A Fair To Remember

Hug it? Eat it? Hug it? Eat it?
Hogs and humans are a lot alike--except pigs might be smarter
by Constance Gray

Forget shuttle buses, admission fees and 45-minute waits for funnel cakes. Park anywhere there isn't pavement. This is the Nicollet County Fair in St. Peter, where judging livestock, and not family entertainment, is the raison d'être. For the 4-H kids who trot out their "projects" for this early-August morning's hog show, this is where it has to happen. The winners at today's contest and other county fairs across Minnesota are the only pigs that will be exhibited by 4-H'ers at the State Fair.

In the open-sided swine barn, the rich, meaty smell of live pig thickens the air. The hogs, separated into small wooden pens housing three or four animals each, snooze quietly on heaps of clean wood shavings. Their long, cylindrical bodies fit against each other as neatly as puzzle pieces.

A light breeze plays through the barn--a good thing on a muggy day like this. Despite the expression "sweating like a pig," hogs can't perspire, except through tiny glands in their noses. They must seek shade, water or mud during the heat of the day or they will die. Hence their reputation for laziness--and for filthiness.

"Given the choice, pigs are extremely clean animals," says Rodney Johnson, a veterinarian of swine production medicine at the Morris-based Swine Health Center. They will use one portion of their enclosure exclusively for eating, another site for sleeping and a third as the bathroom, Johnson says. They also enjoy exercising, just not during the day: In the wild, pigs are nocturnal. To them, mid-day feels like midnight to us.

Maybe that's why they simply grunt contentedly when a hand reaches inside the wooden pen to touch their flanks. A swine's sparse hair is coarse, but the skin is remarkably soft--much like a human's. So much so, Johnson says, that pig skin often is used for grafts to cover human burn wounds.

A teenage girl wearing blue-jean overalls and heavy eye-makeup opens a pen and uses a crop similar to a horseback rider's to jostle a young castrated pig. It's showtime for the barrow, which, since its birth less than a year ago, has grown from three pounds to more than 260, some 50 percent of that lean meat. "They're stubborn sometimes," the girl says as she maneuvers the pig into a holding area, where she joins half a dozen other farm kids exhibiting in the 261-to-276-pound class. "Pigs definitely have minds of their own."

Watching swine being handled, it's easy to see where the expressions "pigheaded" and "hog wild" come from. Market pigs have very little contact with humans in their eight months of life before slaughter: They usually live in temperature-regulated confinement barns where movement is limited, and they are fed by machines. Projects get a little more attention: They're often pulled out into a separate barn where they're walked and fed--and, before a show, bathed several times--by their owners.

Still, get a hog into the unfamiliar surroundings of a fair, and you'd better watch out. A spotted pig being guided to the show ring goes quietly at first, then swiftly turns 180 degrees and heads for a narrow opening at the end of the barn aisle. Its escape is stopped by a 4-H dad carrying a 2-feet-by-3-feet plastic shield.

The best pig handlers are the people who've learned to move like them. Their pace is slow and measured, yet imbued with the energy to dodge, cuff, or body-block at any given moment. Still, mishaps happen. One 11-year-old exhibitor is knocked over by his pig as he attempts to steer the animal into the holding pen. A girl limps after her project steps on her foot. Spectators perch on a small rise of bleachers offering close looks without the dangers of hand-to-snout combat.

It is possible, says porcine vet Johnson, to train pigs to walk on a leash and come on command. "Pigs are highly intelligent," he explains. "They're such a social animal, and they enjoy human interaction. They respond to toys." Swine have been coached to use their keen sense of smell for a variety of tasks: French truffle-hunters use pigs to sniff out their buried treasure, while the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig Rookie worked for a while detecting narcotics for the Tacoma, Washington, police department.

But to train a pig means to spend lots of time with it, and these 4-H kids are learning to produce a food source, not a pet. In the ring, they struggle to keep their projects under control; the pigs are quick to figure out where the exit is and congregate there, loudly voicing their desire to leave. Pigs produce a number of meaningful sounds, Johnson notes, denoting everything from alarm to contentment. "They're not unlike human babies."

The pigs' vocalizations are the last thing on the mind of hog judge Randy Morris, whose eye is trained to detect ham, pork chops, and bacon under the animals' skin. "This is a more three-dimensional pig," he says about his first choice in this category. "There's muscle, shape, and direction. He's going to cut a real good carcass." A lesser pig "has too much fat cover. He needs more muscle content and more product all the way through."

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