So, what the heck are pigs, I hear you ask. A pig is any of the animals in the genus Sus, within the even-toed ungulate family Suidae. Pigs include domestic pigs (Sus domesticus) and their ancestor, the common Eurasian wild boar (Sus scrofa), along with other species. Pigs, like all suids, are native to the Eurasian and African continents, ranging from Europe to the Pacific islands. Juvenile pigs are known as piglets. Pigs are highly social and intelligent animals. With around 1 billion individuals alive at any time, the domestic pig is among the most populous large mammals in the world. Pigs are omnivores and can consume a wide range of food. Pigs are biologically similar to humans and are thus frequently used for human medical research.
NAME ORIGIN – It probably comes from Old English *picg, found in compounds, but the ultimate origin is unknown. Originally “young pig,” (the word for adults was swine) apparently related to German bigge, or Dutch big. (“but the phonology is difficult”) Another Old English word for “pig” was fearh, related to furh “furrow,” from PIE *perk– “dig, furrow” (source also of Latin porc-us “pig,” see pork). “This reflects a widespread IE tendency to name animals from typical attributes or activities” [Roger Lass]. Synonyms grunter, oinker are from sailors’ and fishermen’s euphemistic avoidance of uttering the word pig at sea, a superstition perhaps based on the fate of the Gadarene swine, who drowned.
PHYSIQUE – A typical pig has a large head with a long snout that is strengthened by a special prenasal bone and by a disk of cartilage at the tip. The snout is used to dig into the soil to find food and is a very acute sense organ. Each foot has four hoofed toes, with the two larger central toes bearing most of the weight, and the outer two also being used in soft ground. Adult pigs have a total of 44 teeth. The rear teeth are adapted for crushing. In the male, the canine teeth form tusks, which grow continuously and are sharpened by constantly being ground against each other.
SAVAGERY – Occasionally, captive mother pigs may savage their own piglets, often if they become severely stressed. Some attacks on newborn piglets are non-fatal. Others may kill the piglets and sometimes, the mother may eat them. An estimated 50% of piglet fatalities are due to the mother attacking, or unintentionally crushing, the newborn pre-weaned animals.
DISTRIBUTION – The ancestor of the domestic pig is the wild boar, which is one of the most numerous and widespread large mammals. Its many subspecies are native to all but the harshest climates of continental Eurasia and its islands and Africa as well, from Ireland and India to Japan and north to Siberia. Long isolated from other pigs on the many islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, pigs have evolved into many different species, including wild boar, bearded pigs, and warty pigs. Humans have introduced pigs into Australia, North and South America, and numerous islands, either accidentally as escaped domestic pigs which have gone feral, or as wild boar.
RELATIONSHIP – Most pigs today are domesticated pigs raised for meat (known as pork). Miniature breeds are commonly kept as pets. Because of their foraging abilities and excellent sense of smell, people in many European countries use them to find truffles. Apart from meat, pig skin is turned into leather, and their hairs are used to make brushes. The relatively short, stiff, coarse pig hairs are called bristles, and were once so commonly used in paintbrushes that in 1946 the Australian Government launched Operation Pig Bristle. In May 1946, in response to a shortage of pig bristles for paintbrushes to paint houses in the post-World War II construction boom, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) flew in 28 short tons of pig bristles from China, their only commercially available source at the time. Human skin is very similar to pig skin, therefore many preclinical studies employ pig skin. In addition to providing use in biomedical research and for drug testing, genetic advances in human healthcare have provided a pathway for domestic pigs to become xenotransplantation candidates for humans.
CULTURE – Pigs have been important in culture across the world since neolithic times. They appear in art, literature, and religion. In Asia the wild boar is one of 12 animal images comprising the Chinese zodiac, while in Europe the boar represents a standard charge in heraldry. In Islam and Judaism pigs and those who handle them are viewed negatively, and the consumption of pork is forbidden. Pigs are alluded to in animal epithets and proverbs.
ENVIRONENTAL DAMAGE – Domestic pigs that have escaped from urban areas or were allowed to forage in the wild, and in some cases wild boars which were introduced as prey for hunting, have given rise to large populations of feral pigs in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and other areas where pigs are not native. Accidental or deliberate releases of pigs into countries or environments where they are an alien species have caused extensive environmental change. Their omnivorous diet, aggressive behaviour, and their feeding method of rooting in the ground all combine to severely alter ecosystems unused to pigs. Pigs will even eat small animals and destroy nests of ground nesting birds. The Invasive Species Specialist Group lists feral pigs on the list of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. Because of biological similarities, pigs can harbour a range of parasites and diseases that can be transmitted to humans. Examples of such zoonoses include trichinosis, Taenia solium, cysticercosis, and brucellosis. Pigs also host large concentrations of parasitic ascarid worms in their digestive tracts. Some strains of influenza are endemic in pigs, the most significant of which are H1N1, H1N2, and H3N2, the former of which has caused several outbreaks among humans, including the Spanish flu, 1977 Russian flu pandemic, and the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Pigs also can acquire human influenza.
INTELLIGENCE – Pigs are believed to be one of the most intelligent animals, following chimps, dolphins, and elephants. We might think our dogs are the smartest animals when the can roll over or shake on command, but they surpass even man’s best friend. Their intelligence was first discovered in experiments in the 1990s. Pigs were taught several tasks using a cursor on a computer screen. They learned these tasks as quickly as chimps. They could move a cursor on a screen with their snouts, as well as use the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time.
CONCLUSION – When we look at the traits that make pigs unique, we see a traditional farm animal, but when we look at the traits pigs share with us humans, it is impossible for us to hold that blindfold over our eyes that these guys are nothing more than mere food fodder. Whether you always understood the intelligence of pigs, or just learned today, what one could walk away with after reading this is the knowledge that… should we the nations of humanity ever begin handing out intelligence-related sovereignty to non-human animals, pigs ought to be one of the first five species. They evolved pretty separated from us, and that can be seen in their shape, but their minds and attitudes are right up our alley. So next time when you think about choosing pork, beef, or poultry- AH like hell I’m about to tell you to consider your diet. Philosophy is one thing, but practice is another. I have the philosophy of a vegan, but don’t act on it. I act on what’s cheap and convenient. Life is hard enough for me, but as the growing popularity for meat alternatives grow in our western world, so will the convenience to choose NOT pig for dinner. Maybe then, the pigs of this world will have a chance to make their way into our homes as pet, instead of into our bellies. Thank you for listening to my TED talk. Bye bye.