Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Mind of Big Willy

Naturally, posted both here and the Rock Bottom Ranch blog....

As we hear reiterated at many a ranch educational program, fall is a time of harvest. (We are now nearing the end of this harvest-season, as winter weather starts to arrive.) We collect apples from trees, pumpkins from the vine, dig potatoes and carrots, slaughter a pig or two, and so forth. On our field programs, students join in for cider pressing. They take turns spinning the crank of the apple-crusher, and all sing the song: “This the way we crush our apples, on an autumn day.” Next we turn the topmost crank, and the press mashes the fruits.. “This is the way we press our apples...” And the sweet cider oozes out.

Meanwhile, a 600-pound beast watches. Big Willy stands right behind the fence at the edge of his pasture. He pants and grunts, and shakes with excitement. Drools streams from his open mouth, with tusks on full display. (Don't be afraid; Big Willy uses his tusks ONLY for display.)

A singular obsession has entered his mind. The apple-chunks that remain after cider pressing. Sweet and delicious. To be eaten with speed and gusto. Big Willy has apples on his mind. And in a short time, his desire is satisfied. Apples. They please the tongue, and fill the gullet.

Long have humans contemplated the mind of the beasts. Biologists, psychologists, philosophers, and lay-people all have their own explanations for what goes on in animal minds. But in the case of Big Willy, animal thoughts are not hard to deduce. His sole preoccupation in life is food. Being a large black pig, his primary diet is grass, supplemented with a bit of grain. But he'll take any food he can get. When a human comes before him, he approaches and pants and looks and sniffs, hopeful for the goodness of grain. Or eggs or milk. Big Willy's great bulk is a heavy burden on his thin legs. Nonetheless, he will run from the far side of the pasture if he thinks the gift of grain is waiting. He will interrupt intimate love with the sow Laura Jean, if grain is offered.

On countless farm tours, I have reassured children that Big Willy may look scary, but is totally nice, harmless. But when I have a bucket of grain in my hand, a spark in Big Willy ignites. 600 pounds of hunger barrels toward me, as fast as those twig legs can run. His interest is entirely in the grain, but he may incidentally bowl over me along the way. And when Big Willy escapes his pasture or goes wandering into the chicken-enclosure... a scoop of grain may be the only way to lure him back to his proper spot. And so the rancher must run, with the giant hog in hot pursuit, grunting and salivating.

Sometimes, people ask if hogs are really as smart as reputed. I don't know for sure, but I do know that Big Willy can be quite clever, when there is an opportunity for food. If his gate is left open, just enough for a huge hog to slip through, he'll go out. Not for fresh air or social life, but because our only way to lure him back in is with food. When we move chickens and their pens and fence to new pasture, Big Willy is close behind. He'll scarf any chicken feed left on the ground, and slurp all grain spills. If we leave a barrel of grain unprotected, Big Willy will knock it over. The resultant pile of culinary goodness is his version of heaven.

When the butcher shot Big Willy's offspring for pork, the boar did not seem concerned. Instead, he walked over and sniffed their blood, to see if any food might be there.

Fat Freddy is an amateur next to Big Willy. In his voracity and scope of appetite, the hog is just below “The Pet” (of a 1921 Winsor McCay theatrical cartoon.) Although he may not have grown skyscraper-size, he used to be quite overweight. Until put on a diet, to reach a slim 600.

Even the slimmer Big Willy, at the age of two-and-a-half, has developed some joint issues in his front legs. We monitor him now. Our hogs have short lives, but they live a version of the American dream. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. And for Big Willy, happiness is something that you chew.

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