Animal Studies Bibliography

Mizelle, Brett. 2011. Pig. Reaktion.
(Summarized by Ian Werkheiser, Animal Studies Program, Michigan State University)

In Pig, Brett Mizelle discusses the biology of pigs, as well as their physical and symbolic relationship with humans. He focuses on how intertwined our species is with theirs, and how they have shaped us as much as we have shaped them.

One of the first interesting things the book points out is that the category “pig” is itself a social construct. Wild members of the family suidae have been domesticated at different times approximately 9,000 years ago, in different places, from different species of wild boars, producing a wide heterogeneity of pigs. This heterogeneity has been complicated through selective breeding for different characteristics and interbreeding between different kinds of pigs for thousands of years. The result was animals that were radically different from one another across the globe, yet who can still interbreed with many different species of wild boar, and which can quickly re-wild if they escape (indeed, feral pigs are now, according to the book, one of the most dangerous invasive species in the world). So the designation of “pig” is largely dependent on whether a given animal happens to belong to a human, and if the society of which she is a member calls her animal a “pig.”

In this, they are very similar to dogs, and the book also points out that pigs most likely were domesticated the same way dogs were, when scavengers near human encampments became increasingly friendly, rather than herds which were rounded up and controlled in the cases of cattle or sheep. In recent times, the wide variety of kinds of pigs has been greatly reduced as the standardization and industrialization of pork production has pushed for uniformity in breed used. However, in the last few years there has been something of a renaissance in “heritage breeds” as people clamor for lost local connection, healthier animals, variety, and arguably a new form of enchantment and fetishization of the pork they buy.

Pigs and humans have a long and intimate relationship with each other. Globally, it is the most commonly eaten meat, and used to be in the US as well, though it is currently third domestically. In many cultures pork is the primary and nearly sole source of meat. Pigs live, according to the book, on every continent except Antarctica (though the book does not mention that pigs used to live at least on some of the islands that make up part of the Antarctic on whaling bases, making their continental presence complete.) In addition to consuming pigs, humans use the animals in many other ways as well. Pigs’ keen sense of smell makes them useful at finding anything from truffles to bombs, and their similarity to humans biologically has led to experimentation, processing, and transplantation in various medical technologies. Perhaps the most troubling cooperation between pigs and humans (to us, at least) is in the creation of new diseases. Again, due to our biological similarity, viruses cross more easily between us and pigs than with other domesticated animals, and our methods of farming these animals has greatly increased their risk of disease, and therefore ours.

In talking about the physical relationship between pigs and humans it’s necessary to talk about farming. Pig farming has been an important activity throughout recorded human history, though its nature and significance has changed considerably. Pigs are remarkably easy to care for, and in low-density populations can forage for themselves during the day and return at night. If there is not enough wooded area to let them roam, they can also be fed on scraps of human food. As a result they are a staple of poor, individual families and a way for them to provide food for themselves. Indeed, central governments attempting to keep control of their population have often frowned on and even forbidden the keeping of a family pig, in civilizations ranging fromancient Egypt to the Soviet Union. In our culture as well, a process of consolidation has been going on for some time.
In urban areas in the US, regulations limiting or banning pigs were a contentious issue, as the aesthetic interests of the wealthy combated the poor’s desire to be able to feed themselves (interestingly, the book says that when pig bans were put into effect, public sanitation got worse, as refuse in the streets was no longer eaten by wandering pigs.) In the countryside, after the Civil War, industrial production methods such as the “disassembly line” allowed a few powerful meatpackers in Chicago to take over the small-scale operations primarily centered in Cleveland (which was so well known for its pork processing that the city’s nickname used to be “Porkopolis”).Over time, there has been a similar consolidation in farms as a few major companies take over. They can do so because only major companies can afford the capital outlay to maximize profits with things like Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) which use Taylorist efficiency to turn pigs into units of meat production with minimum inputs and maximum outputs.

All this, of course, has had an effect on the pigs themselves. The book tells us that today more than 90 percent of all commercial pigs are bred via artificial insemination for several reasons: to control genetic uniformity, to keep the pigs separate as much as possible to prevent giving disease to a prize boar, and to allow them to manipulate the genes they are passing on--for example, a gene for stress and panic has been removed to keep the flesh better-tasting despite the stressful living conditions they’re kept in. Modern industrial pigs’ muscles convert feed to maximize protein and minimize fat, producing a very lean meat to keep up with consumer demands for healthy food. This “chickenification” of pigs has led to animals with many more health issues and meat with far fewer nutritive benefits, but has at least until recently been commercially successful for the producers (78).

While the book spends a considerable amount of time on the material relations between humans and pigs, it is clear that humans’ tendency to think with pigs is the author’s primary interest. Pigs are a very common symbol cross-culturally, from the Chinese Zodiac to Miss Piggy in The Muppets, and the book does an admirable job of giving a feeling for just how pervasive images of pigs are. Part of this is surely due to the (former) proximity of humans with pigs, but the book suggests that there is more going on. In many cultures, certainly, the pig is seen as a measure and symbolic representation of wealth and prosperity. In China the Pig is a very auspicious year to be born in, and in Papua New Guinea pigs are treated almost like family members, and when they are slaughtered it is done with great ceremony by strangers rather than the family itself, who also do not eat their own pig’s meat.

In our culture of course, pork is much celebrated, but pigs are looked down on as icons of filth, sexual licentiousness, and gluttony. The book suggests that some of the reason for this is how pigs behave when confined in terrible conditions (which can also make humans act quite badly), and possibly a latent guilt around our killing and consuming these creatures all too similar to ourselves. The book also briefly discusses prohibitions on eating pork or having contact with pigs in several semitic religions. The book argues that this ultimately began in the Egyptian prohibition against people eating pork, which (as was mentioned earlier) was implemented to centralize and control food. Now, though, the prohibition is much stronger, and a longer discussion of how pigs are conceived in these cultures would have been useful.

Pig does an excellent job showing how humans and pigs have co-evolved and been profound influences on each other over thousands of years. The recent road we have gone down has led to decreasing physical and emotional health in both species, and the book argues that wemay hopefully be at the beginning of a turn back to our roots, with a value and respect for the animals…at least until it comes time to slaughter them.


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