Dispeller of pig ignorance

January 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

A interview with Lyall Watson, author of The Whole Hog.

Lyall Watson is in London to talk about pigs. His mission, at his publisher’s Dickensian rookery in Hatton Garden, is to persuade scientists that they’ve been neglecting the other candidate for man’s best friend.

He’s gone, as his title jokes, The Whole Hog to set down what we do know about these ungulates, which he reckons can be differentiated from their hoofed cousins, sheep, goats and antelope, by superior intelligence. “I’m hoping what the book will do for the general reader is just enlighten and for professionals just jog their imaginations a little.”

Watson, million-selling author of Supernature, a 70s student essential that tried to explain supernatural phenomena in biological terms, was freed by its success “to follow strange gods”, doing what he pleases. Every two years or so since, he has stopped for three months to write a book. “My feet hurt, my hair falls out. I’m not a natural writer. The only way I can do it is to be so disciplined that I get up at four every morning and write a full two or three thousand words before I eat or drink anything.”

By postgraduate training – under Desmond Morris at London Zoo – he’s a field naturalist, but he’s also had stints building zoos, running safaris and making BBC television programmes. Now 65, he has taken time at his cottage in West Cork to set down, as ever in longhand, the stories of his own encounters with pigs, interleaved with his account of scholarship about pigs.

“It came about because over the last 60 years I’ve had three intimate relationships with pigs,” he says. “It sounds silly. Everything about pigs sounds silly. There was much more meaning in them than I’d expected looking back … It seemed to me that pigs were much more intelligent than anything I’d seen and written about.”

Yet there has been little scientific interest. “Mostly pig research is on production, it’s about pork bellies and it’s not about behaviour at all and yet the common anecdotal information about pigs is that they’re clever … but in the scientific world there are more people looking at the Japanese macaque than all the 16 [species of] wild pigs, worldwide, and when I asked people they said ‘It’s difficult to see them.’ Well it’s no more difficult than the mountain gorillas or dolphins or anything else in the wild that’s active.”

Pigs, says Watson, are not what you expect, ever. “If you’re looking at a pig, a big pig preferably, at close quarters, what you see is liveliness and intelligence for which you are just not prepared … There’s something behind the eyes of all of them which is much more primate than it is ungulate.

“Orwell was right, pigs are more equal than anyone else, because they just are and no one’s talking about why they are and how that came to be, why something with hooves would need to be intelligent. The big answer, that put me on to the book, is that omnivory is a very important and fruitful way of life.”

After the insectivores that got under feet of dinosaurs, two basic plans for mammalian living emerged: carnivory and herbivory. But meat-eating foxes, for example, often eat fruit and many animals we thought purely vegetarian, such as gorillas, readily eat meat. But animals that eat anything – bears, badgers, raccoons – found plenty of niches: “Pigs are classics of that kind. They’ll eat absolutely anything, even bacon or each other or humans”

Such omnivory could be key to pigs’ intelligence. “They have to have spatial memories so they can go back to the place where they found something that was good and at which time of the year it was good. They have to be playful in many ways, to be prepared at very short notice to do something different than they’ve done before.” As Desmond Morris put it, they have to “like the new”.

Watson says pig ignorant people say they “are nasty, dirty, horrible, smelly, all the adjectives you like” yet get to know pigs and you find they’re neither dirty, nor smelly: “If they are, it’s our fault because we keep them that way. The first thing you learn when you walk with a pig for more than a day is that he has a latrine somewhere. That he will never do it anywhere else. In sties they don’t have much choice.”

Anecdotes begin in his southern African childhood, rearing a warthog called Hoover whose mother had been killed by hyenas, shift to an archeological site in the Mexican desert for the story of Salsa, a playful peccary saved from hunters, and fetch up after a storm on an island east of Bali where Watson found Babi, a Sulawesi warty pig, living in a Muslim village despite the pork taboo. The stories are wonderful but, he says, “I really wanted to embed them in a book which gives you all the information you need to argue … that pigs are really worth looking at, because they’re so much like us for a start.”

Do statements like that not leave him open to the criticism that was levelled against Peter Singer’s 1975 book, Animal Liberation, of “anthropomorphic musings without scientific merit”?

“The scientist who is not going to like the book without even having read it is going to pick on those things,” he replies. “I think it’s a smaller group than it has been for a long time.”

Here in the City of London, we are minutes from Sadler’s Wells, which in 1785 introduced “a sagacious pig who reckons the number of people present, tells by evoking on a Gentleman’s watch what is the hour and minutes, and distinguishes all sorts of colours”. Yet we are also a stone’s throw from Smithfield meat market, and it seems that Watson, for all his regard for pigs, has no qualms about eating bacon or using pigs in scientific experiments.

“I have no problems about eating pig,” he says. “You only have to be in New Guinea for a while with the pig cultures, people who live pigs, whose heart is pigs, where pigs are their currency, and they think someone who doesn’t eat pork is a heathen.”

But does he welcome genetic manipulation for medicine production?

“I think so. I knew Christiaan Barnard [the South African heart transplant pioneer] and his interest to provide spare parts. That has come to fruition. There are lots of people walking about with mitral valves or some part of a pig, even if it’s a chemical produced by a pig. I think that’s more than allowable. I think that should be encouraged.”


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