The Mast-Head: Leo the Pig

Leo likes things the way he likes them

Winter is hard on Leo the pig.          
For those of you who may not know about Leo, he is a 70-pound pet pig of the white, perhaps English variety, that is, distinct from the Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs that were all the rage a few years ago.

Over my bitter protestations about two years ago, my eldest daughter and wife bought him from a con artist of a breeder in Texas who had insisted Leo would not grow to be more than 10 pounds. I told them, one, that he would eventually be about the size of a Labrador retriever albeit with short legs, and, two, that I was going to move out to live in our shed if they got him.

Leo likes things the way he likes them. During warm weather he grazes on the lawn or roots among the leaves, then sleeps away the rest of the day in sunny spots out of the wind, coming into the house only to drink from his water bowl or to bed down for the night.

Winter breaks his sybaritic routine. He becomes bored, surly, pees on the brick-tiled, unheated porch. Little spats with the dogs break out over trifles. Early in the morning, when I am trying to enjoy a first cup of coffee, he pokes defiantly at my ankles, rattles the covers on the baseboard radiators, or scratches the front door with his tusks. If no one is around, from time to time he will pull cookbooks off a low shelf and tear out their pages.

Heaven forbid one of the kids has dropped a backpack on the floor with even a crumb of food in it; he will gnaw at it until he has ripped through the fabric. If I leave The New York Times within reach, he will shred and distribute it as broadly as possible. And on it goes. If I leave the downstairs bathroom door open, he will go in and knock over our 5-year-old’s tub toys, and he has done this a hundred times.

As I wrote this, Leo was nipping my bare feet, hoping to be scratched, given a treat, or otherwise entertained. Unlike dogs, which are bred to want to please us, pigs see things differently, more, perhaps, as cats do. It is, after all, all about them and what we can do to serve their needs.

Scientific American reported this week on a Dutch study that asked whether pigs were capable of empathy. The researchers put groups of pigs in various situations, stressful and pleasurable, while repeating bits of music. Then they introduced new pigs into the groups, played the music in the absence of the rewards or stress-inducers and found that the newcomers picked up emotional cues from the veterans.

Conceding that it is difficult to argue with science, whatever the researchers saw is hard to call empathy. Pigs, well, they’re just too piggish.