Hog Heaven

Once again, Colorado Swine Day is upon us, with its ceaseless rounds of pomp and ceremony, and--

No. Let's try that again.
Colorado Swine Day dawns bright and cloudless, the sort of spring day that sets the sourest of pusses to purrin'. "Why, fry me up a half-pound of bacon, honey," murmured Dr. Steve Dritz, DVM, as he suited up for the annual festivities. "It's going to be another wonderful, informative day, just like it is every year."

How about this? National Swine Day is getting to be too much. If it isn't Managing Pig Variation at Weaning and Marketing, it's Swine Nutrition Update, and everyone knows what a mob scene that will be.

But will it? I reread the latest issue of Primarily Pork, trying to distill its porcine essence. Really, it's pretty simple. April 7 is Colorado Swine Day, with the state celebration scheduled for the Limon Community Center. (National Swine Day will be held in Des Moines, as usual. Des Moines always hogs National Swine Day.) The Limon festivities are to run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the Colorado Pork Producers Council has extended a special invitation to "Westword or current boxholder."

It's tempting. This has been a big pig of a year, what with all those hog-farm debates during the last election and the subsequent regulatory wallows at the Capitol. But the Limon program will focus on commercial pork production--Denny's "Breakfast Skillet" promotion alone will be responsible for 1.5 million pounds of pork consumed in the coming months--and other "positive pork impressions" that, quite frankly, seem a bit mainstream. As I chew on this, I begin to think that I might find more positive pork impressions much closer to home.

And so, on official Colorado Swine Day, I set out to report, to celebrate, to perceive pork. It is going to be a full day.

7:30 a.m.: After a bacon-heavy breakfast, I venture out to find an extremely large pig that is rumored to live in the nearby foothills with someone named Priscilla Senner. At 7:35 a.m. I spot a raven-haired woman headed into a blue barn that is not tall enough for a horse.

"Are you Priscilla?" I ask out the car window.
She nods.
"Well, it's National Swine Day!" I yell, pleased at myself but forgetting for a moment that it's only State Swine Day.

"Is not," she says. "National Pig Day is March 1. It's a real holiday. Look it up."

A passenger's side fact-check reveals that this year's National Swine Day celebrations are scheduled for June 10-12 in Des Moines (of course). I find no mention of a Pig Day per se.

"Well," I say, switching tactics, "can I talk to the pig?"
"Come back this afternoon," she says. "I have to tidy his pig parlor."
8:30 a.m.: I debrief with a friend who is a vet but says she does not want her name used as soon as I tell her what I'm researching.

"I won't work with pigs," she says. "And I don't want it to seem as if I'm unkind to animals."

"Well, are you?"
"No," she decides. "It's just that pigs smell bad. And sometimes they're mean."

"Mean how?"
"They try to bite you. It would be tough to be a pig around here, though," she adds, making a play to sound sympathetic. "The climate's too cold."

"What about all those pig outfits on the eastern plains?"
"The pigs are there because not many people are there. No one wants to be near the smell."

We fall silent for a moment. I am thinking about what possibilities my day may yet hold. Specifically, lunch. I don't know what she's thinking, but then she suddenly says, "Did you know a pig has a corkscrew penis?" The rest of the conversation becomes unprintable.

11:30 a.m.: Just before lunch--a BLT!--I treat myself to an algae massage, during which the conversation turns to pigs, as it often must, because the massage therapist leaps into the topic with vigor.

"I have looked into the eyes of a pig," she says. "I saw immediately that it had a soul. I saw that it wasn't happy, if not suffering. It made me think that pigs are pretty smart. This was at the stock show," she adds for clarification.

2 p.m.: Right now, in Limon, Dr. James Mintert of KSU Extension is halfway through his talk on Livestock Marketing. I am selling myself on another BLT.

4 p.m.: Priscilla is ready to receive me. It is clearly not the first time her pig has been approached by the media. "We got him just twelve years ago," she begins to recite, "and he just grew and grew and grew. He is twelve years old now, the oldest pig that the University of Iowa, or anyone else in pigdom, knows about."

I am ushered into the blue barn, where, in the half-light, I see Winston, a gigantic white pig, lounging in the straw. His ears look--"like satellite dishes," Priscilla supplies. "He is a Duroc-Chester. That's D-U-R-O-C. He's white. He has a godmother and a godfather."

The Pig Godfather--that sounds menacing, but isn't, at least in this case--is standing in the pig parlor with us. His name is Tom Muller, M-U-L-L-E-R. His duties include presiding over Winston's two annual official functions: a formal dinner and a Fourth of July picnic.

"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.

"I sleep with these pigs, right between them," Ben announces. "It's nice. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer."

"His ex used to come over and sleep with Jimmy every Wednesday night, and it was kind of sweet," the roommate says grudgingly. "The sweet noises he made, the grunts--it was very loving. But then she moved to Wyoming."

The ex, not the pig.
8 p.m.: With the kids nestled under their eiderdowns and the sun having sunk in the western hills, I throw one last pork chop bone to the dogs and--

No, wait.
And thus we see, after another successful Colorado Swine Day, that the hog is our friend, a productive member of the agrarian society deserving of positive--

Still not right.
How about another


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