|Chicha (left) and Boda (with the "B" on his forehead, in August|
A few weeks ago, we had our first pig harvest. We "harvested" Boda, who was named for the event he was intended for, our wedding. Once we decided to postpone that event, his name became less meaningful, but his purpose was merely shifted; instead of feeding our wedding guests, he would feed us, and our friends, throughout the winter. We decided on the last weekend of October, just before the apprentices left, when we could mark the end of another season with a celebration of life. That day, Harvest Day, was incredible, for many reasons, and I will tell the story in a later post. But something happened before that that made me appreciate the experience of slaughtering and processing that pig more than I would have otherwise.
A week before the harvest day, fall arrived. Until then, days had been consistently balmy and cloud-free. The rains expected each year in October had yet to arrive, and there was no sign of their arrival, until Sunday. When I went out to feed the animals that morning, I was greeted by the first gray sky day in half a year, and a chilly breeze made the air suddenly, unexpectedly autumnal. The pigs were staying in a paddock in the garden, where the tomatoes had been, up until two weeks earlier. With such mild weather, they had been sleeping outside, and, having decidedly destroyed the EZ-Up tent we had set up for them as shade protection, they had no shelter.
That morning, as usual, I dumped a full garbage bag of vegetable scraps, retrieved from One Speed the day before, and let them work on that while I filled two buckets with grain and water. I thought it strange when only Boda came running up to the edge of the paddock to greet me, grunting hungrily and plowing his nose through the pile of scraps almost before I could free them from the bag. Chicha, his sister, remained lying in the corner among a nest of dying tomato vines. Usually they both approach in anticipation of a meal, or even the possibility of one. They had become less and less enthused by the vegetable scraps the longer we supplemented them with grain, but surely she'd get up as soon as she saw me mixing the grain buckets. When she still didn't get up at this point, I gave Boda his bucket and walked over to Chicha, still listless and prone in the far corner of the paddock. When I approached, she attempted to get up. After a couple of unsteady wobbles, she stuck her nose in the bucket, sniffed the grain, and retreated, collapsing again into the nest of tomato vines.
This was not good. In the five months since we had gotten them as 13 week-old piglets, neither of the pigs had been anything but lively and voraciously hungry. Chicha was definitely not well, and with the weather forecast predicting rain and continued chilly weather, we'd need to take care of her as soon as possible.
Inside, I called Jared, the farm manager at the Ranch, and told him about Chicha's behavior. He gave me the number of the vet they use, who visits our animals when they're sick and treats them, often free of charge. His wife had just had a baby, Jared warned me, so he may be difficult to get ahold of.
I called the vet and left a message, and then Eric and I went out to inspect her. We decided the first thing to do would be to build a shelter. We planned to move the pigs back to the area where their house was, but it was far from the tomato block, and with Chicha barely able to get up, we knew that it would be all but impossible to get her there while she was sick. We built a house for them with straw bales instead, laying folding tables on top for a roof and covering it with a giant tarp. She quickly moved into the shelter, but continued to refuse food and all but the smallest sips of water. Later that day, I still hadn't heard from the vet, so I called again and left another message. Meanwhile, we'd spent the day researching porcine diseases and their remedies, and Eric decided to buy some penicillin and hope for the best. He gave her the first of two injections that evening.
|Eric comforts Chicha before giving her a Penicillin injection|
At 1am, I awoke from a dead sleep to the sound of a hard rain falling, the first since May. My first reaction: panic. I spent the next thirty minutes thinking about the animals. What if Boda had further destroyed the shelter, and our sick pig was now getting soaked? Our ducks were in a paddock that lacked shelter, too, save for a few small fruit trees. After multiple prayers for the rain to stop proved unsuccessful, I finally got up, pulled on my rubber boots, headlamp, and rain jacket, and went out the back door. I shined my light on the pig paddock, and as I approached, I could see that the shelter was still in tact. The ducks, I reasoned, are water-loving animals, and would survive a night in the rain.
The next morning the rain had stopped, the farm was covered with small lakes, and Chicha showed no improvement. Nor, thankfully, was she any worse, but with no response from the vet, we knew now that if she was going to make it through, it was up to us.
|The flooded farm post-rain storm|
All day Monday we took turns checking on Chicha. We reinforced the shelter, set up a new paddock and separated Boda from his sister. We continued to try to get her to eat and drink, with little success. Now we worried about dehydration. We hadn't seen her defecate, and she had consumed mere sips of water for the last day and a half. That afternoon we decided to try to give her saline solution through an IV. As a medic's assistant in the army, Eric had received extensive medical training, and read up all day on how to apply his skills to our sick pig. With the light fading, we brought our supplies to Chicha's shelter, and Eric went to work. An hour and a half later, he had managed to insert the needle subcutaneously and feed her a few hundred milliliters of saline solution, as well as the second injection of penicillin. We went to bed with fingers crossed for signs of recovery the next day.
|Dr. Eric goes to work on our sick porker|
|Feeling (in vain) for a vein in Chicha's ear|
On Tuesday morning I had to be at the Ranch at 8am to lead a field trip. I thought about checking on Chicha before I left, but time was short and I knew that, should I find a sicker or worse, a dead pig, I would be in no state to drive myself to the Ranch and lead a group of second graders on a field trip. I decided to leave it to Eric. It wasn't until 1:00 that afternoon that I was able to check in. Before I could even ask him, Eric reported that Chicha was better. I think I literally shouted "Really!?! Woohoo!!" She had leapt up and approached hungrily when he went out to feed them in the morning, ate and drank heartily, and seemed like herself again.
Before Chicha got sick, I don't think I fully embraced our role as caretakers of these animals' lives. I fed them daily, moved their fence, hosed them off in the hot afternoons and laughed at their dog-like playfulness, but never really understood that they were my responsibility. Their lives were in my hands. It sounds obvious, writing it now, but it wasn't until Sunday night when, waking up, heart pounding, I realized they might be out in the cold rain, sick and suffering, that I knew--really knew--that they were mine. I--Eric and I--had promised to keep them safe and well and happy, to ensure a good life for them, and this part, even in these last weeks before they met their fate, was just as important, no, even more important, than the part after their death, when their purpose was fulfilled and their meat was in our oven and in our bellies. If Chicha died now, from being cold and wet while sick and weak, it would be my fault, and it would be a waste.
Thank goodness, she didn't. She bounced back, thanks to Eric's doctoring and our protection of her. She's still doing well, living over at the Ranch, busting up the boards of a pen designed to hold the much smaller Guinea Hogs they raise over there, and eating as many scraps as she could ever want. In a few weeks her life will end as well. It will be hard, but this is her purpose, and we will honor her by cherishing the meat she provides.