It was like moving into uni all over again, hefting great bags of stuff up the stairs to my room. Am I really only staying for five days? Crikey!
And this was my home for the week, at the agricultural college that had the pig unit:
The farm manager turned to look at me, “This one’s yours. There’s another vet student here… this is Ana. Ana, Elise. The pig unit is round the corner, past the otters and meerkats, and then the third door on the left. Tomorrow is a 5am start, because the pigs are going to market, is that okay?”
When is that ever okay, man? No, I really don’t want to get up at half 4 on a Monday morning to send pigs to their deaths. Do you know how much of a morning person I am not?
But my face smiled. “Yeah, sure, not a problem.”
The minute the folks had gone, Ana and I set off to the pub, only to be ID’d (what!?) without any ID when we got there. Coke it is, then.
That was a fascinating chat, let me tell you. I am of course so caught up in keeping up with my university’s course that it’s easy to forget that veterinary students across the country are doing things differently. Eventually, we’ll all graduate with the same knowledge, the RCVS says we must. But in these early stages, the initial approach by each school can be vastly different. Ana’s knowledge of body systems such as reproduction and nutrition far exceeded mine. But I had an understanding of mammalian anatomy and infectious disease that she couldn’t match. Between us, we had a pretty impressive information base. But our schools had started us on very different tracks, and sharing experiences was an absolute eye-opener. Overall, the structure of my course makes far more sense to me. But then again, of course it would, because I’ve spent the last year following it.
In any case, Ana was incredibly easy to talk to, and had loads of great stories to share with me. Neither of us were particularly talkative at 04:30 on Monday, however.
After dragging ourselves out of bed and searching for the one clean spoon in the house, we navigated our way to the pig unit, where we met a guy I can only describe as the Yorkshire version of Chris Pratt in Jurassic World. Just a little shorter, and wider round the middle.
“Ey up, are you students?”
“Err, yeah. Yeah, we’re supposed to be on the pig unit?”
“Who the hell told you to come ‘ere for 5 in’t mornin’?”
Evidently we weren’t expected, but I quickly found myself in overalls that hung off me like I’d tried to wear a blue parachute, and wellies that added an extra foot to my feet. Oh and, of course, a pitchfork in hand.
This was a high welfare pig unit, which meant that all the pigs were bedded on straw. Straw that needed mucking out by hand every day. I’m not an alien when it comes to mucking out, I could probably fill my house with the muck I’ve shifted over the last couple of years alone. But this was like Muckout: Extreme Edition. Probably the first thing to hit me was the intense stench that saturated the air in the pig sheds. Pig shit (though actually not that thick) is extremely smelly. It has a rancid sour smell, and after a few minutes shoveling in the humid heat of the shed, I was leaning on the walls trying to suppress the gagging.
And its heavy as hell, too. The straw had turned into a great sloppy sludge that felt like cement on the end of the pitchfork, and landed with horrible wet slaps when I chucked it into the concrete passageways. Pen after pen we shoveled tons of the stuff, and my wet shirt was soaking sweat into my overalls. Thinking I must just be grossly unfit, I glanced over to where Ana was working, but her red face was shining like mine.
And as if the choking dust, heat and stench weren’t enough, the whole task was hindered by great mobs of fifty cocky pigs, pushing and crowding to get their teeth around our legs and pitchforks. Half the time, I couldn’t see the floor for the pigs, and spent energy I didn’t have fighting them back.
Don’t underestimate the strength of a pig, or the bite it can deliver. These finishers were approaching 100kg at scarcely 5 months old, and would have no problem knocking you off your feet. Their surprising intelligence and intense curiosity makes for an animal that’s driven to push in and get its mouth around stuff. And the only thing you can hold over an animal like that, is fear. As much as I wish I could ask commercial animals to do things like a dog, in a way that’s based on obedience born of respect and trust, I can’t. A pig will suss you out quickly, and you need to be firm. He’s just curious, but mass curiosity can turn into bolshy behaviour and dangerous situations. Pigs at this age are still a bit skittish, and so a good Haka at the gate and firm slaps on pink rumps can send them running for a bit.
And yet, despite my frustration, their behaviour made them absolutely captivating. Young pigs are hilarious creatures, with vibrant attitudes and a comical demeanour. They find entertainment in everything, and are possibly the most dramatic animals to walk this earth. They get hysterical over nothing, and excited by everything. Every minute they’re not snoring in a heap of straw, they’re on a tireless quest for food; rooting, rummaging, and snuffling in every corner. Now and again they’ll take a break to ride another pig of the same sex, who’ll scream at the top of their lungs, before both resume the frantic hunt.
No sooner had we put the pitchforks down, we picked up pig boards, and began sorting the pigs marked for slaughter into a holding pen. The transport lorry soon arrived, and they were released one by one up the race to be slap marked with a number before boarding the lorry. A total of sixty nine pigs left that morning. The screaming was unbearable. It tore from the lungs of every animal in that pen, and it bore down on my ears like a physical weight. For the first few minutes it overwhelmed me, the sound of absolute terror making me want to block it out.
But in the end, I did what I’ve been taught to do. Look at the animal, consider everything he’s doing, everything around him, and let him tell you what he feels. These pigs don’t know where they’re going, nobody is hitting them, or hurting them. They’re not alone, nor are there loud noises or other upsetting stimuli. They’re just pissy because they’ve been shoved in a pen together without much wiggle room.
Over the week, I saw this pattern over and over again: pigs screaming over nothing. Screaming because I’m not getting my ration right this very moment, screaming because I wanted that sleeping spot, screaming because he just tried to hump me, or because you spray marked me, or just because. Drama, drama, drama! It’s a skill I must develop now as a trainee vet, recognising distress in animals – but discerning Drama Chops from genuine suffering was a bit of a learning curve at first!
And so once those little piggies went to market, it was back to the unit’s routine: feeding. The growing and finishing pigs are fed automatically, but the pregnant sows, sows with piglets, and weaned piglets, all needed feeding by hand. In a high welfare unit, sows with piglets are kept in individual tin shelters with a small run attached, and each one needed a bucket of feed. The pregnant sows are housed in a similar way, but in groups of 9. These needed nine buckets of feed accordingly. And so Ana and I took up the role of dinner ladies, hauling a great barrow of feed and launching buckets of the stuff into the tin shelters through a hatch, while the 600lb impatient clientele screamed and jostled at the opening:
The weaned piglets are fed from hopper-fed troughs, which we also needed to fill by hand. With over 60 small pigs in a pen, this meant over an hour lugging 25 kilo bags of feed from pallets to the troughs which were, predictably, at the farthest end from the gate. This job I found particularly difficult. Not only were the bags half my bodyweight, but once I got them into my arms, the weight of it sunk me into the mire of sludgy crap. On a number of occasions, I went to walk towards the trough, only to find the shit vacuum sucking my welly clean off my foot, which left me swaying like a drunken flamingo while hoards of pigs barged and pulled on my remaining leg.
After the long wade through the lake of gunge, it was a significant stagger across the uneven hillocks of straw bedding, and then a final lift to chest-height to get the food into the hopper. Over and over again, sack after sack, over twenty times each.
By the end of the morning, we had reached a point of exhaustion that made it a challenge to finish a sentence. I was roasting in my boiler suit, which was trapping my soaked shirt against my skin, my arms were slick with sweat and faeces, and my muscles burned relentlessly. Having not eaten, drunk or sat down for seven solid hours, we finally, finally got our lunch at midday. Ana and I had no idea how we were going to manage another four days.
Mercifully, the other four days were 7 until 4, which spread the hours more evenly. But the onslaught of labour was endless, and I was not fit enough.
But Wednesday was vaccination day, which changed things up a bit! Just before weaning, the sows receive two vaccinations in the back of the neck. To be able to get within ten feet of them with a needle, they’re lured into cages with feed and shut in. While the row of twenty sows were troughing away, Ana and I drew up our syringes. Pigs are not the first large animal I’ve injected, but boy are they the scariest. These sows were enormous, and in no mood to be stabbed with needles. My first patient stood scarfing out of her trough, making deep, guttural grunting sounds, her ears flapping as she chewed open-mouthed.
“Hi, honey.” I approached her, unsheathing the thick needle as surreptitiously as I could. I positioned myself at her head, and slipped my hand through the bars. Finding a spot halfway down her neck, I gave the skin a firm stab.
But the hide was too thick, and the needle bounced off as she let out this unholy scream, and slammed herself against the bars. I narrowly managed to withdraw my hand as the massive animal thrashed in the cage, “Jesus wept!”
I looked up to see the farmer grinning, “Y’alright? Try again, it’s fine to leave the needle in there if she’s being stupid.”
And so after two more attempts, which just elicited more violent retaliations, I went for the matador method. Steeling myself, I pushed the needle against her skin and overrode the urge to flinch as she struggled. The moment the point broke the skin, I retreated, leaving the syringe in her neck like a spear in a bull. After a few seconds, she went back to troughing, and I went in to inject the vaccine. On withdrawal, she squealed again, and when I went to put the cap back on the needle, I found it bent at an alarming angle. Ana then had to repeat the performance on the enraged swine with her vaccine.
As we made our way from sow to sow, many of them took the vaccines without so much as a flinch, and others were snapping through the bars like rabid dogs. Often, getting to her neck from the front was too risky, and I had to squeeze between the tin shelter and the cage to access her from the side. With one particularly nasty individual, I was slipping alongside the cage, needle in hand, when my welly got stuck between the two structures, and it came off my foot. Why? Why does this always happen to me? Once again I found myself wobbling on one foot, but this time, the furious sow was snapping at my one supporting leg, her teeth narrowly missing my calf.
The only way I was going to get her attention away from my legs was by sticking her with the vaccine. And so, one-legged and facing completely the wrong way, I twisted round and slapped the needle into her neck. Immediately, her head lifted to shake me off. As soon as the dose was delivered, I discarded the syringe to the roof of the shelter and used the bought time to hoik my boot out and make a speedy exit. There has got to be a better way of doing this, surely?
The very next day, we set about herding the same sows out of their farrowing runs and into a collective pen: it was weaning day. It would take a few hours for the sows to realise that they couldn’t get back to their piglets, at which point they would scream the shed down. In the meantime, it was time to catch and sort the cute little buggers.
We were given a large metal box on wheels, and a clipboard to record the number of piglets taken. I was given a waxy livestock marker, which looked just like a bright blue Pritt Stick, with instructions to put a line down the faces of the boars, down the spines of runts for fostering, and nothing on the gilts. After this, the farmer climbed into the shelter and began snagging the panicking piglets by their hind legs, and posting them through the hatch. I received each screaming, thrashing creature and tried to restrain it one-armed while I marked its face or back, before depositing each one into the metal box. They were incredibly heavy, and struggled desperately to get away. By the time we’d finished each litter, the box was a writhing mass of piglets all climbing over the top of each other.
This box we wheeled off to the weaner house, where we put the boars in one pen and the gilts in the other. Before each one went in its respective pen, it received two vaccinations in the neck. Once the box was empty, we returned to retrieve the next litter. About halfway through the exercise, I became aware that there were groups of people watching us through windows at the end of the weaner shed. Tour groups, looking around the college campus. Ignore them.
We were rattling efficiently through a group of particularly wriggly piglets, when a pink individual climbed onto his brother’s head and sprang out of the box. I spotted him out of the corner of my eye and made to catch him in freefall, but he hit the floor and took off towards the barn door.
“Hey, we’ve got a runner!”
The farmer was the first to take off, and Ana and I followed immediately. As we exited the barn, to our horror, we saw the yard gate wide open. The manure contractor didn’t shut it when he left! Dashing through the gate, we saw the little pink bottom trotting off to God knows where, and set off after it. Seeing us in pursuit, the piglet broke into a run, heading off into the college campus. Oh, Lord, no.
Rounding a corner, we sprinted past the very group of people who’d been watching us in the shed, who now stood laughing in delight at the comical scene. Ignore them.
The piglet dashed across immaculate lawns, round the beef sheds, past the cafeteria, and into an equestrian arena. Groups of students and staff watched and laughed as the little animal galloped by, followed by three angry humans in wellies.
“Look! They’re chasing a pig!”
“Look at the piglet!”
“There they go again!”
The embarrassment was horrendous… I just wanted to turn invisible… no, focus. Focus on the pig.
The pig was having a great time, roaming around the grounds, and he disappeared into a hedge. We three arrived at the hedge, and began pacing up and down, trying to flush him out. The farmer was becoming increasingly frustrated, swearing and crashing through the bushes. I just happened to glance over his shoulder.
“There he goes! He went behind that Portakabin!”
The farmer wheeled around and took off, while Ana and I hurdled the hedge to follow. A minute later, and we had him cornered behind the Portakabin. The farmer and I closed in on him from either side, as he ran back and forth between us, trying to find a gap. Suddenly, he made a dash towards the farmer, who threw himself along the floor. But he missed, and the little swine scurried down the side of a stable block. Ana and I broke into a run after him, following him back past the tour group. For God’s sake.
We quickly realised that he was heading for the open countryside, and I couldn’t keep up this pace any longer. These boots are made for walkin’, not sprinting across fields. I was absolutely knackered, my breath was tearing at my lungs. I was so close to just sinking to my knees and letting the little bastard run off into the woods. Maybe he’ll survive off mushrooms and grow into a legendary wild boar. But then a group of squawky horsey girls emerged from a cabin and laughed at me, and so I rode the wave of indignation for a final push.
We chased the piglet onto the equestrian cross country course. As he rounded a patch of bushes, Ana blocked the other end while I jumped off a step obstacle. He made for the forest, which had metre-high undergrowth that slowed his progress. We took the opportunity without hesitation, and launched ourselves into the nettles, landing on top of the terrified piglet.
Ultimately, I emerged from the shrubbery with the little animal dangling by his back leg. Tucking him firmly under my arm, we began making our way back. As I climbed back up the step obstacle, the sweaty, red-faced farmer appeared and practically melted with relief at the sight of the creature in my arms. Then his face turned to thunder, and we trudged in silence back to the yard.
I could actually taste the relief, and was looking forward to releasing the piglet into his pen before getting a drink. But, as Murphy would have it, in the rush none of us had shut the gates to the weaner pens. Piglets of mixed sex wandered all over the farm. We just stood, watching as nearly sixty trottered tosspots infiltrated every storeroom, tearing open bags of feed so that it spilled all over the floor.
You can probably imagine the events that followed. In the end, I got a mugshot of the little devil that started it all. I have to say, he doesn’t look particularly remorseful.
But that’s pigs for you, and I can’t help but love ’em. Each and every day of that placement wiped me out, but spending time with pigs is such a privilege, because they really are utter comedians. It’s taken me a very long time to write this down, because I’ve been doing beef and poultry over the past couple of weeks, which has been time-consuming in itself! But an egg-cellently meaty post is in the pipeline now, so I look forward to seeing you on the Dogsbody again!