We had a pig scare today. Big Boy stopped eating last night, and he laid down to sleep while the other 3 (Tugboat, The Corporal, and Number Two) fought over dinner. He’s a pig, so dinner should be the absolute best part of every day. Something was wrong. I went to bed feeling anxious, but there wasn’t anything I could do at 10 p.m. When I checked on him first thing in the morning, he flopped over onto his side and seemed reluctant to get up. He had a drink of water, but showed no interest in the carrots I brought for breakfast. His pointy piggy tongue was sticking out of his mouth.
Crap. We had a sick pig.
I called work to tell them I would be late and took a trip to the farm supply store to buy a veterinary thermometer. They didn’t have one, so I went to the grocery store pharmacy and bought a digital thermometer exactly like the one in my own medicine cabinet. “Quick Reading” it said. 15 seconds when used orally. 10 seconds for rectal.
“That’s good,” I thought. “I don’t think I’m going to get more than 10 seconds.”
Sure enough, when I came back to the paddock, Big Boy looked less lethargic and suddenly wary of me. I petted him and coaxed him over on his side, and, well…tried to take his temperature. The things you never thought you’d do on a Thursday morning before work.
But before I had the thermometer in more than an inch, he decided that he was having none of that, and he bolted up and ran away, suddenly not feeling so sick anymore. He retreated into his hut.
I left for work fretting about Big Boy. When I explained to coworkers that I’d spent the morning tending to a sick pig, many of them asked, “What do you do with a sick pig?”
“Exactly,” I said. “What do you do with a sick pig?” Sickness is on the list of problems you can’t anticipate, and just have to hope that you won’t have to deal with it. But then when it happens (because of course it will eventually), you have to figure it out. I found myself in this camp.
I had to figure out which vets in my county handle large animals (only 2, and it’s a very big county). I had to do some brainstorming about how to separate Big Boy (they hate being separated), and where to put him if he needed isolation. And then, I wondered what to do if the vet said that Big Boy was really sick and needed an antibiotic. Josh and I are firmly in the organic food camp, especially meat, and you can’t give organically raised animals antibiotics at any stage, if even if they’re not going to be slaughtered for years.
So how do organic meat producers deal with sick animals? In large organic meat operations, a sick pig is often destroyed. It’s usually not economical to treat it. But for a homesteader, when one sick pig equals a quarter of your production, culling it is a significant loss. But if you treat it, you lose the organic antibiotic-free status that brings such a high market price. What a dilemma.
I posed this question on the American Guinea Hog facebook group, a community that leans more toward the self-sufficient homesteader than the conventional pig farmer: “For those who are selling/raising organic or antibiotic-free pork: what do you do if one of your pigs gets sick?”
The initial responses gently admonished that pastured pigs in a clean environment shouldn’t get sick. I felt a bit judged, like I’d deliberately sprinkled H1N1 on this animal. But as the thread grew and long-timers weighed in, the general consensus was to try to treat it naturally, but if that fails, call a vet, give the pig the drug it needs to get better, and sell the meat for a little less as non-organic.
The whole experience really made me reflect on my values surrounding organic food. I know that some people refuse to take pharmaceutical medications when sick. I personally know several who won’t even take ibuprofen for a serious headache (Josh is one of them). But when I tried to extend that ethos to an animal in my care, I had a bit of a crisis of conscience. Who am I to decided for this animal that he should remain sick, or be subjected to herbal remedy experiments? He’s sick, and he doesn’t need to be. Shouldn’t I do whatever I can to make him feel better, even if it’s not in my “food ethic?” No, an antibiotic is not an organic solution, but perhaps it’s the most humane.
It’s also made me realize that I value “pastured” meat and eggs much more highly than “organic.” Beef and pork raised on pasture tastes GREAT. Animals are what they eat, so all of that green grass that they eat equals deliciously marbled meat and pure tasty fat. But farms that raise pastured meat are often small, raise a limited number of animals, and raising them organically means making some very difficult choices in the inevitable event of sickness or injury. Personally, I realized that I don’t care if a pig requires medication a year before it’s slaughtered, because it will be long out of their system. You might feel differently, and that’s Ok too.
Fortunately, my existential struggle over this issue did not have to be acted out in the real world with Big Boy. When we got home from work, Big Boy was up on his feet and ready to eat again. He seems fine, no treatment needed. I’ve read that young pigs can sometimes eat too fast and food gets stuck in their mouth or throat; this is one possible explanation for his 24-hour illness, but we don’t really know. The important thing is that I’m better prepared–mentally and resource-wise–should another animal get sick. Because someday, they will.