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Like a pig in...

Richard sleeps in the barn

Many of us eat bacon for breakfast without a thought for the animals that provide it, but what are pigs really like? Richard da Costa took time out from his life as a corporate communications consultant and actor to spend four days living with them. How did he cope?

Sleeping up to your ears in pig-poo might not be everybody's cup of tea, although I can honestly say I enjoyed it.

But I wasn't thinking that as I entered the pen for the first time, to meet my 10 piggy companions. My new home was about three metres wide and 11 metres long, with a concrete floor covered in mud, straw and you can guess what else.

Knowing I would be staying there (apart from surprise excursions like to artificially inseminate a sow) for a few days was pretty daunting. It was a bit like jumping off something very high.

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If I was going to get through it I knew I had to block out thoughts of hygiene and reset the rules in my head .

When I first went in, the bites from the pigs were quite hard. It wasn't like a dog play-fighting with you, these were real nips. It wasn't until I had managed to form some bonds that they became more affectionate.

I was visited by an expert who taught me some piggy "vocabulary" and that led to some real breakthroughs. At times they were sucking my toes and nibbling my ear, which is apparently a sign of real affection. I returned the compliment once or twice.

The females were the first to want to get to know me, but with the males there were a few tussles to be had before we became real buddies.

The nights were probably the hardest. Constant squabbles breaking out in other pens provided a nightmarish soundtrack. With my lot there was hardly a time when one of them wasn't getting up to go to the toilet and have a snack or a nibble at me.

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My life with the pigs

The solitude, the hunger, the smell, the cold, the constant night-time disturbances, the boredom, the scrutiny of the television cameras gazing down like an alien observer.

My biggest challenge was not the mud but the isolation. No conversation, no computer, no phone, no paper, no way to organise your thoughts, nowhere to wash. Not being able to play with my phone or send an e-mail or write anything down.

Much of the time I was just lying there and thinking, like you would in bed at night, but you can't sustain that unless you have a way of capturing those thoughts. I'm quite an extrovert so if I'm on my own for a long time I need to see someone.

Pangs of guilt

The one luxury was a portable toilet which was stationed nearby. This was better than having to do anything in the pen itself but it was a mixed blessing. Leaving the barn meant you had to come back in again, and the brief blast of outdoor air meant the smell coming back seemed so much worse each time.

Fortunately, I was eating so little that my trips to the portable toilet were pretty infrequent. The dried pellets of crushed soya, alfalfa and vitamins were so disgusting that you would rather go hungry and I probably ate less than a cupful in total over the four days.

I was spared electrocution followed by the knife through the heart

However bitter the pellets, it was hardly starvation and unlike the pigs, I had an exit strategy that involved survival.

One of the main things I learnt was how grotesquely efficient we are when it comes to the production of cheap meat - from the production-line seeding and breeding at the pellet-pushing pig-penitentiary which was the intensive unit I called home, through to the mechanised killing machine that was the abattoir.

We have selectively bred and overfed these animals so that the product - meat - is cheaper than cheese and everybody's happy. To be forced to have to connect with our pink pals made me appreciate how disconnected from it all we have conveniently become.

Sobering

On my last day I visited an abattoir to see how pigs are exterminated on a massive scale. I was put through the whole process with the pigs and it was absolutely clear to me that they had a very good idea that life was taking a significant turn for the worse. You only had to listen to the screaming.

Thankfully, I was spared electrocution followed by the knife through the heart. If we are going to eat animals, particularly the more sentient ones, then we must accept that they must be killed to be eaten. I cannot think of a nice way of doing that part.

For my last night, I was moved from the intensive farm - where the pigs were bored, neurotic, aggressive and largely pathetic creatures - to an outdoor one.

UP CLOSE WITH PIGS
Pigs
Fourth most intelligent animals
They are omnivorous and can even develop a taste for blood
They sleep about eight hours a day, including a siesta
Life expectancy is 10-15 years
But usually killed at 28 weeks
70% of UK pigs farmed intensively
Pigs eat without getting full
Male orgasm can last 30 minutes
Source: Naturalist Terry Nutkins

Outdoors, they were real animals, putting their snouts into mud rather than concrete, having to cross a field for a munch rather than having it in their bedding area, having a trough to jump up to, rather than being drip-fed from a convenient water bottle.

When I saw a pig scratch its ear with its hind leg I was amazed - the indoor pigs couldn't physically have done that. Yes, their lives would also be short but what a difference a field makes.

Looking back, it was without a doubt an experience that has broadened me and provided a sobering point of reference. A little voluntary dehumanization in a controlled environment is certainly a good way of making you appreciate how good you really have it on the outside.

It was two months before I could eat pig after coming out of the farm. I finally cracked and hypocrisy played its role as I was lured back to tearing my former bedfellow's flesh with my teeth. And by what? Spare ribs. Chorizo. Plain old bacon.

As much as I hate to say it, they really do taste very good. But I am a responsible shopper now. I think more about where all the things that I buy come from.

As consumers, we drive all production and - by how much we value something - the methods of that production.

Often enough we turn a blind eye to where our food comes from. We may suffer the occasional pang of guilt but this will soon subside with the next two-for-one offer.

So as I trot around in my busy, aspirational, self-centred, self-important and ultimately pretty small life, sometimes, remembering my life as as an animal will do me no harm at all.


Below is a selection of your comments.

There are better ways of studying the habitats/behaviours of factory-farmed animals than actually sleeping with them. This is an utterly ridiculous experiment. We're human. Not animals, so how we feel living in a pen is not the same as how an animal feels. A stupid excuse for a TV show.
John, Preston

The more we see of how animals are tortured for us to have cheap, low nutrition food the better. No-one has the right to make an animal suffer so that they can afford to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or do the lottery. Bad animal husbandry should be banned entirely and only meat from well-reared animals allowed. I'm a single parent on a low income, but I don't have the right to eat the meat of animals who are treated in this inhumane way.
Helen, Cardiff

My son took a year out of his job as a furniture restorer to work on a small free range pig farm in northern Spain. He loved it and became a very adept piggy midwife. His favourite pig was "the Teaser" who had the unenviable job of checking whether the ladies were "ready" but he was not allowed to touch. However, Nick occasionally took pity on him. Before Nick left we had to dispose of his working clothes as the smell was permanent. Nick really came to appreciate these intelligent animals and it took him a long time before he could happily eat pork.
Linda Arnell, Chichester, West Sussex

Eat only free range ENGLISH pork then at least you are reasonably sure they have had a good life, not a miserable existence that intensive pigs have. Pigs are intelligent creatures NOT machines & deserve to be treated well. (That goes without saying for all animals.)
Shirley Taylor, Eccleshall

What a brave and humbling step to take to live in a pen for four days. I definitely think it's time we as a nation stopped closing our eyes to mindless consumption via cruel production methods and have respect for other creatures not just ourselves.
Cathy, Belfast

If this stops just one person eating pork again, then these were days very well spent. And please be aware that pork (and beef) gelatine finds its way into a variety of products, many of them sweet - fruit gums, jellies, desserts etc.
Veggie Sue, London

How ridiculous. I have raised hogs for our family consumption for this last couple of years and they are quite clean and personable. I don't see what you can learn by sleeping in their pen, only as a publicity stunt. If you want to learn about agriculture why don't you work at it for a few years and try to make a living. Current opinions seem quite critical of production practices which are driven by a desperate need of farmers to make a profit. Yet few of the critics are willing to take up farming as a lifestyle.
Brian, Lafayette, IN, USA

What an utter waste of our money. Is there enough licence money left for me to make documentaries about "My life lying on a beach for 2 weeks"? It's no wonder people get annoyed with the BBC.
Keith Lovatt, Leeds

Believe what you like John from Preston, if it makes you feel better. Some of us are capable of empathy! Humans and animals are emotionally more similar than you give believe. Especially intelligent creatures such as pigs!
John, Harlow

I think it's reasonable to add the fact that the taste of free range products is also better! Win/win situation in my eyes. I'm not going to stop eating meat, but also like to consider the way the animal was treated in it's short life span.
Gary, London

I am interested in how people can connect with an animal such as the pig and happily see it slaughtered at a very young age simply because they taste nice and not through any real need. Pigs are intelligent sentient animals, just like dogs, but we would be aghast at eating dogs. A lot of people seem to suffer from moral schizophrenia.
Brian, Clackmannanshire

Interesting. I will be even more interested in next week's episode when a boar spends four days as a corporate communications consultant.
Gavin, Swindon



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