Hog Heaven

"That's PIGnic," Priscilla says, waiting while I write it down. As I do, I observe that, as far as I can tell, my vet friend is wrong--there is no awful odor anywhere in the parlor. It smells homey and barn-like, rather the way I imagine Wilbur's domain in Charlotte's Web smelled. Except that was far less formal than Winston's setup, which includes a green-painted observation deck, two lawn chairs, a small dish of candy for visitors, and a selection of pig-based painting and sculpture on the walls.

"Children as well as adults come and talk things over with Winston," Priscilla continues. "He's something of a psychologist. Pigs are very neat. They defecate only in one place, and that place, for Winston, is outside. In Germany, a pig is equivalent to a rabbit's foot. Very lucky. Albert Einstein had a pig."

"He knows right from left," Godfather Muller adds. "And when he stands up, he's unbelievably huge. As tall as a small car. Come on, Winston, stand up!"

But Winston has just eaten and prefers to lie down, grunting. He is, as they say, some pig. Since most pigs are raised to be eaten or to be bred, no one has ever heard of a pig living to Winston's amazing age without serving any purpose other than a social one.

"The first time I called the University of Iowa with a dental question," Priscilla recalls, "I said, 'I have an 800-pound pig that is twelve years old,' and they said, 'Wait a minute, there is no such thing.' The question has always been: If you just let a pig live, how old is old?"

"What is it with the University of Iowa?" I ask. Both Priscilla and the Godfather just look at me, as if to say: Where else would you go for the ultimate word on pigs? (I have briefly forgotten about Des Moines.)

"He's amazingly big," the Godfather eventually repeats. "He will only eat a baked potato if it has butter on it."

"The local chapter of the Harley Owner's Group--that's H-O-G--likes to come over and drink beer with Winston," Priscilla adds. "Beer is grain-based. Pigs like it."

On a tour of the rest of the place, which includes a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Pamela who was supposed to be Winston's companion but bit him instead, I learn that pigs can indeed be finicky. That their eyesight is bad. That they burrow. That the current craze for small-pig ownership has resulted in the wholesale abandonment of pigs. (I do not learn anything more about their penises.)

"People think, let's get a pig--it'll be like a dog," Priscilla says sadly. "They're not like a dog. They're like a pig. They root stuff out of drawers. That's what pigs do."

5 p.m.: On the road again, I remember reading a description of a pig rooting through a man's clothing in this very week's New Yorker. A nonfiction piece! Pig tidbits are everywhere. Springtime is pork time. Perhaps, for dinner, the Other White Meat?

5:15 p.m.: I arrive at Ben Raverinni's place on the side of a mountain. Ben pumps things out for a living--septic tanks, cesspools, drains. As an avocation, he befriends animals. Sleeping dogs are scattered around his bedroom and kitchen like throw rugs. Two pigs trot by purposefully, on a circuit that takes them through the house and out into a mud-packed yard and back again. Visitors come and go, none at all surprised by the roaming pigs.

"That's our Y2K solution right there," one guy laughs. "Old Jimmy should keep us going for at least a couple of weeks."

"His name," says Ben, "is Jimmy Dean. I got him from the woman that owns Shotgun Willie's. Her pig had babies, and she talked my ex into taking one. I could kill her for that! I hope he dies tomorrow." But he says this with obvious affection.

"So then a year ago," he continues, "my ex, who is a pet groomer, gets a call from the Humane Society in Fort Collins. They had twelve pigs, and she found homes for all of them."

The thirteenth pig was a more extreme case. "She weighed only twenty pounds," Ben recalls. "It was like watching people in a concentration camp. I could break the legs of the people who did this to her."

At this point she chugs by, her belly nearly dragging the ground. Sweet Pea, as the rescued pig came to be called, rallied. She has even managed to go back into heat again, "which makes her act nice," Ben says. "You'd think she'd be anti-everything after what she went through. But, no. She's very lovable."

"No, she isn't," Ben's female roommate says. "She doesn't do nothing. She just lays there."

Ben just looks at his human roommate. What she has said is so untrue, such a slur of his pigs that--well, he'll demonstrate. Jimmy Dean can SIT. Sit! Sit, Jimmy Dean.

Jimmy Dean stands. Okay, fine. But then he eats a banana, and an apple, directly out of Ben's mouth, which is not something you see a pig do every day.

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