It’s a misty day in October, and after an early-morning bike ride across town, a subway trip to the ‘burbs, and a cramped hour-long car trip through the surprisingly lush woods of Maryland, I – bulky boots, light jacket, notepad – have finally arrived at the Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary. Standing next to me are five other Woolly Mammoth associates, many with notebooks, phone-cameras, phone-video-cameras, or expensive-looking microphones that look like they came out of Ghostbusters. In front of us: an entire barn full of 50 impossibly large sleeping pigs.
As we hope everyone knows by now – ‘cause it’s fantastic – the current Woolly show, Jason Grote’s Civilization (all you can eat) centers around a pig. A talking pig. A whole pig chorus, actually, in Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz’s production. So, we had our research cut out for us: the cast, especially the rigorous Sarah Marshall, needed to know a whole lot about these characters. So, we took a morning to get out to Poplar Springs and observe these animals – most of them rescues from farms, including the sort of massive industrial farm Sarah Marshall’s character lives his life. I walked away in a bit of a daze. I like animals well enough – dogs are the best, the zoo is a solid cheap date, I have a working relationship with my housemate’s cat – but had never felt so fascinated by an animal.
To explain: Pigs are amazing.
Pigs are smart. Smarter than dogs. Smarter than three-year-old humans. About as smart as chimpanzees. They are legendary for opening latches of their pens – which might not seem like such a big deal. But consider this: they will often discover that it’s easier to manipulate latches as pairs, and will undo the latches of fellow pigs. In 1789, a farmer documented a female pig who undid a series of gates so that she could visit a certain male pig every night — and then re-latched the latches as she returned to her own pen before dawn. (Foer, Eating Animals, 64)
Unlike most animals, pigs can quickly work out how mirrors work and use them to find food. Not only can they keep track of many different, well-buried food stores, if one pig spies another pig going towards her own food store, the first pig will manage to throw the second pig off her trail while the first pig tries to steal the food. Farmers have learned that a pig cannot be killed anywhere close to where the other pigs are kept, since a pig will scream and become impossibly uncooperative if it feels nearby pigs are in danger. They have been taught to “jump hoops, bow and stand, spin and make wordlike sounds on command, roll out rugs, herd sheep, and play video games with joysticks modified for pig snouts,” lists a New York Times article on the subject.
They are also known for their excellent memories. It can be very difficult to make a pig forget a traumatic incident – or simply information you don’t want the pig to have. Terry Cummings, the director of Poplar Springs, told us about a period after they had received a surprise shipment of 180 young pigs (they normally have around 50.) Terry discovered that when she brought food to the pigs, the same pigs kept getting to her first and crowding out the others, so that some pigs couldn’t eat. The next day, she fed the pigs from the other side of the barn, but a day after that, the greedy pigs were waiting for her. She kept trying to find new places to arrive with the food, but in response, pigs would keep waking up before her and keeping eyes out all windows, squealing when they saw her coming from a certain direction.
They are clean: the idea that pigs are dirty animals is a myth. Pigs do like to get muddy. They can’t sweat, so it’s a way for them to cool down in hot weather. But the expression “happy as a pig in shit” is enormously misleading — pigs are excellent at keeping their excrement away from where they bathe, eat, and sleep.
They can go wild. Pigs can go feral with remarkable speed. If you are hunting a 300 lb. boar, with enormous tusks and thick black hair, that boar could well be an escaped industrial-born pig. Because of hybridization, the question of whether domesticated pigs count as a separate species than wild boar is quite complicated. When a pig escapes a factory farm, it typically loses weight, since its fat gets transferred into muscle.
More amazing stuff about pigs:
-They can grow up to 750 lbs (or 1000 lbs, if you believe this guy.)
-They are omnivores, though in the wild, they are foragers and chiefly eat plants (animal matter makes up no more than 10% of their diet.) This means they move around a lot, and in their natural state are very lean and muscular. Domesticated pigs are usually fat because they don’t get to move when they’re farmed.
-Their snout is remarkably sensitive and flexible. Remember, they are used to hunt for truffles!
-A boar can sprint up to 15 miles per hour.
-In social groups, pigs can display aggression or submission in a way similar to wolves/dogs. As a website for pet-pig owners explains, “You’ll need to set yourself up as Alpha Pig early on in the relationship.”
Which brings me to the most intriguing fact about pigs:
They make fantastic pets. Though there are a couple unusual problems to deal with (i.e. their need to roll in mud on a regular basis), they are loyal, do tricks, easily pick up commands, and can be litter-box-trained. Hmmmmmmmmmm……
~ Doug Eacho, Assistant to the Artistic Director and Assistant Dramaturg of Civilization (all you can eat)