Saturday, September 29, 2007

Blue Ear Disease (PRRS) Outbreak in Asia

There was a great article (here) in the Seattle Times last week about another outbreak of Blue Ear Disease among pigs in China. It begins with the story of Lo Jinyuan (pictured left), who told the reporter regarding his pigs that "before we knew something was wrong, they were all dead." Blue Ear Disease, also known as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), has apparently infected at least 290,000 pigs, with a still as yet unknown number of deaths. An outbreak that began in May 2006 killed an estimated one million pigs, pushing pork prices up 87 percent and contributing to rising inflation throughout China.

Most media coverage notes the difficulty of getting accurate information about this epidemic in China. It seems that the Chinese authorities have only been really forthcoming when it was alleged that they were responsible for the spread of Blue Ear Disease to Vietnam and Myanmar. According to a recent article in Reuters, China denies being the source of the outbreak in these other nations, noting that the strain of PRRS they've discovered is 93% similar to the strain that has caused problems in the U.S. since the 1980s. Indeed, PRRS has been a major problem for the American pork industry. The National Pork Board estimates that PRRS costs a whopping $560 million annually in the U.S. alone. You can learn more about this porcine virus here at The Pig Site and at the Pork Board's PRRS website.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Dick King-Smith's Recollections of Pig Farming

In his autobiography Chewing the Cud (2001), Dick King-Smith recalls his experiences as an "amateurish" pig farmer at his Woodlands Farm outside of Bristol, England from the late 1940s through the 1960s. As he writes, "The pigs suffered more than the other livestock from my love of trying to do things on the cheap" (82), such as converting an old barn into a piggery and using old chicken houses as farrowing units for his sows. King-Smith kept his pigs outside in a three-acre wooded area that he skillfully fenced with wire and coffin boards. After about five years of buying pigs from Mr. Hamper, a local breeder who was only "distinguishable from his larger pigs by virtue of wearing clothes and standing on his hind legs" (87), King-Smith started breeding his own pigs. He kept up to ten Saddleback sows, all serviced by a Large White boar named Monty who came to a tragic end in 1959 after gorging on dirt and mud. He also talks of the challenges of keeping newborn piglets alive, many of whom were squashed accidentally by their mothers. Interestingly, he notes that "the times when we never lost babies were when a sow farrowed completely naturally out in the Wood" (95). Most of the pigs were sold at market, although "once a year the butcher came and killed a bacon pig for our own needs" (98).

King-Smith really enjoyed his pigs and complains about how the pig is "linked always with gluttony, obesity, and squalor" (82). He is a big believer in porcine intelligence, something one can see by looking into a pig's eye. As he concludes, "The expression in the eye of a dog is trusting, of a cat supercilious, of a cow ruminative, of a sheep, vacuous. But the look in the eye of a pig is, quite simply, knowing. Other beasts think, This human is looking at me. The pig thinks, I am looking at this human. There is all the difference in the world" (82).

King-Smith got the idea for The Sheep-Pig (1983) while tending the Guess-the-Weight-of-the-Pig stall at the village fair. As he recalls it, "I must, I suppose, have thought as I stood upon the village green, recording people's guesses and taking their money, that it was a shame that such a lovely little pink pig should end up, once he was big enough, in the deep freeze. Suppose fate had something quite different in store for him? Suppose he should go and live on a farm, with a sheep-dog as his foster mother? Suppose he should want to do what she did? He couldn't be a sheep-dog. But he could be a sheep-pig" (6-7). King-Smith's book won the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction (he used the £250 prize to buy a new armchair) and later was adapted into the popular film Babe (1995) by director Chris Noonan.

The picture on the book jacket is of King-Smith with Monty, his "pig of pigs."

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Ossabaw Island Hog on the Menu

My east coast pork connection e-mailed me last week with news of the Il Buco Pig Roast in New York City. The celebration included a porchetta panini, apple ricotta fritters, farmer's market panzanella, and slow-roasted Ossabaw pig. He hadn't heard of the Ossabaw pig, which is a rare breed found only on Ossabaw Island, Georgia. The folks at Slow Food USA have a page dedicated to this rare breed, which you can find here. Information can also be found at the site of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (here).

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

An Origami Pig

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. has an exhibit up through June 2008 entitled Origami Now. On the main page you'll find this lovely work, "Wilbur the Piglet" (1991), by master origami artist Michael LaFosse. Thanks to Lisa for sharing this with me. And, dear readers, please accept my apologies for the gaps between postings lately. I'm back on campus again after sabbatical and have been busier than expected teaching and administrating in addition to keeping up my work on all things porcine.


Friday, September 21, 2007

A Self-Cannibalizing Ham

Speaking of cuts of meat, here is another in an ongoing series of images of self-cannibalizing pigs. Thanks to Angela in Alaska for this creepy "ham," which perhaps brings the pork and the pig too close together. Perhaps that's not a bad thing, however, since English is the language that has separated the meat from the animal, a process that dates back to the Norman invasion, interestingly enough. These days the distancing obviously goes way beyond the linguistic, as very few Americans ever see a live pig anymore.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pig Wall Art

Birthday gal Lisa sent me a link to the website of Tonky, one of several companies that make high-tech stickers for your walls. They are of note because of their pig (left), which you can get in two sizes: 41" x 23" or 14" x 10". It also comes in lots of colors, although perhaps pink is the best. Note, of course, that they've chosen an illustration that emphasizes (but does not label) the cuts of meat of the pig.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

David Lee's The Porcine Canticles

"Loading a Boar"

We were loading a boar, a goddam mean big sonofabitch and he jumped out of the pickup four times and tore out my stockracks and rooted me in the stomach and I fell down and he bit John on the knee and he thought it was broken and so did I and the boar stood over in the far corner of the pen and watched us and John and I just sat there tired and Jan laughed and brought us a beer and I said, "John it ain't worth it, nothing's going right and I'm feeling half dead and haven't wrote a poem in ages and I'm ready to quit it all," and John said, "shit young feller, you ain't got started yet and the reason's cause you trying to do it outside yourself and ain't looking in and if you wanna by god write pomes you gotta write pomes about what you know and not about the rest and you can write about pigs and that boar and Jan and you and me and the rest and there ain't no way you're gonna quit," and we drank beer and smoked, all three of us, and finally loaded that mean bastard and drove home and unloaded him and he bit me again and I went in the house and got out my paper and pencils and started writing and found out John he was right.

Thus begins the wonderful The Porcine Canticles (1984) by Utah poet David Lee. It is a moving and funny collection of poems that I can't recommend highly enough. Pick up a copy from Copper Canyon Press now that it is back in print. You won't regret it.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Does This Ad Strike Too Close to Home?

The Trojan condom company launched a new ad campaign over the summer called "Evolve." It is of note because, in the words of the corporate press release (here), it uses "animated images of pigs to humorously represent self-centered, immature, and thoughtless behavior. The 'hero' transforms from a pig to a man when he demonstrates responsibility by choosing to use condoms." The campaign is ostensibly designed to encourage self-respect among men and respect for their potential female sexual partners and uses pigs to represent that lack of humanity. The pigs for the commercial were created by Stan Winston Studios. You can find two short videos about the making of the commercial here on the main Trojan Evolve website. The ad campaign was created by the Kaplan Thaler Group. Its chief creative officer, Linda Kaplan Thaler, notes that "Some people may be initially surprised by the imagery, but we're really using the pigs as a metaphor for selfish behavior to call to attention a very important subject."

The Fox and CBS networks have refused to run this ad. According to the New York Times article "Pigs with Cellphones, but no Condoms" (here) about the controversy, Fox rejected the spot because "Contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy." CBS wrote, "while we understand and appreciate the humor of this creative, we do not find it appropriate for our network even with late-night-only restrictions." Many commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy here given the often salacious nature of the programming and the ubiquitous ads for erectile dysfunction treatments that run on these networks.

Few commentators I've seen have had anything to say about the porcine content of these ads. Most have simply agreed that the campaign is funny and clever. Some bloggers have concurred with the presmise that most men are pigs, especially when young, in groups, and out drinking in bars trying to pick up women. I wonder, though, if it's the way this campaign makes the metaphor real that is ultimately creating people's discomfort. After all, it's one thing to say that men are pigs, but to show it with quasi-realistic animatronic animals perhaps mobilizes our fear and disgust about our kinship with non-human animals. As Erica Fudge notes in her wonderful book Animal (Reaktion, 2002), this kind of metaphorical use of the animal highlights the "failure of humanity" and can provoke a desire to wipe out this kinship through mastery, control, and domination. I guess we'll have to see if the sales of Trojan brand condoms rise as young people seek to bolster their human-ness.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Anxieties About Hog-Farming Odors

Concern with the odor and filth that can surround hog farming operations is not limited to our own times, obviously. While you can find all sorts of ongoing conflict over concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), such as a debate this week over a permit for a 4,800 hog operation in Missouri (see the article here in the Marshall Democrat-News), it's nice to take a historical view too. The fine folks at Crooked Timber Books in Digby, Nova Scotia sent me a review of what looks like a wonderful book by Emily Cockayne entitled Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England (Yale University Press, 2007) that made a brief reference to Lewis Smart's piggery on Tottenham Court Road, whose noxious fumes "dirtied newly laundered linen and tarnished plate."

While pigs were ubiquitous in both urban and rural settings in early modern Europe, it is the scale and intensity of modern industrialized agriculture that bothers people these days. After all, more pigs means more waste and greater potential environmental impacts from hog-farming. For an overview of this conflict in one U.S. state, see Carolyn Johnsen's Raising a Stink: The Struggle over Factory Hog Farms in Nebraska (Bison Books, 2003).

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A New Study of the History of Pig Domestication

I hope everyone had a lovely Labor Day weekend (if you were in the U.S., of course, where the first Monday in September has been an official holiday and unofficial marker of the end of summer since 1894). I returned to the office and the first day of classes today to have several of my colleagues ask whether I'd seen this article in the L.A. Times. In "Pig study illuminates ancient human activity," Thomas Maugh reports the new findings of Greger Larson and his team, who previously demonstrated the independent domestication of pigs at as many as nine sites throughout the world. (You can find the BBC News report about that study here; about the new research here; about their work on the Pacific here).

As I understand it, additional mitochondrial DNA analysis led them to complicate the 'multiple origins of domestication' argument by showing how pigs domesticated in the Near East were taken to Europe by early farmers, who then domesticated their own wild boars which eventually replaced the imported animals. Migrating farmers then took the European pigs to the Near East where they pushed out the original domesticated animals. The researchers used these pigs, as Maugh put it, as "an excellent proxy for tracing human movements" to support the hypothesis that farming was introduced to Europe by migrating Near Eastern farmers between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago. According to Maugh's excellent summary of an increasingly complicated history involving archeology and genetic research, Larson and his team now want to extend this analysis to pigs in Asia to see how far these European pigs might have been taken.

In tracking down the news of this new research I discovered that Oxford University Press will be publishing a collection of essays in November entitled Pigs and Humans: 10,000 Years of Interaction. You can check out the table of contents here. It will be great to have much of the complex and interesting work on domestication synthesized, although based on today's post, there seems to be more and more discovered all the time.

Image above by J. Veitch from the BBC webpage.

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