CAUTION: This post discusses the death of animals and may be too graphic for some readers.
I stood on top of a fresh grave as the sun began to set and the earth hardened beneath my feet with the drop in temperature. The sound of three metal shovels spearing heaps of dirt resounding. I leaned against the handle of my own tool and watched my husband and children loosen packed gravel that the backhoe had left, then sling it into a hole that began as the size of an SUV.
I remember seeing my breath as I turned around to glimpse the vibrant red sunset through the trees on our neighbor’s property. Did they have any idea what had gone on that day, just a few hundred feet from their home? Did they hear the gun shots? Did they smell the blood? Did they see me kneeling? Did they notice the light from the lantern we carried through the backyard in the middle of the night? Did they feel the tension in the air? That day, we were burying our pigs. It’s not something that we planned to do. But it was something that we did.
Pigs serve many purposes on a farm, but the primary purpose is to provide meat. They can turn unwanted or excess food that doesn’t store well (or is unpalatable to humans) into nutritious, delicious pork in record time with an amazing conversion rate. We rely on our pasture raised pork to feed us throughout the winter since we do not buy meat that we haven’t raised ourselves or know the history of personally. Living this closely to our food supply is important to us. And we had just buried over 400 lbs of meat that was meant to feed us in the upcoming year. But more importantly than that, we had buried animals that we had carefully selected, protected, provided for and made plans for. Those plans of course, did not include a grave.
It’s probably hard for people who have not raised animals for meat to understand why I cried when we shot these girls, but wouldn’t have, if it were done two months later. I’m not sure I can give the feeling justice- but I will try.
When you raise an animal on a farm (or a homestead, as our situation allows), you accept the animal into your life knowing that it is very unlikely that the animal will live into old age and die of natural causes. We do this because we care for livestock animals and their humane treatment. All living beings deserve to live a natural and fulfilling life, no matter their intended use. But we also care for our family’s health and self-sufficiency. If one of these two things didn’t matter to us, it would be much easier for us to turn a blind eye to where our food comes from and how we source it, and also to support many more pets than working animals on our land. However, a limited budget and minimal space mean that almost all animals that we care for need to have an output as great (or greater) than their input in order to sustain our system. Pigs play a crucial role for us and many other farmers since their input to output ratio is so substantial. They provide meat, lard, fertilizer, rototilling and re-purposing of food, all in 6-7 months. They are a great investment, and if you can manage to keep a breeder sow going, you can have an excellent replenishing system in your own backyard. (Plus, who can resist the idea of teeny tiny piglets bouncing about?)
Last summer, we decided to take the plunge and purchase two gilts (female pigs who have not yet been bred), with the idea that one of them may grow into a worthwhile breeder for us. We had raised several sets of feeder pigs and thought that we might be ready for the responsibility of caring for a keeper. We researched breeds, critiqued our past experiences and analyzed our goals. Then, finally, we came across a local litter that seemed like the perfect fit. THIS would be the foundation of something great. THESE would be our girls. WE would be in charge of what our food system would look like. We just needed to to grow them first.
Growing pigs is not a difficult thing to do. Even though heritage breeds tend to grow more slowly than commercial breeds do, they still pack on the pounds rather quickly. A weaned piglet weighs about 50 lbs. at 8 weeks of age and by six months of age they typically hover around the 200 lb mark. This is a faster growth rate than just about any other livestock animal on the planet. The other great thing about pigs is that they are omnivores. They eat just about anything you can throw at them. Their nutritional needs compliment the ideal human diet, which means that they do well when eating kitchen scraps and homegrown food. However, unfortunately, their indiscriminate pallet can also get them into trouble. This is what we believe happened to our girls.
Shortly after we had processed and packaged our spring pigs, we decided that it was time to move the gilts that were staying through the winter into the more secure area where our previous animals had stayed. Harley built a new wooden fence, strung the electric wire and hung a new gate. We cleaned out the hut and brought in fresh food and water. When it was time to move the pigs themselves, we simply opened the gate, shook a little bit of grain into a bowl, and they followed us willingly into their new enclosure. They were good pigs. They trusted us. Two weeks later, they were dead.
Winter had finally come to Massachusetts by the end of December. The mornings were frosty and the ground was frozen. A thick layer of ice pooled in the low spots that were once muddy wading areas used by the summer pigs for cooling down. The two newly adapted adolescent gilts spent a lot of their time snuggled up together under a hay blanket. When I brought their breakfast out to them one morning and neither of them came out to see what was on the menu, I chalked it up to the cold spell and made a mental note to check on them again later. After a quick round of chores and tending to the other animals, I returned to find a writhing pink mass paddling on the ice, snorting and panting while trying to regain her footing. Rushing into the pen, I fell at her side and instinctively began to try to push her up and off of the ice. Unable to get any traction between her skin and my gloves, I shrugged them off and slid my bare hands along the ice and pushed her as hard as I could, aiming for the textured snow, hoping that she would be able to stand more easily on a different surface. But 200 lbs of convulsing muscle that had no will to work with me was not budging. Her skin was reddening and her shivering intensified. I grabbed handfuls of hay and shoved them under her so that she was not laying directly on the ice. I went inside to wake Harley and together, somehow, we hoisted her back into the hut to warm up. Our thought was that she had somehow slipped on the ice and broken a bone or punctured a lung. It didn’t take long for us to recognize the signs of extreme distress and the rapid decline of her will to live. Less than ten minutes later, we dragged her back out of the hut and ended her suffering with a well placed bullet to the forehead.
We were still in shock that our seemingly healthy, almost fully grown, 6 month old pig was suddenly dead. It was a loss, but the adrenaline of taking action and the relief of ending such pain masked our sadness as we began to accept the most recent events. She was gone. Whether by a heart attack, a bad fall, or a bloated stomach- her body was unable to recover. Thinking that it was likely something physical that had caused her sudden turn for the worse, we butchered her body and consoled ourselves that at least her meat would not go to waste. I examined her internal organs and took mental note that her heart seemed to be an unnatural color and her intestines appeared to be bloated. But neither of those things was out of the ordinary for a recently deceased animal. Her carcass hung in two halves in the freezing mid day air by the time we went back inside to warm our frozen hands and wrack our tired minds.
Throughout this ordeal, our second pig lied quietly in the corner of her hut. We did not think to check her for symptoms, assuming that the stress of what had just happened was keeping her subdued. That is, until she started wobbling around. I stared blankly out the kitchen window in the direction of the pig pen as I continued to analyze what could have caused such a problem. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed our remaining gilt struggling to her feet and wavering back and forth as she stumbled back to her house. It was happening again. But differently. We had either caught this pig in the early stages of whatever this was, or she was showing more variable symptoms than the first pig had. We called the farm vet and described everything that had happened that day, hoping that this one- my favorite one, was able to be saved.
From the description of the symptoms, the vet concluded that it was very likely toxicity of some kind. The pigs had eaten something poisonous that was attacking their body from the inside out. But what on earth could they have gotten into? The ground was frozen and the only things they had eaten, to our knowledge, were things that we had fed them. They ate bagged pig grower grain and kitchen scraps. Is there a secret list of poisonous foods for pigs somewhere? We checked. The only thing that came up was raw potatoes, which we had known about before and avoided. There was a list of poisonous plants, a few of which we did have growing around the pen during the summer, but being 6 months after another round of pigs had dug up most of what was in the area already, we didn’t think there was much left for them to find. One potential that sounded feasible, was pokeweed, a common type of nightshade. During the winter when the top of the plant has died back, the plant stores energy in it’s roots, making the toxins (phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin) that much more concentrated. Perhaps the pigs had been bored and managed to dig up some roots through the semi-frozen ground. The only other thing that we could think of was that their grain did get rained on in the back of the truck after we bought it at the feed store. It looked okay, but it was possible that the moisture encouraged the feed to become a breeding ground for mold and microtoxins that are not easily noticeable. In either case, these animals had became lethally ill after being moved into a pen that we locked them into, or eating tainted grain that we hand fed them. Did we poison our pigs? Was this our fault? The weight of this conclusion was beginning to build.
We were now faced with the task of trying to save our remaining animal. She was sick, but she wasn’t yet suffering and we thought there was a chance to treat her. Since her symptoms were more mild than her sister’s were, it likely meant that she had eaten less of the toxic substance and could potentially pull through. We watched her closely for a few hours. She lied quietly in the hay, shivering at times and breathing slowly, but heavily. By the evening her temperature had dropped to several degrees below normal, so we tried to warm her up with blankets and hot water bottles. She wasn’t interested in food or water, and was likely becoming dehydrated. The vet suggested that we try giving her activated charcoal to try to absorb any toxins that might be left in her stomach. I mixed up some charcoal with mineral oil and used a syringe to squeeze it into her esophagus, hoping it would not run down her trachea instead. She did not resist, but did not swallow either. The sticky black goo stuck to her gums and formed elastic strings between her lips as she opened her mouth wide with each breath. Her rib cage swelled as her lungs filled with air and she gasped audibly with every effort. Our good friends happened to have some Banomine on hand to lend us, which the vet also recommended for pain relief. This was to be my first experience giving a pig an injection. This medication should be given straight into the muscle, so I picked a spot on her neck that was easy to access and jabbed it into her. The plunger of the syringe did not depress, meaning I had not actually made it into the muscle. She had a thick layer of fat between her skin and her tissue that was blocking the end of the needle. I selected another area of her body and tried again. This time the medicine flowed freely into her upper thigh. Harley and I stayed with her a little bit longer, catching each others worried eyes in the darkness, stroking her gently and giving her encouraging words. I prepared myself for a night of worry and a dead pig by morning.
Waking to find a dead pig probably would have been easier. Instead she was worse. Her breathing had slowed to only once every 4-5 seconds and her temperature was below 90 degrees F. I didn’t even realize that was possible. One more call to the vet confirmed that it was indeed possible, but that it meant that her organs were shutting down and death was imminent. We took one more look at each other and nodded, separately, that it was time. Harley squeezed into the hut with her, removed the blankets that we had carefully covered her in, and turned her body so that her face was looking out the door at us. The thing about shooting a pig is that you always do it when they are looking straight at you. There is no way to avoid eye contact when you are aiming a gun in between them. You have to be absolutely committed to the act and make peace with the decision of taking a life before you raise the rifle.
She didn’t have a lot of fight left in her. Her body twitched, her legs paddled and blood dripped down her forehead. After it was done, we dragged her body from the hut and took some time alone. I examined her organs and her stomach contents, desperate to know the cause of her illness. There was a lot of grain, a few pieces of plant matter, and some leftover kitchen scraps from our dinner the night before. Nothing out of the ordinary. And so we buried the girls. The one that we had butchered the day before was also likely unsafe to eat if she had been poisoned. Two beautiful animals and hundreds of pounds of meat consumed by the land instead of our family.
I cried. I cried over losing a pig that was destined to meet the same fate in the end sooner or later. Even then I thought it was ironic. “I’m crying over a stupid pig” I said. But we both knew that she wasn’t a stupid pig. It was my anger, disappointment, frustration and guilt that was talking. So much guilt. It would be easy to say that there was nothing we could have done, that things happen and we shouldn’t blame ourselves. Some very well meaning people told us that very thing. But I believe it’s up to us, as guardians and caretakers for these animals, to question every decision and every action we make concerning their care. We made some good choices and, obviously, some bad ones. We chose to ignore the pokeweed that had grown around the pig pen, knowing that it was a toxic plant, but observing that the other pigs hadn’t tried to eat it, so we thought we were safe. We chose to feed grain that had been rained on, knowing that moisture plus food is a recipe for rancidity, but since it looked and smelled okay, so we thought we were safe. We chose to neglect the second pig after the first one died, assuming that she was fine and whatever caused the first pig’s problem was a non-contagious accident, so we thought we were safe. I wonder a lot about what would have happened if we had made different decisions in these cases. What if we hadn’t moved the gilts into the other pen? What if we hadn’t fed that questionable grain? What if we had checked the second pig sooner, or called the vet immediately? What if…
You could drive yourself crazy with that question. I won’t continue to beat myself up over it, but I won’t ignore it either. We learned a lot from this experience and we will do our best to make better decisions as we go on. Living life this close to our food supply is not only eye opening, but emotional and HARD. It is not for everyone. But it is for us. Every lesson we learn makes us better at it. Playing with lives is no joke and the amount of responsibility we feel is oppressive at times. But we go on. We live and we learn and we grow- feeling the weight of our own little world on our shoulders.