What makes pigs so different from dogs?
A charming little video appears on my Facebook feed. Who can resist the lure of baby animals?
Three puppies and three piglets scurry about a farmhouse, sniffing, probing, and seeking undivided attention from their human masters. A good belly scratch is a special highlight.
Later in the video, the puppies spring onto tippy-toes as dinner makes an appearance. The piglets try to do likewise, perhaps inspired by ‘Animal Farm’ and thinking that standing on hind legs is what pigs are supposed to do. Once they’ve had their fill of playing and shoe marauding, the puppies collapse exhausted on the porch, slumped on their sides. The piglets do the same, curled up around the puppies to create a large, fluffy yarn ball of animal cuteness.
So why then is one of these animals considered ‘fair game’ for the dinner plate while the other is strictly off-limits?
A. Why This Matters
I’ve been a vegetarian for three years now, but this post isn’t about vegetarianism. It’s about meat and what types of meat we – the human species – decide is acceptable for our own dinner plates.
This question has important ramifications for the planet. Some animals require higher levels of maintenance, higher quantities of food and water, and more extensive plots of grazing land, not to mention a more enthusiastic use of growth hormones. Some animals also generate nastier by-products, which then pollute the lands and waterways of planet Earth.
As a hopefully longstanding resident of Planet Earth, the question of what gets pumped into the atmosphere, the rivers and the bodies of friends, family and fellow animals concerns me greatly.
B. Pig in a Poke
It’s fair to say when the evolution gods were crafting the animals, the pigs copped a rather unfortunate deal. A fully-grown, adult pig is a behemoth of an animal, a mashed not-so-sweet potato of pink flesh, bulging deposits of fat and hairy hide.
That’s assuming you can see the hairy hide to begin with. More than likely, all you will see is mud, rubbish and filth, along with a healthy dose of freshly-produced pig manure.
When pigs are depicted in a marketable way, it’s almost always done in the form of the (clean) mini-pig or piglet. Most people would agree that piglets are ‘cute’. The wonderful Australian movie ‘Babe’ concerns a piglet who somehow thinks he’s a sheepdog. The book ‘Charlotte’s Web’ (a childhood favourite of mine) features a lonesome piglet who just wants a friend, but ends up in tears after discovering his true fate: the farmhouse slaughter block. (Farmer Zuckerman is sharpening his knife as we speak.)
As an English word, ‘pig’ is a favourite of school-room bullies due to being highly direct and highly emotive, without being an actual swear word (‘you’re such a fat pig’). Furthermore, we’ve already seen George Orwell’s feelings towards pigs. When Orwell wanted a nasty, conniving (‘fascist’) animal in the farmyard, the pigs, led by the canny ‘Napoleon’, seemed the most natural fit.
When it comes to the farmyard, pigs aren’t especially multi-functional either. Unlike other farm animals, the pig has no major secondary benefits beyond its roasted flesh. Sheep also produce wool. Cows produce milk. Chickens lay eggs. Even goats produce milk. But the pig? What does it produce?
One possibility is pig skin, although pig leather is not as prevalent as that of cow’s. Pig bristles were once used for paint brushes, but this is becoming less common in the age of synthetics. Even the manure is a problem. Pig ‘slurry’ is quite potent when compared to other forms of manure, so needs further treatment before use.
This general aversion towards the pig is echoed across the more ancient of cultures on the planet. Pigs are considered ‘unclean’ by some religions (Islam and Judaism for instance), resulting in the animal being avoided completely on certain dinner plates of the world.
The ultimate ignominy is that apart from feasting upon the animal’s flesh, we take great pride in showing off this fact. Not content with butchering the pig, we then make sport out of its carcass. In the open for anyone to see, we rotate the dead pig on a spit, apple shoved into its mouth like some form of medieval torture device. Does any other animal have to undergo such a spectacle following its demise? A half-consumed dead pig is even seen as acceptable for public display behind a shop window. At least the cows and the sheep manage to avoid this humiliating fate.
C. Who’s a Good Girl Then?
Dogs, on the other hand, are the poster children of the animal kingdom. I doubt I have to say much on this subject. Loads of people love dogs. I love dogs. Why would I call myself the ‘Running Mutty’ if I didn’t like dogs? The idea of eating ‘man’s best friend’ causes most people to gasp in revulsion.
Despite all that, a few Asian countries, such as China, South Korea and Vietnam, continue to operate a dog-meat trade. Although the practice is decreasing over time, the trade is by no means trivial. The ‘Humane Society International’ estimates that over 30 million dogs are slaughtered every year for human consumption.
In addition to cute animal videos, my Facebook feed also contains posts from animal conservation groups attempting to rescue the dogs destined for slaughter. From reading the comments on these posts, it’s clear that many supporters are eternally grateful for the services these groups provide. Never has there been such an intense outpouring of ‘love heart’ emojis. Rescuing those poor abandoned dogs is seen as an act of the highest virtue.
Even so, it’s worth asking the question. Who is rescuing the pigs from similar or even worse conditions: the live export boats, the abattoirs, the absurdly-cramped ‘sow stalls’?
D. Five Reasons for Doggy Bias
So what is it about pigs that makes them acceptable as a food source? What is it about dogs that make them taboo?
I am, of course, not suggesting for a minute we start a new age of canine consumption. Rather I’m raising a more fundamental question that rarely gets brought up in the herbivore vs carnivore debate. Who decides what is ‘good meat’ and ‘bad meat’? What reasons do people have for accepting pig meat over other forms of meat? Do people even decide at all, instead preferring to delegate their decision-making to large, faceless corporations?
I can think of five reasons why pig meat is considered acceptable while dog meat is not.
Firstly, dogs have a ‘special bond’ with humans, so any attempt to eat dog should be seen as sacrilege.
The ancestors of our modern dogs – the wolves – formed that close connection when hunter-gatherers first settled down into communities. The wolves provided a number of useful functions. They alerted the group to impending danger, and they kept the communities clean of food scraps and the subsequent spread of disease. Since the arrangement suited both sides, it’s no surprise the proto-dogs decided to stay with the humans for good, rather than fending for themselves in the wild.
Although this argument is persuasive, it ultimately proves unsatisfactory due to the usual ‘floodgates’ problem. If we accept the argument, we must also consider whether the same ‘special bond’ exists for other animals. Where do you draw the line? What about cats, horses, camels, goats and even elephants? All are capable of domestication and providing useful services to humanity, not to mention the incalculable cost of staunch, unfailing companionship. Wilbur the pig is not alone in being alone.
Secondly, the question of ‘good meat’ is simply a matter of culture. All of us are indoctrinated to accept a certain world-view based on our upbringing. So according to ‘western culture’, pig meat is fine while dog meat is not. End of story.
Any argument resorting to ‘culture’ is easy to refute. It was once ‘culture’ to kidnap Africans and place them on slave boats to the Americas. It was once ‘tradition’ to burn women at the stake for being witches. The problem with ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ is that they can be used to justify just about anything, from eating meat to ethnic cleansing.
The third reason for pooch preference is rarely communicated in words, but it’s one that people are most likely thinking to themselves. Dogs are just so frickin’ cute. A doleful stare from a curious labrador pup is enough to pierce the heart of the most hardened of gangsters.
This argument is also easy to dismiss. If we accept that pooch preference is related to cuteness, this leads to uncomfortable parallels in the human world. Should we give preference to beautiful people over the less beautiful? Should the less beautiful be confined to cages? Do we already do this? Either way, I think people intuitively know that there is something morally questionable about basing a decision on beauty alone. It just doesn’t feel right to give such weight to something largely outside of one’s control.
Of course, in practice we ignore our moral pricklings entirely by continuing to gravitate towards the gorgeous. The ongoing question of human hypocrisy is one we’ll leave for another time.
The fourth reasonis similar to the third. Dogs are more intelligent than pigs. We should avoid eating any ‘higher’ animal in favour of animals that are stupid, those that don’t know what’s coming when they get delivered to the abattoir.
This is a ludicrous argument that need not waste our time for long. Do we know for certain that dogs are more intelligent than pigs? Has it been scientifically proven for all pigs and all dogs? And even if pigs aren’t as smart, is that a justifiable excuse to treat them poorly? Again, consider the awkward implications that would arise if we applied the same reasoning towards humans.
The final reason is somewhat perverse. Similar to cuteness, it’s an idea that people might ponder to themselves, but feel reluctant to express to others. The question of ‘good meat’ is all a matter of taste. Perhaps pig flesh just tastes better than dog flesh.
Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but again, it’s not such a convincing argument. The animals we choose to farm have less to do with taste and more to do with what’s commercially viable. In any case, taste is highly subjective. Have you ever tasted dog meat? Do you know for certain what it tastes like? Personally speaking, I wouldn’t have a clue.
E. Should We All Eat Dog Then?
Good lord no… what a ghastly idea. Along with many others, I will continue to pay the highest tribute to the dog, a beautiful and supportive animal that also happens to enjoy a really nice run around the park. Go the Running Mutty.
But the human heart is not a one-horse town. Nothing should stop it from opening up to the plight of other animals, even if these animals happen to lack ‘cuteness’ or ‘friendliness’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘obedience’. Other mammals have body structures and internal organs similar to that of humans. Indeed, the pig is of particular interest to medical researchers due to its close match to the human body. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham once famously said that the main factor when deciding if animals deserve our protection is whether they can suffer. Anyone who’s seen footage from a slaughterhouse will already know the answer to this.
While animal rescue groups provide a commendable service, why leave the action and the decision-making to these groups alone? Empathy should start with one’s own dinner plate.
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