Ask which domesticated animal is most like humans, and the answer comes quickly: “Dogs!” Like us, dogs live in hierarchical packs, thrive on affection, and are smarter than the average cow, sheep, or goat. Yet all this is also true of the pig.
Far from the farm, we have forgotten our friend, and Lesser Beasts brings home the full force of the word “lesser.” A journalist and historian by training, Mark Essig tells a story that reads a bit like a morality fable about animals, like those from Aesop or Animal Farm. In a clear and charming voice, he provides the science and history of pigs in human civilization and reveals, along the way, the snobbery at the root of much of human evil.
Wild pigs ate acorns in the forest. They domesticated themselves in our first villages, eating human sewage. At the dawn of agriculture in the Near East, when the ruling dynasties fell into chaos and interdependent herding systems failed, villagers survived on pig meat. Pigs turned waste into meat and sustained the poor.
That’s an alchemy worthy of gratitude, at least, if not worship. Instead, pigs became the symbol of all that was despised. According to a report from Herodotus, an upper-class Egyptian man, after brushing accidentally against a pig, “rushed into the Nile fully clothed to cleanse himself.” In India, the Hindus beatified the cow, associated with the rich.
Remember that these ancient people didn’t have our knowledge of hygiene and disease; pig meat wasn’t especially unsafe. In his discussion of the origins of kashrut, for example, Essig notes a consensus among scholars that trichinosis wasn’t the problem. For Jews, the issue was that pigs, like us, are omnivores. (In fact, our meat tastes similar enough that Maori and Polynesian cannibals have referred to humans as “long pig.”) Adam and Eve were vegetarian; the Jews could do the next best thing and eat only vegetarian animals, those that chew the cud, and so keep themselves pure enough for the temple. The subsequent Muslim prohibition may have been a form of class control, since pigs gave the poor an independent food supply.
In Essig’s account, the low status of pigs seems really about status, not cleanliness. In medieval times, pigs ate the corpses of executed heretics, suicides, and other “lesser” creatures that were thrown out to rot. In the same period, Christians derided Jews, the people who didn’t eat pork, as pigs, while they ate the pigs that ate the corpses.
Pigs do the hard, early work. Only with pigs could we have conquered the Americas, Essig maintains, describing how pigs came to the Dominican Republic, carried by Christopher Columbus himself:
Sheep, like wheat, wilted in the damp heat. Cattle showed more promise but would need a few generations to acclimate. . . . Pigs never missed a beat. As soon as their cloven hooves landed in the soft jungle mud of the Caribbean islands, they started eating and breeding.
In 1609, a ship on a mission to bring supplies to starving colonists in Jamestown ran aground near Bermuda. The stranded sailors were overjoyed to find pigs, “descendants of a batch left by the Spanish a century before.” Pigs fed the Spanish soldiers, trailing along at the rear of their columns. Later, “pork served as food for colonists and a commodity for export, while the pigs themselves became a pestilence, helping to drive away the native peoples and clear the land for the English.” To this day, the Southern states still honor that pioneer diet, based on corn transmuted into bourbon and pork barbecue.
Americans are crueler to pigs now that we don’t need them to survive. Essig isn’t preachy, though; I’m taking on that job. Making his case against today’s standard commercial facilities, he remains calm and sticks to facts. Sows now spend nearly all of their lives in two-by-seven-foot crates, something like an airplane seat. “Sows cannot walk or even turn around,” he writes.
They cannot groom themselves or interact with other sows. They can only stand up, lie down, eat, and defecate. . . . Cruelty is built into the system. . . . If the history of the pig tells us nothing else, it is that these animals can make do just about anywhere, eating just about anything. Thus far, however, pigs have failed to adapt to tiny crates, crowded pens, slatted floors, and ammonia-saturated air.
In his memoir A Leg to Stand On, Oliver Sacks tells the story of breaking his leg while alone on a mountain. Afraid for his life, he recalls seeing a small animal on the road,