It was my third year in 4-H. After two years of fooling around raising green beans and carrots in a garden project, I yearned for a “real” project, which for me meant livestock. Although I really wanted a beef steer, the best I could talk my parents into was a couple of pigs.
An April visit to a neighbor’s hog lot procured my first two 4-H pigs—both Hampshire-Duroc crossbred barrows—which I named Curly and Moe after two of “The Three Stooges,” (sorry, Larry). Like their TV namesakes, Moe was the more dominant, less congenial of the two, and Curly quickly became my favorite.
Curly was an attractive pig, with the trademark black and white markings of his Hampshire lineage, and the floppy ears of his Duroc forbears. Those who “knew hogs” said that he had good length and a good rear end (hams) and my hopes for him accomplishing big things at the county 4-H fair in late July were sky-high. And if TLC could produce results in the show ring, he would have been a champion for sure.
For a summer Curly became my best friend. I brushed him, petted him, and he especially liked it when I scratched his belly while he was lying on his side. I spent many pleasure-filled hours preparing him and me for show ring to come.
The biggest problem I had with Curly was his stubborn refusal to stay out of the blasted mud hole in the shade of the roof behind the chicken house, which formed the southern boundary of his lot. I’d spend time brushing and grooming him, getting him to look pretty good, only to return later and find him sticking his nose out of a heretofore unimaginable pool of foul-looking- and-smelling liquid slime. Although I was frustrated by his utter disregard for the hours I’d spent grooming him, I soon learned not to take it personally—that was just part of being a pig in those days. It was how he kept cool on scorching summer days, given that he had no sweat glands. (Lesson #1: A pig’s wants, needs, and interests are totally different than anything I could’ve previously imagined.)
Finally July came and Curly and I headed to the fair. It was exciting stuff! The sights, sounds, and smells of the fair’s swine barn, coupled with all the other kids, some of whom quickly became new friends, turned it into one of the most fun experiences of my 12-year-old life.
Wednesday was the day of the hog show. My dad helped me groom Curly, and when he was bathed, clipped, oiled and powdered (as they did it back then) he looked SHARP! When it came time for his class, he didn’t blow away the competition as I’d hoped, but did place sixth out of a class of about 25. I couldn’t have been prouder. To reward him, I went down to the carnival and bought a bag of caramel corn, which I shared with him, feeding him out of my hand while we both rested up from the show.
Friday night soon came, with the 4-H auction, which capped the fair week. Although I’d hoped prospective buyers would recognize what a wonderful animal Curly was and bid accordingly, he sold for a pretty average price. My dad was a fairly small farmer, and the high bids went to the kids whose dads had larger operations, and had their prices bid up by competing agribusiness suppliers. (Lesson #2: Life’s not always fair). Curly was bought by a local funeral home, which resold him to a stockyard.
Only after the auction, when I was cleaning up my pen and equipment, did it totally hit me. I was going home and Curly wasn’t. I’d never see him again. I cried. Hard. And the tears would reoccur readily for several days.
But that summer I learned what every 4-H member who has ever raised livestock has learned—that however much we may love an animal, Curly’s real purpose in life was not to be my friend, but rather to be an excellent source of protein-rich nutrition for many people. He was a meat animal. To have “taken him back home,”—and have had him grow into a 600-pound “pet” who would eat our family into a homeless shelter—wasn’t realistic. If I wanted a pet, a dog would make a better one. (And looking back from decades later, the emotion and affection was one directional. Curly—other than belly scratching and caramel corn—was indifferent).
While I never went on to raise pigs vocationally, I still enjoy them as a species—I just plain like them. But what many people who have not had my or similar experiences don’t realize these days is that whether or not they are “cute,” or “likable,” farm animals aren’t pets. Their purpose in life is not to befriend us, but to feed us (Lesson #3).
Curly, bless his heart, was also an excellent teacher.