Pretend Worlds

poster for the movie Babe

Last week Michael and I watched Babe 1. It’s your basic anthropomorphic story of a sweet-tempered young pig who mistakenly believes he’s a sheepdog. In the end, Babe wins a big sheepherding contest by politely asking the sheep to do what’s needed (in contrast to the hyper-aggressive methods of his sheepdog competitors). I got a little weepy at the end 2; Michael did too, though he won’t admit it.

Once we turned off the pretend world of Babe, I went online to learn about real pigs. Here’s what I found 3:

  • Pigs are often compared to dogs because they are highly social, friendly, loyal, and intelligent.
  • They are naturally very clean and will not soil their living area.
  • Pigs will spend hours playing, lying in the sun, and grooming each other.
  • Pigs have a powerful sense of smell. Their smell receptors are on the surface of their huge, flat snouts, so they expertly root and forage on the ground.
  • Pigs can recognize and remember up to thirty other pigs.
  • They have a strong sense of direction and can find their way over long distances.
  • They can remember where food is hidden and watch each other to learn where food is located.
  • Pigs can respond to their names within their first week of life.
  • They sleep together huddled in nests and often cuddle up nose to nose.
  • Pigs who know each other might greet by rubbing noses.
  • Pigs have many different calls (grunts, squeaks, snarls, snorts) to communicate emotional states, intentions, and warnings.
  • Piglets, especially, love to play: frolicking, chasing one another, running in circles, squeaking and grunting in delight, and pretend fighting.
  • Pigs like toys such as blankets or cardboard boxes (but will tire of the same toy very quickly).
  • Pigs live in small, matriarchal groups (“sounders”) comprised of several sows and their young.
  • Several sounders may form networks of related family groups, overlapping their home ranges and congregating in larger herds. Two sows within a sounder might become lifelong foraging and sleeping partners, and such bonds occur between siblings as well.

Unfortunately, we may as well be back in the pretend world of Babe if we imagine that pigs actually behave this way, because 97% of all pigs in the U.S. live on CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations). In these factory farms:

Confined sow with nursing piglets.

Confined sow with nursing piglets.

  • Pigs’ teeth are cut from their mouths and their tails are cut off, both without anesthesia. Hogs are castrated, also without anesthesia.
  • Impregnated sows are kept in concrete pens with no straw bedding and no room to turn around. Their piglets are taken away after one month (in nature they nurse for several months).
  • The sows’ deprived environment produces neurotic coping behaviors such as repetitive bar biting and sham chewing (chewing nothing).
  • Piglets are put alone into tiny metal wire cages (“battery cages”) stacked on top of each other; urine and feces constantly fall on the piglets in the lower cages.
  • Pigs live in their own feces, vomit, and even amid the corpses of other pigs. Overcrowding, poor ventilation, and filth cause rampant disease and death.
  • Many pigs live on slatted floors above giant manure pits. Smaller pigs suffer severe leg injuries when their legs get caught between slats.
  • In order to get terrified pigs onto slaughterhouse-bound transport trucks, workers may beat them on their noses and backs, or stick electric prods in their rectums. Crammed into 18-wheelers, pigs struggle to get air and are usually given no food or water for the entire journey (often hundreds of miles). More than 170,000 pigs die in transport each year, and more than 420,000 are crippled by the time they arrive at a slaughterhouse.
  • When those who survive transport are finally put out of such misery, they often experience deaths defined by pain and fear, thanks to imprecise stunning techniques. Many pigs are alive when they reach the scalding-water bath (intended to soften skin and remove hair).

(For more details, read this overview of pigs in factory farms, but be warned, it includes photos likely to ruin your day.)

So we have three worlds: the pretend world of Babe; the natural but rare state of pigs living like real pigs; and the sad reality of pigs on factory farms. And there’s yet one more world: the make-believe land of agribusiness. In this world, humans can know and acknowledge that animals are suffering, but pretend the profit justifies the misery. They can deny the fact that causing a creature to suffer is unethical, and they can disengage themselves from their work by focusing on its “benefits.” In this world:

  • Giving humans cheap, fast access to meat is a noble livelihood.
  • The industrialization of meat production is inevitable because of its efficiency.
  • God gave us dominion over the animals, so they are ours to use how we see fit.
  • Since nature itself is cruel, it is best for humans to step in and take control.

Of the four worlds, there are only two I want to live in. The first, I’ll admit, is the world of Babe. However, since that’s not possible, I’d be delighted to live in a world in which pigs get to be pigs: frolicking, foraging, cuddling pigs. Of course that’s not possible either these days. Someday, maybe? I’d like to believe it, but I don’t want to pretend.

Facts about pigs compiled from Farm Sanctuary, ASPCA, Wikipedia, Go Veg, and Think Differently About Sheep.


  1. My friends Stephan (largely vegetarian) and Suni (totally vegetarian) recently watched Babe themselves, because their two-and-a-half year old, who has never been fed meat, suddenly announced, “I want to eat a pig.” Suni’s response was to rent the movie and plop the boy in front of the television. Alas, after it was over, the kid said, “I want to eat Babe.” Of course, they didn’t push the issue by reading him Farm Sanctuary’s report on factory-farmed pork as a bedtime story.
  2. I’ve always been a sucker for animal stories. I remember watching the movie version of Charlotte’s Web at my cousin’s when I was eight. My mom and I were supposed to make the three-hour drive home as soon as the movie ended, but I was crying so hard my mom decided we should stay for dinner.
  3. These facts are interesting, and I happen to think pigs are amazing, but whether or not a particular animal is “smart” or has “complex relationships” is ultimately irrelevant to me; all that matters is whether they suffer. Even the animals we consider the “dumbest” deserve to be treated humanely.

5 thoughts on “Pretend Worlds

  1. I agree, Ester. I don’t know how people can learn of the deplorable living conditions of ‘food’ animals and not seriously consider the alternatives. We are too much of a ‘me me me’ society. Out of sight, out of mind.

  2. Esther, in my case it has been about twenty years since I first started learning about factory farms, but it was only in the last few months that I felt compelled to do anything about it; specifically, change my diet. Does this make me slower on the uptake than most, or faster? I fear it makes me faster.

  3. Oh Kama, without actually KNOWING all these facts, these are the very reasons I literally haven’t been able to put meat in my mouth for the last 23 years. It breaks my heart and makes me want to cry. I need to share your blog with all the friends and family who have had to “deal” with me being a vegetarian when they have hosted me for a meal or picked a restaurant. Thanks for putting the research in one place.

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