Book Summary: Lesser Beasts by Mark Essig

My Personal Summary

This book is about the history of pigs.

Pigs have been used for thousands of years as a reliable protein source. They possess an almost magical ability to eat nearly any type of food, including garbage and feces, and convert it into delicious pork.

Although less prestigious than other sources of meat like cattle and sheep, they are more profitable for farmers and reproduce at an exceptionally quick pace.

Pigs played a crucial role in the early colonial days of America, providing a reliable source of meat for pioneers and armies alike.

Today, sadly, most pigs are raised in awful conditions in tiny cages and kept on a strict diet that guarantees they will put on weight as fast as possible before being slaughtered. This is especially sad considering studies have shown that pigs are one of the most intelligent animals on earth.

In recent history, some advocacy groups have pushed for more humane conditions for pigs, but only time will tell if these groups will make any meaningful impact.

Book Notes

  • Hog droving, as the practice was known, formed an essential link in the global economy. In peak years as many as 150,000 hogs made the journey on this single turnpike, and many other mountain routes also carried pigs from upland farms to the Deep South. The pork fed the slaves, who raised the cotton, which supplied textile mills in New England and Great Britain, which made the fabric that clothed the world. And it all depended on a few men herding hogs through a narrow river valley cutting through the mountains of North Carolina.
  • Studies show that pigs can figure out how mirrors work and use them to scan the landscape for a meal. A pig that knows where food is cached will delay its gratification until no other pigs are present and then enjoy the meal by itself. It can learn to perform tasks—open a cage, turn a heater on and off, play video games—more quickly than nearly any other animal. Animal scientist Temple Grandin reports that in barns that use electronic collars to dispense individual portions of food, sows who find a stray collar on the ground will carry it to the food dispenser to steal a second helping.
  • Whereas cows and sheep must live on pasture, eating grass, pigs, like people, are omnivores. They will eat corn in the field, garbage on city streets, kitchen slop in backyard sties, whey in dairy barns, acorns in forests, and mollusks on tropical beaches.
  • Cows, goats, and sheep provide milk, a bountiful and consistent source of protein. Oxen pull plows and carts, and sheep are shorn for wool. Pigs do not pull plows; they give no milk and grow no wool. Pigs produce only one thing: more pigs. Many, many more pigs.
  • Cows gestate for nine months and produce one calf; sheep and goats require five months and give birth to one or two offspring. A sow, on the other hand, gestates for less than four months and produces eight or twelve or even more piglets, all of which grow to slaughter weight far more quickly than a calf or a lamb. Born at 3 pounds, today’s piglet balloons to 280 pounds by six months of age, at which point it is also ready to breed.
  • Whereas other hoofed mammals gave up generalized skills, pigs stayed true to the forest-dwelling first mammals. They kept shorter limbs, the better to scoot through the brush. Since pigs lived in dense thickets, they didn’t need good eyesight, so their eyes remained small. Since good hearing was an advantage, their ears remained large, and they learned to communicate through a wide variety of grunts and squeals. Adapted to moist, shady environments, they have few sweat glands and cool themselves with a wallow in the mud. Pigs are not good at standing in a field in the hot sun. That is a job for cows.
  • In humans, the somatosensory cortex—the part of the brain responsible for sensation—is wired primarily to the hands. In pigs, nearly all the touch-sensitive nerves terminate in the nose. It’s best to think of a pig snout not as a nose at all but as something like an elephant’s trunk, a miraculous fifth limb that allows the pig to react to its world in ways unknown to other hoofed mammals. A tough cartilage nasal disk allows the pig to plow into rock-hard ground, while a fine mesh of snout muscles lets the pig make delicate rooting motions without moving its head. Other muscles clamp the nostrils shut to keep out dirt while still allowing puffs of air to enter, so that the pig’s exquisite sense of smell can determine whether a hard, round object is a rock to be nudged aside or a nut to be cracked open.
  • Digesting and thinking are the most energy-intensive processes in animal physiology. According to what scientists call the “expensive-tissue hypothesis,” before an animal can develop a big brain, it must first lose its large gut, because having both would exact an enormous cost in calories. The only way to shrink the gut is to subsist on higher-quality food—not grass but nuts, fats, and meats.
  • In the human lineage the crucial shift took place about 1.8 million years ago, when Homo erectus appeared. Compared to their most immediate predecessors, these human ancestors had bigger skulls, smaller teeth, and a smaller rib cage and pelvis—the last two providing evidence of a smaller gut. Most likely, these changes were linked not simply to eating nutrient-rich foods but to cooking them, which made digestion even more efficient. By cooking their meats and roots, our ancestors freed up energy that otherwise would have gone to digestion, allowing it to be redirected to the growth of a bigger brain.
  • Scientists developed the expensive-tissue hypothesis to explain human evolution, but it might also account for why pigs are smarter than cows. The enormous guts of ruminants, required to ferment grass into digestible sugars, spare few calories for the brain. Pigs, with simple guts and calorie-intensive diets, can devote more metabolic energy to thinking.
  • Domestication, by contrast, is an evolutionary process in which a species adapts to living alongside humans. Whereas taming involves individual animals, domestication involves populations. Pet keeping might be thought of as an initial evaluation to see if the animal might work out as a permanent employee: many animals were interviewed, but few were hired.
  • Those animals that made the cut—large domestic beasts like cows, pig, sheep, goats, horses, camels, and llamas—have certain things in common. They eat widely available foods such as grasses and leaves (unlike, for instance, koalas, which require specific types of eucalyptus leaves). They reproduce fairly quickly (unlike elephants, which gestate for almost two years). They respond to threats by bunching up rather than by scattering (as white-tailed deer do). They aren’t too aggressive (like African buffalo) or agile (like fence-leaping gazelles). Perhaps most importantly, they live in groups structured by a dominance hierarchy, a trait that allows humans to step in at the top position and assert control of the herd.
  • Biologists judge an animal’s wariness in terms of “flight distance”—how far an animal will run away if a human approaches. Flight distance is, in part, genetically determined, and variation exists within populations. Those wolves with shorter flight distances—that is, with a greater tolerance for proximity to humans—claimed more food and reproduced more successfully.
  • Goats and sheep became domestic through their role as prey for human hunters: people first killed wild animals, then managed wild herds, and finally managed domestic herds. Pigs became domestic through their relationship not with humans as hunters but rather with humans as villagers. People tracked down goats, but pigs tracked down people. Once domesticated, goats retained their original habitat, the scrubby hills and grassland outside town, whereas pigs took up residence right alongside humans. From the start, it was a more intimate relationship, involving everyone who lived in town rather than just herders assigned to the task.
  • Pigs, moreover, had a job to do beyond providing meat. They cleaned up the waste that accumulated in each village they occupied: dead animals, rotten food, and human feces.
  • Pigs eat shit. In many villages around the world today, pigs linger around peoples’ usual defecation spots awaiting a meal.
  • Today, there are about 14 million Jews in the world and 1.6 billion Muslims—meaning that the religions of nearly a quarter of the global population reject swine.
  • Uncleanliness, in the Bible, is a contagion: predators and scavengers become unclean by eating bloody meat; men become unclean by eating the unclean flesh of animals that have eaten bloody meat; unclean men contaminate the temple so that God can no longer dwell with his people. That is why pigs, lickers of blood and eaters of carrion, could not be food for those who wished to remain pure: they were a vector for the unholy and would pollute anyone who consumed them.
  • Although many cultures throughout history have forbidden the eating of pigs because they’re associated with filth (since they’re known to eat garbage, human fences and even human remains) the ancient Romans loved to eat pork and pork prices were often double those of beef or other meats because pork was in such high demand.
  • Rome was a cleaner place: aqueducts brought clean water, and sewers carried away filth. The Italian Peninsula, moreover, enjoyed enough rainfall to create marshes and oak forests, and trade networks brought an abundance of wheat and barley. Rather than eating carrion and garbage, Roman pigs spent their days devouring nuts in the woods or grains in the sty.
  • Throughout Europe the size of a forest sometimes was judged not by its acreage but by the number of pigs it could support. In England’s Domesday Book (1086 ad), a sort of census of the kingdom, designations such as “wood for 100 swine” served as measurements for some forests. In ninth-century Italy a monastery’s forest was judged to be 2,000 pigs big. Whether the forest was five or fifty square acres mattered less than the number of swine it could feed, because that determined its worth.
  • Curing, at its most basic, involves nothing more than drying meat. Bacteria requires moisture to grow, so the drier the meat, the less likely it is to rot. In arid climates meat can be cut into strips and left to cure in the air; Norwegians preserved cod this way, and Native Americans did the same with venison. Usually, though, curing involved salt. Coating a piece of meat with salt creates osmotic pressure: water rushes out of the animal cells toward the salt, drying out the meat.
  • Salt is also directly toxic to bacteria, killing them through osmosis by sucking the moisture out of them. Sometimes the salt gets an assist from wood smoke, which deposits a variety of bactericidal compounds on the meat’s surface, along with delicious flavors. Any meat can be cured with salt, but lean meats like beef tend to become tough when so preserved. Cured pork, with its generous veins of fat, remains tender.
  • By 1700 pigs were far less numerous in England than cattle and sheep, ruminants that provided milk, wool, and more highly prized meat. Most farmers kept only a few pigs to eat agricultural waste, as in this illustration from a 1732 farming guide. Soon, however, pigs would be raised on a larger scale to eat the by-products from commercial dairies, breweries, and distilleries.
  • In the great age of exploration, sailors needed foods that wouldn’t spoil during long voyages. This prompted a vast expansion of the salt-food industry, as pork, beef, and fish were packed into barrels and rolled aboard ships. Pork, because it preserved so well, commanded much of this market. The British navy required as many as 40,000 pigs annually,
  • Pigs are the weediest domestic animal—opportunistic, tough, and fecund. Like rats, they can live nearly anywhere; unlike rats, they taste good.
  • Pigs loved the warmth of Española, the dense forests, the coastal marshes, the plentiful rainfall, and the lack of predators. They especially loved its food. Columbus wrote that the trees and plants there were “as different from ours [in Europe] as day from night,” but they were agreeable to pigs, which rooted up the Tainos’ cassava and sweet potatoes and devoured their guavas and pineapples. They snatched baby birds out of nests and lizards and snakes from the ground. Their favorite food was the jobo, a plum-sized fruit from a tree native to the American tropics. One Spaniard risked blasphemy by claiming that pork from pigs fattened on this fruit tasted even better than the acorn-fed variety back home. The Spaniards shipped pigs to other islands as well. The Jamaican mountains soon held what one witness called “countless herds,” and in 1514 the governor of Cuba told King Ferdinand that the herd of 24 pigs he had carried to the island less than two decades before had ballooned to 30,000.
  • When Christopher Columbus and company landed in the Dominican Republic in 1492, they had trouble getting sheep and cattle to survive the warm and wet tropical environment. Pigs, however, thrived.
  • The Spanish had learned that colonization didn’t work without pigs. The first settlement of Buenos Aires proved disastrous, in part because it lacked a foundation of livestock. That’s why the crown, when granting licenses to settlers, required that their ships transport as many as five hundred pigs each.
  • By 1600 beef had replaced pork as the dominant meat among colonists in the Americas. Cows and sheep bred more slowly than pigs, but over time they built up herds and provided wool and hides in addition to meat.
  • The pig is the perfect animal for colonization, breeding quickly and providing abundant meat in the difficult years when the land is being tamed. One writer explained that in pioneer-era Minnesota, only when farms were well established could settlers start to raise cattle and “emancipate themselves from the benevolent tyranny of the pig.” Cows and sheep are animals for more settled times. When the West was being won, America counted on the pig.
  • Corn, paired with pigs, fueled the rapid settlement of the United States. An acre of corn produced three to six times as much grain as an acre of wheat. One sown seed of wheat might yield 50 at harvest; a single corn kernel produced 150 to 300. Only rice—a far more labor-intensive crop—produced at similar rates. One scholar estimates that if Americans had planted wheat instead of corn in their march across the country, it would have taken them an extra century to reach the Rockies.
  • The farmers grew breathtaking amounts of corn, but they didn’t eat it. They preferred wheat bread. In their minds, corn wasn’t food—it was feed. The practice of fattening livestock with grain dates back at least to ancient Mesopotamia, but North American farmers were the first to apply it on a vast scale. Whereas South America had become a major meat exporter by raising cattle on grassland, midwestern farmers turned grassland into cornfields and fed the corn to hogs and cattle. Compared to a field of grass, a field of corn produces far more calories and therefore far more livestock. Today the practice of feeding hogs on corn has become standard worldwide, with Brazil and China adopting it as the most efficient way to satisfy populations growing hungrier for meat. And it all started in the Corn Belt, when farmers figured out that an Old World animal and a New World crop made a perfect match.
  • Though less prestigious, hogs were more profitable. “Hogs don’t always carry the prestige of cattle, but you can’t live on prestige,” one farmer explained. The hog earned the nickname “mortgage lifter” because it freed so many Corn Belt farms from debt. If farmers wanted to turn corn into meat and meat into money, pigs did the job two or three times more efficiently than cows.
  • In the early 1800’s before trains became prominent, pigs were fattened in regions of the corn belt and then herded back east to be slaughtered and sold in markets like Philadelphia and Baltimore. Pigs could only travel about 10 miles per day so houses were set up specifically where pig herders could stop for the night and sleep and feed their pigs so they didn’t lose much weight on the journey.
  • Pork had been a favored food for millennia in part because it cured well. For the same reason, it became the key meat of global trade in the years before artificial refrigeration: unlike fresh beef, salted pork could be stored at room temperature for months as it was transported thousands of miles. By producing so much meat, Corn Belt packers transformed diets in America and around the world.
  • The conversion of pigs to pork began each fall. Hogs, fattened on the latest corn crop, traveled by foot, barge, or railcar to a packinghouse, almost always located on a river. The packers bought and slaughtered the hogs, cured the meat in salt, then in the spring, when the rivers thawed, floated the pork downriver to market.
  • In the 1820s the pigs and the money started to concentrate in Cincinnati, which became known as “Porkopolis.”
  • The telegraph lines that ran alongside railroad tracks gave farmers the most valuable of business commodities: information. Now farmers could drive or ship their pigs to the packinghouse offering the highest price per pound.
  • In Chicago, slaughterhouses used assembly lines where workers only had to do one specific job to prepare a pig for butchering. These assembly lines proved to be extremely efficient and Henry Ford would later say that his inspiration for the assembly lines at his factories came from observing assembly lines at slaughterhouses.
  • Interesting: Cincinnati burst onto the scene as an economic pork powerhouse before Chicago, but because most railroad lines terminated at Chicago, the Windy City became a much larger economic hub.
  • Along with meat, pigs produced a variety of byproducts that made them even more profitable to raise, including glue, oil, brushes, etc.
  • The Jungle, a book written in 1906 by Upton Sinclair, exposed the foul working conditions in slaughterhouses in Chicago and made the general public cautious about eating pork.
  • The American City, a policy journal, surveyed garbage-collection methods in 1920 and found that nearly a third of cities with populations over 100,000 used swine feeding as their primary garbage-disposal method;
  • By the 1980s the most advanced farms practiced “life-cycle housing,” which meant pigs never felt mud beneath their hooves. In a celebratory cover story in Scientific American, a university expert explained that the modern pig “lives indoors for its entire brief life: born and suckled in a farrowing unit and raised to slaughter weight in a nursery and later in a growing-feeding unit. It is fed a computer-formulated diet based on cornmeal and soybean meal with supplements of protein, minerals and vitamins… It is sent to market at five or six months of age, having reached the slaughter weight of 220 pounds or more from its birth weight of two pounds.”
  • Sows in modern hog facilities spend nearly all of their lives in two-by-seven-foot crates. The system keeps them from fighting each other and maximizes space in barns, but it also prevents them from walking or even turning around. The sows’ suffering has prompted campaigns to ban the use of crates.
  • Concern for the humane treatment of livestock has prompted the creation of organizations such as Animal Welfare Approved, which certify that private farms are raising animals according to certain standards.
  • Pigs are the most intelligent, the most human-like, of the farm animals, but they are kept tightly caged and never see daylight from birth to slaughter.

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