s tails by litter mates is a major “economic” cost to industry, to say nothing of the pain and suffering it inflicts on the animals. The industry’s answer to this “problem” is both cheap and cruel, and something that would never see the light of day if the animal were a cat or dog. And so as time ticked on, I was fast running out of places to source a piglet, until I learned of a runty little piglet born on a free-range pig farm in NSW.
Mirroring much of the life of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, this soon-to-be stunt double was taken in by the farmer’s wife, who was overcome with pity for the gallant, albeit fruitless efforts of the tiny piglet to reach his mumma’s teats and survive. Knowing what she chose to do next would help or harm the little guy, Wilbur Mark II was taken up to the farm house, kept nice and warm and bottle fed. However what next to do with the piglet was to prove somewhat of a dilemma – until my arrival at the farm, where I met Wilbur. What was to follow was 13 glorious years of showing the world what charming, endearing and fun-loving animals pigs really are, and all Burpy* had to do was act naturally.
It was to be fortuitous meeting for many a reason, not the least of which was that it gave me my first opportunity to experience a free-range pig farm first hand. I got to see where Wilbur’s mother had dutifully and fastidiously made her nest in preparation for her babies. The strong sides of the nest would provide a safe retreat for the little ones to seek refuge, keep warm and prevent them being crushed by their mumma. The big stand of cypress trees stood sentinel over the young family. The paddock was large and interesting, a channel skirting one side with lots of grass and pasture for the piglets to explore. More paddocks surrounded this one, with more pigs of different sizes, with wallows for them to get down and dirty in, mud glorious mud, a pig’s best friend following hot on the heels of food and good mates. It was hard not to be swayed by such an idyllic and bucolic setting, where pigs were allowed to be pigs. However, all too soon reality was to set in, with the words, “Don’t look over there”, which to most people’s minds is a neon sign commanding, “Look immediately over there” and that is exactly what I did.
“Over there” my heart froze as my eyes transfixed on a large box trailer packed with terrified young pigs, squealing, squirming and defecating. And although they would not have known they were heading for their death, they did know their world was being turned on its beautiful ear and they had lost control of their destiny (although we humans know this is something farmed animals never have). It was a heart-wrenching sight, which the host readily recognised. My enquiry as to where the pigs were destined was met with the same reply – where all commercially farmed pigs head – the abattoir – no special treatment was afforded these guys, or any other pig for that matter, despite whatever soft sell free-range farming is given. In death it is the same grisly, bleak and fear-filled fate.
To look at our treatment of animals and ask ourselves: Is it fair, is it just, is it decent, it is necessary and above all else is it right? And Burpy did this right from the start, in his own inimitable fashion, trotting down the red carpet alongside Hollywood starlet Dakota Fanning, even stopping for a little pee on the way. Burpy became a stellar outreach pig too. He headed off to schools, outreach events, nursing homes and even stood on the steps of Parliament House in the pouring rain alongside the human who loved him most (me), demanding a better deal for pigs. When people saw Burpy, eyes transfixed on his human friend, they saw the beautiful relationships these animals can have with humans, something many never thought possible for an animal they would jokingly call “bacon”. But it was through kind conversations that these same people would shift uneasily in their stance and conscience, realising that that such comments were but safety barriers to their compassion, and that farmed animals have intrinsic worth for their own sake, not ours.
But as the years trotted on, Burpy’s runtiness was to catch up with him, and an arthritic front joint threatened to rein him in. But it didn’t. Then a nasty abscess in his hind trotter cast doubts on his future. But it too failed. Each time we managed to get on top of his challenges, ensuring we fulfilled the promise we made to him on that first day we met – we will give you a life truly worth living. And that we did, allowing Burpy to grow old, growing more dignified and loved each day. He even got to have his own little harem of Mary Pig, cheeky Monique and Eliza (although truth be told, he never really liked Eliza). But just last week Burpy hit a hurdle even he could not surmount, and neither could we, and it was time to honour that charter I set all those years ago: it was time to set Burpy free.
There truly is something to behold in pigs, they are beautiful, glorious animals, smart, funny, affectionate, playful, charismatic even, yet they too possess a capacity for fear and loneliness, anger and heartache, they form strong bonds with their buddies, the mothers cherish their babies and will stand strong to protect them – don’t think so? Then stop for a minute next time you pass a sanctuary, and look into the eyes of a pig who holds no fear of our kind, and the being who stares back at you will do so as your equal (Winston Churchill got that one right**) as they look into your soul. You’ll see a wisdom there beyond their years, beyond their species, beyond the dim-witted animals our society wishes them to be.
With the passing of each one of my animal friends, it hits that wounded part of my soul I think will never heal. Yet it too stirs in me an impetus to propel people to “look over there” – something commercial animal industries least want people to do – to look behind the label; look behind the product on the plate before them; to look, to really look at what we are doing to animals and realise that we can be the engineers of not just their happiness but ours, because when we take from their lives and their families, we also take from ours. We cannot cause harm in this world and not expect it come back at us in some form. The presence of animals in our world is a reminder that it is their world too; recognising this enables us to better understand our place in this world as caregivers and guardians, and when we do so, it will be our greatest mercy.
Burpy, I will love you for ever more and one day longer.
*Whilst Burpy’s stage name was Wilbur, he was known to his human family fondly as Burpy. The reason was simple: pigs really are very intelligent animals, they quickly recognise their name (choosing to answer to it is entirely another matter, which remains up to the pig’s choosing). At the time of Burpy’s arrival, a pig by the name of Wilbur already called Edgar’s Mission home sweet home, and not wishing to confuse the two animals, the more recent arrival’s name was shortened to Burpy. Which was kind of apt as he was given to making little burpy sounds when he ate a little too quickly.
**Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “Always remember, a cat looks down on man, a dog looks up to man, but a pig will look man right in the eye and see his equal.”