Archive for March, 2013

Big Willie

My first morning on the job, I was handed the canister of mite powder and sent out to get acquainted with Big Willie. Having never worked with hogs, I was unsure of proper introduction etiquette, so decided to start up with some dialogue about his magnificent stature while I squatted down in the doorway of his hutch. He awoke from his mid-morning nap with a windy grunt, and I offered my hand to sniff, soliciting snuffles which reverberated off the damp plywood.

I gingerly lifted a pendulous black ear, a hefty platter of toughened hide, big enough to make a flip flop for Andre the Giant. Relieved of its impermeable parasol, a brightly round and honey-colored eye blinked with gentle curiosity. With the glorious ear out of the way, his tusks were also quite apparent, peeking out from beneath his bristled snout, yellowed and glinting with spittle. Though only three and four inches long, they were crossed like swords, the lower one honed to considerable sharpness on both outer edges. I replaced his ear and scratched his jowls as I sidled in between his surprisingly dainty hooves to start checking for mite eggs.

Every day until the frost ended their invasion, I visited Willie to dust his butt crack and arm pits for the little pests. He accepted my administrations with kingly dignity and welcomed me with increasingly affable grunts as I better learned his favorite spots to be scratched. The hide on his back, thick as saddle leather, was flaky and cracked from the Colorado sun, and liked nothing more than some firm strokes with a leaf rake. The delicate and crinkly skin covering his chest was unreachable by tusk or hoof, and some gentle skritching here could set him to flopping over like an eager puppy. He’d lean into a rub beneath the thick shield of his cheek, or stretch out a hind leg for me to better itch around his knee cap.


As soon as Willie’s brood of piglets started tumbling out of their farrowing hutch in the paddock next door, the proud father began spending much of his day with his massive nose poked through the fence wire, breathing the scents of his offspring’s antics on the breeze. As they rocketed around their pasture on thimble-sized hooves, their playful squeals delighted his ears, and he’d sink down on his haunches in a very un-pig like repose to listen for hours. He’d tilt his head when they’d whisk by, savoring a glimpse of their robust beauty from behind the blinders of his ears.

Once the piglets hit six weeks, they started in on their lifelong pursuit of trouble. They soon found innumerable escape routes into their father’s pasture, rooting out new gaps in the fence far faster than I could patch them. Though most adult boars are savagely dangerous, Willie was a specimen of patience and indulgent parenting. The marauding hoard of shrieking piglets dashed between his legs as he grazed peaceably and clambered up and down the mountain of his shoulder when he reclined for a nap. Though an unfamiliar pig near his supper would risk a lethally swung tusk, he employed only a tender flick of his snout to toss the little pests off his trough when they piled like ravenous hyenas on top of his meal.


Though somewhat limited by genetics, a pig’s growth and mature size is dictated largely by their feed, and a hog will continue growing long past sexual maturity if generously provisioned. Beyond the first two years the frame reaches its limits, and many pigs risk outgrowing the strength of their own legs if not carefully kept lean. An adult hog leading a life of leisure, without the calorically-taxing demands of gestation, nursing, or a large herd of sows to breed, has an incredibly efficient metabolism. As happens with so many pets, we let Willie’s voracious appetite and our affection for him sway our judgement of his dietary needs, and he’d spent the two years since arriving at the ranch enjoying being drastically overfed. He ended up three hundred pounds overweight, and as happens when changes occur gradually and right under your nose, we’d hardly realized he was more than chubby.


One autumn afternoon Willie started favoring a front leg, and within a week was nearly immobile, painfully shuffling between food and water and shade by curling his hoof under and weight-bearing on the knee. After ruling out a hoof infection or injury, the vet recommended restricting his activity while enforcing a strict new diet, hoping this wasn’t arthritis heralding his near end. The small pen we had available for him was clear on the other side of the farm yard, and, perpetually ill-equipped in the livestock transport department, we were quite worried about submitting him to such an arduous walk. Though in excruciating pain, a full bucket of hog chow was analgesic enough to make the journey nearly a jaunty one. You’d never guess how quickly an obese pig can move on three legs if adequately motivated.

Willie was cut back from two or three gallons of feed a day to two or three cups, on which he still thrives till this day. He enjoys the occasional broken egg, garden scraps, and whatever he forages from his five acres of pasture, and strikes a fine figure trotting athletically around his domain. After the first week of stall rest and reduced rations, Willie was sound enough to limp back to his pasture, and a month of exercise and dieting left him whittled down to a much healthier quarter ton.

In celebration, Willie was put back to work and given charge of a handsome young gilt recently added to the breeding program. Unlike Willie’s previous mate Laura-Jean, Ruby was lithe and muscularly built, a specimen of the Duroc breed.  Christened Ruby for her glowing auburn hue, Willie was instantly smitten. Ruby was much slower in warming to her massive new companion, and the first few days were filled with much indignant squealing as Willie doggedly pursued her around the paddock. At only two hundred pounds, Ruby had no trouble out-maneuvering him, but his persistence wore her down, and one evening a few days after their introduction, Ruby gave in and surrendered to Willie’s attentions.

He snuffled her methodically from nose to tail, gentle but insistent, then with great delicacy shuffled up to her flank and prodded her soft belly a few times with his rubbery snout. Inspection complete, he stood by her side, brushing her shoulder with his, and both pigs slumped in exhaustion and relief. From then on they were never more than a few feet apart, squeezing into one hutch to spoon the night away rather than sprawling each in their own. They grazed in unison and amicably shared the feed trough, and when the day arrived that Ruby came into her second heat, the chemistry between them sparked unprecedented levels of affection.

I’ve never seen swine engage in foreplay, but Willie and Ruby spent the entire day nuzzling and snuffling and cuddling.  For all the effort he exerted in romantic gestures, Willie could not quite match up the right end of his lady with the right sequence of movements, and spent the day exhausting the supplies of his massive testes in fruitless attempts.  Now well past four, old age for a breeding boar, Willie seemed to lack the momentum to fully mount, but he wasn’t the least bit disheartened by the futility of this grande finale. Enraptured with his sweetheart, Big Willie enjoyed his life’s last date to the fullest, and spent his dotage doting on piglets that he never noticed were not his own.


Little spoon is not so little


Quantum Casualties

In my copious spare time, I’m unwillingly employed as the grim reaper for all forms of technology.  It’s a wearisome job, but someone has to do it. Those people who still use their laptop until it’s incompatible with every modern update? Those people whose phone lasts in mint condition until the free upgrade? I am the antithesis of those people.

Sometimes, it’s because I’m careless and leap onto a tractor seat with my phone in my back pocket in a futile attempt to outmaneuver suicidal chickens. Or I let my cat warm his butt on my key board – the adoption paperwork didn’t mention his skill with lethal keyboard shortcuts. Or I download obviously corrupted files; peer-reviewed hog nutrition articles are an obvious magnet for malicious hackers.

Sometimes, it’s because I hit Ctrl-Alt-Del seven times in a row, then poke the power button vengefully, rather than calmly waiting out my computer’s well-earned siestas. I may have slapped a monitor or two, and god knows the number of printers I’ve emotionally damaged with my curses.

Sometimes, in those rare moments when I’m not being reckless or abusive, my technological frustrations simply stem from the negative energy I’m directing at my devices as the black abyss of my soul wills them to self-destruct (quantum physics in action, people).

To give you an idea of my knack for destruction, here’s the recent death toll:

In December, my Dell spent several weeks in computer intensive care, undergoing treatment for various odd glitches that were causing spontaneous crashes and internet connectivity retardation. Weakened by its arduous two years in my servitude, the little bastard picked up the digital equivalent of a nosocomial infection while hospitalized, destroying both the hard drive and the disc drive.  My shiny new external disc drive works great, as long as you don’t want audio and visual at the same time. And my restored internet connectivity, well, I think I could pick up a signal better with a solar oven and some copper wiring.

In those long weeks of the laptop’s absence, my poor desktop was solely responsible for all my hazardous computational needs, the stress finally manifesting as the sound card driver un-downloaded itself. I could not for the life of me reinstall it, and consequently discovered how essential music consumption is to my mental health.

Right before the holidays, I was fumbling to answer my phone with frozen fingers and dropped it in the snow. I whipped out the battery to pat everything dry on my long underwear, and then promptly submerged phone and battery in rice for a luxurious night of desiccation. My fast action saved the phone, but wasn’t quick enough to avoid some peculiar and irreversible changes to my settings.  My phone now reads me my text messages out loud, against my will, at all hours of day and night, repeating them more and more loudly until I press the correct series of buttons. Unfortunately, I haven’t been getting enough scandalous messages lately to make this truly entertaining for bystanders.

Returning home after Christmas, I left my camera out in the truck overnight, and it spent the next two weeks completely comatose as it recuperated from hypothermia (hibernation or torpor, Miss Mulder? 🙂 ).  I also put my Bluetooth through the wash, spent way too much energy trying to resurrect a malfunctioning training collar, and got a whole hell of a lot of practice with my jumper cables.

For all the frustration, I occasionally get the chance to savor some good luck or enjoy a rare moment of fruitful precaution. While listening to This American Life on Tuesday evening, my laptop crashed and wiped out two documents that I had saved and, for that matter, weren’t even open at the time of the crash.  BUT I had saved a copy of both docs on my zip drive, so no harm done. Wouldn’t you know it, those endangered docs were merely out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the zip drive promptly retired from service the following day. While allowing me a tantalizing glimpse at list of files, the zip put its foot down on any document opening action. I just chuckled and tossed it merrily into the recycling bin; miraculously, I had backed up that sucker up on a second zip just a week before.

A second stroke of good fortune spared my hapless camera from a recent fatal accident. After taking a picture of my very handsome compost pile (maybe eight or ten pictures just to get the most flattering angle), I left the camera perched atop my driver’s side wiper, assuming I wouldn’t drive off with it so obviously in my line of sight. By the time I was done pitch forking manure, my mind was miles away, wrestling with weasel control and waterer possibilities, and I hopped in the truck for a quick trip to the ash pile. I was pleased as punch with Alf’s performance over the snowed-in irrigation ditch and was reveling in his superior suspension and impressive ground clearance while I shoveled ash. Back over the ditch to deliver the ash to one of my compost piles, than the pups and I were off on a trip to town for another yard of Christmas tree mulch. Just a mile from the farm, my stomach clenched as I suddenly noticed the camera’s absence. I closed my eyes and groaned, bumped my forehead on the steering wheel, amazed that after 26 years with myself, I still didn’t know never to put a valuable object on the exterior of my vehicle.

There was no need to search for the camera; I had no doubt as to where we’d parted company. I returned to the ditch and found it directly where gravity mandated it land, flung off the windshield from Alf’s admirable lurch up the back side of the ditch. Run over first by the rear tire on our trip to the ash pile, then again by both front and rear tires on the way back, the camera was nearly entombed in the mud beneath the snow.  Both batteries had popped out, reminding me unnervingly of a piglet that Peggy squished the poop out of in her anxious, new-mother stomping. Wearily checking for a pulse I knew was long gone, I replaced the damp batteries and flicked the power switch. Turned on. Zoomed. Took a picture. Saved the picture. I was blown away. That little trooper gave me three and a half more weeks of pictures before suddenly surrendering its miraculous grasp on life. Some digital version of internal hemorrhage compounded by complications of hypothermia, I can only suppose. Thankfully, Peggy’s piglet fared much better and grew up to be delicious pork despite his early trauma.

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La La La!