Confessions of a (Former) Swine Hater

Last week, I covered a story about children in northeastern Thailand who are learning to finer points of pig farming. It was a challenge.

I hate pigs.
Yes, I know, pigs are smarter than dogs. Yes, I saw that National Geographic photo too where pigs hunt for magical truffles in the French Alps. Big deal.
I still can’t stand them.
Pigs, to me, mean despair.

Desperate measures
I was 24, broke and had just returned from a soul searching 9-month adventure to New Zealand.
Unable to find a job, I told my grandpa I’d do anything.
Grandpa, a farmer his entire life, had coffee shop connections – a place he visited nearly every morning. And within a few days, I was employed.
My new boss was a round man, had a red beard and crooked teeth. He whistled with every S he spoke. “He’s a man with a bit of a temper,” my uncle warned, “But as long as you stay on his good side, you’ll be fine.”

A job with a modern day Viking
On a cold, rainy October morning, I drove to a pig barn that covered an entire acre. Or so it seemed.
Inside, my eyes watered from the smell. Johan, my new boss, said the bank owned the farm, not him. He was, piglet by piglet, “Payin’ dem back.” He laughed at that.
My job, specifically, was to use a high-power pressure washer and clean a room that housed some 80 pigs – pigs that had just been born. To clean the pens, I had to move the piglets and their mothers out of the pen and into an alley way.
“Gotta be sssspotlesss,” Johan said. “I want to be able to eat an egg off that floor.”
I looked at him with an eyebrow raised.
Right here, I should admit this was not my first foray into pig farming. For a few years, my dad had a shed full of piglets. They ate our table scraps. They smelled. Another uncle had a pig farm too and I worked for him once and a while growing up.
But Johan was a different breed of farmer.

Why I only lasted 5 shifts
“Hurry da hell up. I can’t afford ya for more den 5 hoursss. You work fasssteer, I give you bonusss.”
And so, I sweated when I washed the pens. Made piglets squeal when I chased them. Had a few mother pigs charge me when I tried to move them too quickly. Two bit me on the back of my ankles.
But the real reason I quit was Johan.
On my fifth shift, one of the mother pigs escaped the alleyway. She bolted into the larger barn, where other sows and pigs were kept.
I tried to chase her, corral her into returning to the piglet’s room. It was no use. She’d turn left when I wanted her to go right. She’d run past me when I had her cornered, heading into the opposite direction I wanted her to go.
I decided to find Johan. His face turned beet red when I told him of the escapee. He growled a little.
And then he marched off to where I said the pig was last seen. We spotted the pig in a corner, snouting through some old paper feed bags.

Johan approached and kicked her.
Hard.
The pig squealed.
It ran. Directly towards me.
I waved my hands. Shouted at it.
But the pig didn’t stop.
At the last second, I jumped out of the way.
“You F***en’ lazy son of a bitch,” he shouted at me, as he turned heel and ran after the sow.
I was shocked. No employer had ever sworn ate me before. It stung.

The call
If I had to do it all over again, I would have walked out right then and there. But I didn’t.
A few minutes later, Johan had the pig in her proper place. I was back using the pressure washer. But that night, after I had gone home, I called him.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do another shift,” I said.  “You can send me my pay by mail.”

A reunion with the dreaded creature
I have not, since that day, worked with pigs again.
This past week, some 8 years after the incident with Johan, I was sent to cover a story about children who are learning to grow pigs as a source of income in the northeastern part of Thailand.
“Do you like the pigs, do you actually like them?” I asked a 14-year-old boy who had a pen of three pigs hidden in a rubber-tree forest.
I was ready swap bitter stories with the kid.
“I love them,” he said. “They are my favourite animal.”
At the boy’s school they had a pig growing project and a bio-gas project, to turn pig manure into cooking fuel.
There, I asked a 12-year-old girl, who was in charge of taking care of the pigs, why she liked the animals.
“They are happy animals,” she said. “They don’t give us any trouble. And the babies are cute.”
Dream on kid, I thought. No way.
And the school principal bragged about the pigs too. He said they would help families, who had traditionally only farmed rice, diversify and earn extra income.

A realization
Only after I returned to the hotel did I have time to reflect. My issue wasn’t really with the pigs. I had transferred a bad experience onto the animals.
While I still might not cuddle one in bed, I see pigs in the eyes of these children now.
Here a pig represents hope, a brighter future.
And that’s nothing to hate.

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