The first time I saw Max, I thought just two things and felt just one. The first thing I thought was, “Oh my; he is sooo big,” which quickly led to the second thing: “How am I going to get him into the horse float?!”.
You see, Max, a rather elderly boar (that’s an uncastrated male pig) was holed up at a country pound after he had been found wandering the streets of Castlemaine. Castlemaine, while once known as a gold rush town, is known today as the home of KR Castlemaine Pork Products, so it wasn’t really a good place for a pig to find his pot of gold.
Now, the first thing I felt when I saw Max was love. And judging by his response when he saw me, it could well have been a two-way street! You see, once I manoeuvred the float in preparation for loading Max on board, I walked over to his porcine magnificence. He was in a small yard, and one of the shelter staff was in there with him scratching the dear boy with a rake. Max, by the way, came up to almost their shoulder!! Straightaway his name came to me, “Max”, referring to his large size, which was most certainly to the max, and I was soon to find that his size wasn’t the only thing large about him as his personality quickly followed suit. “Hey Max, buddy,” I hollered, and he quickly spun around like he had heard his name called by a long-lost friend and he picked up as much speed as his chubby little legs would allow him. Squatting down to make his acquaintance I began the piggy greeting of “guff guff”, and it wasn’t long before he reciprocated, all the while showering me with his sweet and warm hog breath. If you have ever had the pleasure of meeting a pig, you will have heard this deep raucous belly grunt pigs offer as a way of greeting. The excitement shown by Max, was just like, “Oh my, she speaks pig, she speaks,” as he did a little happy pig dance—ok it wasn’t actually a little dance, rather a big piggy rhumba.
Many people think pigs just make the sound “oink”. However, I can honestly say I have never heard pigs make that sound, although I have heard pigs make quite a lot of sounds—in fact over 20 different sounds have been identified in which pigs can communicate a wealth of knowledge. There’s the pleasure sound they make when you rub their tummy: it’s a kind of very sweet and low “ooff ooff”; then there’s the frightened sound they make when, after they have been cruising around, something startles them, and they make a really loud “woof woof” sound. I’ve heard people say “Oh they think they are a dog,” when they do this, but no, they don’t.
And whilst I cannot actually say with good authority what a pig thinks, just as I cannot say what you or any other human thinks, I do know they think. And boy do they think: pigs are without a doubt one of the most intelligent animals I have ever encountered. From what I do know about pigs. I can tell you this: they are self-aware, they reflect on the past, yet live in the present, and they contemplate the future and that future to them does not include becoming pork, ham or bacon. No, those things are again something of our perception of them.
Actually, so much of our perception of pigs, is just that, a perception, which more often than not bears little resemblance to reality. I honestly think this speaks to the success, for want of a better word, of the pig meat industry. So many people have this misguided perception that by breeding pigs for human consumption, this somehow circumvents the animals having any emotional world or capacity for fear, pain, suffering or pleasure—that is, if they even consider the lot of pigs at all. Others still take comfort in the perception that pigs are well treated on all farms, and while a small number of farms do go to lengths to ensure the behavioural needs of the pigs are met, all view the animals as a commodity whose life is to be cut short so humans can feed on their flesh.
But allow a pig to enter your world and your heart, and both will be taken on a direction you could never have imagined. So let me tell you a little bit more about Max and what we can learn from him.
Now, despite pigs being labelled pigheaded, they can indeed be most amicable and obliging if treated with the respect and kindness they so richly deserve. “You’ll never get him in there,” gruffed one of the pound workers, and with the gauntlet laid down, Max and I were soon to prove him wrong. Gently, without rush, haste or harsh words and aided by a peace offering of treats, Max slowly made his way up the creaky ramp, putting his trust in the human who had just saved his life. Now tell me pigs are dumb! But of course, if they decide they do or don’t wish to do something, hell hath no fury like a determined pig!
His ability to find comfort in his new and completely foreign surroundings speaks to the adaptability of his kind. It quickly became evident that Max clearly loved his life and that we loved it, too! Here are just some of his top loves, in no particular order: sleeping, wallowing in his mud patch on a hot day, snoozing in the sun and back scratches with his rake. When not being raked, Max shows the comical side of pigs as he takes the rake in his mouth and makes his best effort to help clean his stable. And Max loved to play with his ball until one pounce was just that little bit to the max and it burst, causing Max to have the most amazing startled look on his face as you could read his thought bubble, “Oops, what happened then??”
Pigs like Max are descended from the wild boar, Sus scrofa, and were domesticated around 8000–9000 years ago, and while they may look worlds apart, beating inside every pig is the same heart that yearns with those same behavioural needs. And herein lies the root of so many welfare problems caused by modern-day intensive-farming conditions, which frustrates just about every single one of them.
Max is a mythbuster on so many levels. Out the window goes the notion of “greedy pig”.
Max tells us that fruits and vegetables are not highly to his liking but his pig mash most certainly is. However, if you gently offer him an apple he will politely take it from your hand, like it is the most delicate flower, and eat it ever so slowly. And his sweet tooth is something to see. He’ll whip himself into a bit of a frenzy when the sweet scents of cakes and scrolls waft his way. Thinking about their future deliciousness causes him to salivate, you guessed it, to the max!
Quite clearly, pigs do not eat like “pigs” as we have been lead to believe, in fact, it is such a demonisation that helps keep that great void between us and them alive, and allows humans to do so many otherwise unkind things to them. After all, it is much easier not to form bonds of affection with something or, in this case, someone who is seen as repulsive or uncouth. One reason pigs are often seen as greedy is because the industrialised treatment of them on many commercial pig farms sees them constantly hungry as they are fed the bare minimum to obtain maximum weight gain and they have to compete with many others of their own kind in close confinement. This is a far-removed situation from their wild cousins, who would range over many kilometres feeding on a varied and fibre-rich diet.
“You dirty pig”—how often have we heard that expression? And, said in a derogatory sense, it couldn’t be farther from the truth when it comes to pigs like Max. These fastidious animals will never, given the chance, urinate or defecate where they sleep. Max wisely chooses the farthest corner of the paddock from his sleeping quarters for his toilet area. Which just so happens to be where we have to walk through to enter his paddock!
Another thing Max teaches us is that the best ambassadors for pigs are the very animals themselves. Only recently we had visitors to the farm. During the course of their time at the sanctuary, I said: “You’ve got to come and meet Max”. So off we trod through the mud of Max’s paddock, only to find the sleeping Max out to it in his bed. And that’s another thing Max does to the max: snore!! Thankfully, Max woke up and with a bit of coaxing he came out to see everyone. But at first he was slow and unenthused, much like many of us of a morning. However, as Max became more interested in his guests, he came alive, something that was not lost on all present. And then the big fella began to work the crowd. I showed them all how Max loved to be scratched in a certain way; then everyone took a turn to give Max a rub with him responding accordingly when they hit the right spot.
Everyone was so happy and jovial in the company of Max, and Max even got some treats and showed one and all how much he just relished savouring each morsel, never putting too much in his mouth at one time. It was heart-warming to watch, everyone celebrating this enormous pig. But what really confirmed the power of the pig was the parting words from one of those present, who had kept turning his head back towards Max as we left the paddock. “You know, I cannot look that pig in the eye,” he said, to which someone asked, “Why?”, and he replied, “Because I eat them, and it makes me feel bad.” In those few short moments, Max did more to advance the cause of pigs than any activist ever could, as he showed that pigs are “someones” who very much want to live life to the max!
There can be no doubt, watching Max, that his life is now full of choices: they are his choices that are driven by his feelings, feelings that matter to him, but they should also matter to us. As the species who has domesticated these animals, we have responsibilities and duties towards them, and first and foremost among these should be compassion and kindness. As custodians of this planet, we need to be reminded that the more we exercise these most noble of traits, the better the world will become for all of her inhabitants. Sometimes, it just takes a gentle pig like Max to do so.