Digital Ischemia

21/02/2019

Pigs

My daughter acquired a piglet. On her way home from school, there was a commotion: a livestock transporter had taken a wrong turn and jackknifed around the mini roundabout at the bottom of our hill. With the precarious leaning and the altercation with a lamppost, one of the doors had swung open and some disoriented captives had spilled out. Piglets make an attention-grabbing noise at the best of times and one in particular was stumbling in a circle and squealing its distress most querulously. My daughter couldn’t resist trying to comfort the poor creature. Assessing the scene, she decided that the lorry was destined for the abattoir. Fired with a passion of injustice, she took the executive decision to liberate the piglet by stuffing it up her jumper.

I peered around the door frame of the back kitchen, wondering about the source of the splashing and squeaking. Molly gazed back with the frozen terror of anticipated parental diatribe. Actually my only injunctions were that she could not move it from one place of captivity to another, i.e. it was not going to live in a cage, and that unfortunately she could not release it into the wild, it not being wild. Here she pointed out that ‘it’ was actually ‘she’, because of the neat array of studs across her belly.

Not knowing what stage of weaning the piglet was at, we could only offer water, but that seemed welcome, along with an old towel for comfort. Whatever exactly had happened to her, she must have been traumatised having been separated from whomever and whatever she had been familiar with. The distressed squealing only subsided while Molly was with her so we found ourselves at that impasse. 

My best advice was that she contact the farmer whose land abuts our wilderness garden. Angus Strachan has a gait you can recognise literally a kilometre away. You can’t stride across heather moor and machair. Consequently he has achieved this efficient pumping effort, so that he appears like a tweed-upholstered steam engine: pistons at the bottom, whistle at the top.

Less than an hour after Molly called in our predicament, Angus scissored over the back fence, dragging an empty plastic bin and bearing a huge sack over his shoulder. Apparently this feed would cover all the basics, and could be supplemented with a wide range of kitchen scraps.

By this time Molly had named her new companion Penelope. Recognising that Penelope sharing her bedroom would not be an option, she plotted and presented me with an irrefutable plan. She would set up her brother’s sleeping bag in the back kitchen and the pair of them would magically and hygienically bond.

While we pondered what would be required for a longer term solution, with Angus contributing his invaluable knowledge, Bill Janney, our community policeman, rang the bell. He was trying so hard to stifle a smirk that he appeared, quite misleadingly, to be winking at me. He carefully explained about the navigational incident, the wandering livestock, the chagrined driver, the irate farmer, and asked if I’d seen any unattended farm animals. He seemed less concerned about welfare and more about the repercussions of transport stupidity. I stifled my own smirk and equally carefully responded that, notwithstanding my personal philosophy that one creature cannot be owned by another, I had not seen any domesticated animals owned by any local livestock farmers wandering about unattended. There was no comedically-timed oinking off-stage, but I feel it would not have changed anything. Still smirking, Bill issued the standard advice to call him rather than approach any such individuals, and set off back down the hill, to visit the houses on the other side.

I returned to the back kitchen conference, where Angus had just been struck by inspiration. A land owner over towards the Cairngorms had recently established a herd – if that is the correct collective noun – of pigs to roam about certain areas of his estate, performing land management functions such as thinning out scrub and saplings from the wooded areas and churning the boggier soil to increase the diversity of wild flowers.

Fairly soon we met Trish, the land owner, approved her livestock-conservation experiment, shared ethics and thankfully found Penelope would be welcomed as the member of that herd. Several visits ensued to acclimatise Penelope and gradually leave her with her new family for longer periods of time.

For a couple of weeks Penelope settled in fine. Molly visited her at weekends by charming Angus into giving her a lift on a series of pretexts. We were all happy that she was squealing less and gaining weight.

Then. The third weekend my son Nicky and I happened to go along too. I delayed the outing by some tedious domestic admin. When we arrived Jim the herd was just coming into view, so Molly was excited to greet Penelope on her return from foraging. However, Penelope was missing. Jim tried to cover his concerns. Standard procedure in these circumstances: settle the rest of the herd in their quarters safely, then head back out to search.

Penelope, bless her, we could hear from some distance. With Molly echoing, we reached a crescendo of cacophony. Jim and Nicky triangulated Penelope’s squeals to a drainage gulley surrounded by a few ancient pines. She was standing in the base of the gulley, among long grass, beside a pile of scrub trimmings, quivering with terror. The gulley wasn’t especially deep or enclosed, and Penelope didn’t appear injured, so we were baffled why she hadn’t rejoined the herd.

Molly rushed up to try to comfort Penelope. Jim and I wandered around looking for any indication of the cause. I didn’t know what I was looking for and Jim was similarly non-plussed. For once, being lifted and petted made Penelope even noisier. Any attempt to take her away produced unbearable squeals. Nicky ranged through the scrub clicking his camera compulsively and somehow the lens saw what we didn’t. Hiding, cowering under a thick bush was a smaller piglet with a darker complexion.

Molly’s eyebrows lowered just like her father’s. The obvious accusation was that Jim couldn’t count or didn’t count carefully enough. He tactfully, and with relief, pointed out that this piglet was not one of the herd.

Leaving Nicky circling Molly and the two piglets, in a kind of camera corral, Jim and I searched further. We were so thankful that we had left Molly behind when we discovered the carnage. A sow with mutilated head and limbs lay at the side of a small clearing. Several similarly eviscerated piglets were strewn nearby. I was overcome with nausea and had to walk away. Jim had a stronger constitution and could make a detailed visual assessment.

Jim told me that this massacre was not wild animals: no fox or wild cat would do such damage and leave the meat. Realising what he meant brought me another wave of nausea. The only animal that tortures other animals for amusement is humans.

We would need a vet to confirm with autopsies and we would need a trailer to recover the bodies. We collected Molly; the two piglets seemed less distressed so long as they were together. Jim quietly asked Nicky if he felt able to chronicle the massacre.

In the dazzle of shock, I found myself standing inside the fence around the pig pen, staring out across the moor. The fence wood felt less comforting than I needed; it hadn’t been enough protection. Some of the herd wandered around oblivious. Molly had taken the two piglets somewhere dark and cosy to try to soothe them. My mind homed in on one incongruity: how did a pregnant or nursing sow end up there?

When Jim reappeared, he looked horribly haggard, and was thinking along the same line: he’d contacted the three neighbouring farms and enquired carefully if they were missing a piglet. Farmers value livestock, even if only financially, and none of them were missing anything. Jim had made a joke of it, as if it was as likely, as Molly had silently accused him, that he had simply miscounted. The fact that he hadn’t mentioned multiple piglets or the sow confirmed my fears. He wasn’t ready to announce the find yet.

Livestock owners don’t misplace sows. I thought of the livestock transporter: was it possible that this sow had escaped from there? Jim thought it hugely unlikely that any pig would walk thirty miles. I called Bill Janney, the policeman, and used the same line about a possible extra piglet. Like the farmers, he had no claim. The contents of the transporter had been accounted for, apparently notwithstanding Penelope.

Whoever ‘owned’ this terribly unfortunate creature didn’t care. It appeared that the sow had been released by someone who didn’t know or didn’t care about her condition; not that her treatment was any more acceptable had she not been pregnant or nursing. We stared at each other, trying to penetrate a mindset that was entirely alien to us.

Jim surprised me by asking me what we should do. It wasn’t deference; I didn’t employ him. I think he was genuinely bewildered. All I could think was “get them, get them, get them.” I asked him if there was such a thing as a forensic pathologist vet. He knew someone at the University, and she was on her way over. She could advise who else ought to be notified, but despite the glaring wrongness of the situation, we couldn’t assess which crime might have been committed.

Jim took Helen, the specialist vet, over to the discovery site. The three of us made to go home. I expected Molly to make undeniable demands for Penelope and Peter, the new orphan, to return home with us. However, without having seen the full horror, she seemed to accept that they were in the least worst place, on condition we came back the next day.

When my husband saw Molly’s face he feared the worst. I had to elaborate some sign language until I could get him out of her hearing and explain the full details: the truth was even worse than that.

As promised, the following day we all went, lugging kilos of bruised apples from the garden, as if that could somehow make up for the trauma. Molly introduced Peter to her father, and I could see his brain forming a pun about Parma, and thinking better of it. We were so horribly nervous, trying not to anthropomorphise, yet still hearing echoes of Penelope’s cries.

Penelope and Peter have settled in together. Inseparably. It’s hard to say how well as they are both clearly different from the rest of the herd, but not isolated.

Reports were made, appropriate officials notified, investigations launched. Jim gave me sight of Helen’s report: impressively technical – I didn’t know science was so advanced in this area, but then I wouldn’t – and a straightforward conclusion. Many of the incision marks on the pig flesh were caused by dogs, most likely terriers.

The local newspaper picked up the story from the police. Right on cue local game shooting estates spluttered their umbrage at implications and bleated that they mostly used spaniels or labradors, apparently the classier hunters’ dogs. Their shrill defensiveness, rather than sharing our horror at the atrocity, said a lot. The only animal that tortures other animals for amusement is humans. And some of them train dogs to assist.

Jim is being interviewed by local radio. He has hinted that he may overstate the case in the hopes of putting the wind up somebody. Perhaps it is easier than you’d think to track the buying and selling of pigs. Perhaps the perpetrators were not local, although moving a pig is not easy. Ask that livestock transporter driver.

Ask yourself: when is butchery business and when is it barbaric?

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