Two Little Pigs: A Fable of Domestication
Once upon a time, about 11,000 years ago, two little pigs set out to make their way in the world. Only they weren’t pigs,
they were wild boars. They weren’t really little, weighing several hundred pounds, and for that matter they weren’t even cute, what with bristly hides and protruding, razor-sharp tusks. One day, while raiding a field for food, they met a Mesopotamian farmer who took note of their willingness to eat almost anything, their smarts in figuring out how to feed themselves and the speed with which they fattened up and he made them an offer: Come live with me and in return I will protect you from predators, ensure that you get enough to eat, and see to it that you raise a fine family. “What do you get out of it?” asked the boars. “I get to eat you,” said the farmer. “But that’s much later. After all the eating and the breeding.” The boars turned this over in their minds. One of them, looking to guarantee a future for his children, agreed to give it a go. But the other boar, having an independent streak and a morbid fear of being eaten, lit out for the wilds, quite confident that he didn’t need help from any people.
Time and generations passed. The domesticated boar lost his fur, fangs and attitude and turned into a piggy, source of bacon, toothbrushes and children’s literature. The second boar, on the other hand, remained fiercely wild, so wild in fact, that he became an emblem of kings and their preferred quarry. For thousands of years, the farmer kept his word and kept his pigs, taking them with him wherever he went which, eventually, was everywhere. After 11,000 years, the first little piggy had spawned a dynasty of swine so numerous that they had to live in special homes with special plumbing, like 20 million gallon manure lagoons.
Meanwhile, the live-free-or-die side of the family was mostly dying off. Turns out that even if you didn’t trade your freedom for room and board, people were still going to eat you. In 13th century Britain, wild boar were hunted until there were no more. In the 19th century, the last Danish boar caught a bullet. By the start of the 20th century, both sides of the Alps were almost boar-free and in Stalin’s Russia, boar were going the way of the Tsar. By 1945, the Wild Boar had to admit that his whole refusal to deal with humanity hadn’t worked out as planned.
But then something interesting happened. After World War II, agriculture began to change. Farms got bigger, and with more machines, fewer people tended those farms. Wild boars, being clever, found they could sneak onto these farms and steal food. As time went on, those big farms kept growing until, in a place called Germany, over a quarter of the land was devoted to three crops. These massive monocultures were so large, and so simple, and so empty of people, that the wild boars moved in. Humanity hadn’t planned it this way, but after 11,000 years they were providing food and board to the pigs that hadn’t accepted their offer. These farms were such hog-heaven that many wild boars lived out their whole lives lurking in the endless rows of two of their favorite foods, corn and rapeseed. Of course, not every wild boar could live on a farm.
But even for those sticking to the woods, man was helping out by warming the planet and the German forests began producing many more chesnuts and acorns. In the field and in the forest, there was a whole lot of eating going on, and since boars reproduce based on their weight, not age, that meant that even “teenage” boars were having baby boars. And there was something else, too, something extra special. Because the winters were warmer and milder, fewer old boars died and more baby boars grew. After millenia of being on the wrong of the deal, the wild boars’ indepedent streak was finally paying off, so much so that researchers like Torsten Reinwald were muttering about how “wild boars are the clear winners of climate change.”
But then something else happened. The boars were getting eaten. Again. As the 21st century began, hunters were back at work, bagging half a million in Germany, another half-million in France and two hundred thousand in Poland. For the wild boar, there was the inescapable sense that he could not win and that maybe the only thing to do was to grab life’s pleasures while he could. Which, for a boar, meant taking time to eat mushrooms and truffles, their favorite meal of all. And it was here that the fascinations of man and hog unexpectedly collided. Because while pigs like to eat mushrooms and truffles, people like to solve problems by building very complex systems that sometimes fail in very big ways. This time, the complex system was the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl.
Now it took twenty-five summers, but finally the shadow of that disaster faded. Except in mushrooms and truffles and this is because mushrooms and truffles are very good at absorbing radiation. In fact, mycorrhizal mushrooms are so good at absorbing and concentrating radiation that a wise man suggested using them clean up the evacuation zone around Fukushima’s reactors. Of course, as the mushrooms absorb the radiation, it concentrates in whatever eats the mushrooms, which is why wild boar from the Bavarian border with the Czech Republic average 7,000 becquerels of radiation per kilogram. The reason we know this is because all boar that are shot in Bavaria are checked for radiation at one of seventy measuring stations. Now, it so happens that there’s an upper allowable limit of Cesium-137 contamination in meat in Germany, and that limit is 600 becquerels. So what happens when a hunter brings in a boar that’s eleven times more radioactive than the law allows? Another law steps in. Germany’s Atomic Energy Law requires that the government compensate hunters for economic losses caused by radiation. In 2009, that added up to $555,000 of compensation paid to the hunters. For the boars, they had to settle for the compensation of knowing that, at last, no one was going to eat them.