The Second Pig

Katya Surveys Pigs

The photo above is the answer to last Thursday’s Mystery of “Where is Katya?” Several people spotted her. In the above zoomed in version it is a bit easier although she’s still working at blending as she watches over her charges. At four and a half months she is already well on her way to becoming an excellent livestock guardian dog (LGD) as well as demonstrating herding skills.

On that day Melissa asked: As a city girl who’s never seen an animal slaughtered, I can see how a properly run slaughterhouse would give a totally non-traumatic experience for the first pig of the day – it’s poked into a funny building, gets one last scratch behind the ears, loses consciousness, and doesn’t wake up. What about the second pig of the day? Is there blood, body parts, and odors left from the first pig when the second one’s brought in? Do you clean between each one? Can animals outside the building smell what’s going on inside, and if so does it upset them? I have no doubts that you do right by your animals, I’m just not sure what that looks like when it comes to a butcher shop.

It is a very interesting question. The answer isn’t politically correct – the pigs simply don’t care. They will stand around and watch you slaughter all day long without showing any signs of stress or upsetness. Death doesn’t bother them in the slightest. You can slaughter a pig in front of other pigs and they just go about their business, socializing, grazing and even wonder if perhaps they can get some of that delicious meat.

Realize that pigs are naturally omnivores and will eat anyone given the chance, including each other or you. Keep that in mind. Don’t fall down and lie still in the field. If you have a pig pen don’t fall and bump your head. They’ll nudge you. If you don’t move they’ll take an experimental nibble if they’re the least bit hungry. If you don’t object, they’ll take a healthy bite. If you still don’t object then you are dinner. This is recycling and conservation of resources in nature. Chickens are the same way. With sheep, they’ll just gradually walk you into the ground. The pigs do not have enculturated squeamishness about the dead that modern humans have developed. Death simply happens and is not such a remarkable event to them.

Despite the pig’s desire for meat we don’t feed them meat at our farm. Their diet consists primarily of pasture plus dairy with the addition of various vegetables we grow, apples and such. Meat scraps are for the dogs and in the winter the chickens get a little to make up for the lack of insects in that season.

The key for the animals is how you slaughter, how you behave. Is there stress and fear or are things calm and relaxed? Animals worry not about death but about pain. Death is an abstraction that is beyond their ken.

This was particularly well demonstrated long ago when we would have someone come to our farm occasionally to help us slaughter pigs and sheep. We would go out into the fields and show him which we wanted slaughtered. To give him the best shot, we put treats, a little bread or apple for example, down on the ground to attract the pig’s attention. As he shot and bled the pig, the others did not show any anxiety. Their focus was getting at the treat that was still left on the ground. Other than that they continued to graze and be mildly curious about us, wondering if there were more treats to be had or if maybe we would offer pets and ear scratches. Interestingly, even the bang of the gun didn’t disturb them.

The pigs also ignore hammering, clanking of boards and sheet metal, power tools, chainsawing and the tractor when we’re working in the field such that I must drive very carefully and slowly less they literally walk under the tractor wheels. Why would they ignore these noisy machines? Because they are familiar so there is no stress, no fear.

We are gradually getting our farm is setup so the animals move from field to field as they get older in addition to the smaller rotational grazing between paddocks within the fields. This is called All-In-All-Out management coupled with Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing – Technical details. From the pig’s point of view they simply continue to get fresh new grass, always being close to where they were last and with their cohort, their sub-herd members. This keeps things calm and familiar. Everyone knows who they are, who their mates are and what their rank is – issues that pigs are very concerned about.

Our abattoir, that is to say the slaughterhouse, is at the end of the last fields – it is laid out in a circle of growth and life. Pigs of the appropriate size will simply get sorted in with a special treat to stay overnight in the lairage, the holding area. There they find hay bedding and water along with other pigs they’re familiar with. Since we are so small, only doing up to ten pigs per week, each pig will be slaughtered and processed individually before the next enters the building. After each pig is slaughtered there is cleanup however the sensitive nose of a pig would know the smell of blood – it just doesn’t bother them. They’ve smelled that smell many times before out on the farm. When two pigs fight over rank they will smell blood from a cut or scratch. When a sow gives birth there is the smell of blood from the placenta, the afterbirth. If a newborn piglet dies the sow will eat it unless the livestock guardian dogs cleanup first – She does this to prevent scavengers and predators from coming by and to recycle the protein. The smell of blood is not an issue. Death is not what they fear. They fear pain.

In slaughter what is very important is that everything remains calm to minimize stress. The more familiar things are the better. This is part of why on-farm slaughter is so much better than off-farm. When animals are trucked to a distant, unfamiliar facility with many other animals and unknown people it takes extra care to achieve calmness. How well this is done is all matter of skills and setup. Temple Grandin has done a great deal of research on this topic and has some very interesting things to say on the topic. I strongly encourage people to read her book “Humane Animal Handling” which is full of excellent information about moving animals, how animals perceive and think and the design of farms, holding facilities, lairages and slaughterhouses.

What about other animals? Sheep, chickens and ducks all behave as the pigs do, not caring about death but rather pain, particularly personal pain. This appears to be a herd animal mentality issue. They are all very self-centered and me-first rather than caring about other individuals. They don’t do gift giving, something the dogs do. Pigs, chickens, sheep and other herd animals don’t do altruism, giving up something for the benefit of others. The closest they come to that is the Alpha males who are drugged up with hormones to fight for territorial boundaries, thus against intruders, and mothers to protecting their young. The first is not really altruism but about mating rights. The latter maternal link is amazingly weak – get a piglet a little ways away from the sow and she cares nothing about it. All of this can be observed in the way that herd animals flow and why they are so easy to move. They herd, flock and school because of the protection afforded to them by being part of a distracting group, a shoal but they don’t come to the aid of each other.

So the answer is no, the second pig does not get upset or care about the slaughter of
the pig before it even if it were to see the event, the carcass or smelled the blood and such. The second pig also does not worry about its own impending death. To be upset about such is outside its ken.

If, on the other hand, you were talking about dog pack, it is a whole other story. Should a stranger attack or even worse kill a member of a pack then the rest of them are likely to be at the outsider’s throat and flanks from all different angles. It is a totally different ken, a different mindset, a different way of being. This is the essence of herd versus pack. I have read that primates in small bands, like Katya’s Thumbkin, behave the same way as wolves although apparently this behavior can be lost when they become large herd groups. This similarity may be why Primates and Canids work together so tightly while other animals are livestock, our mutual food.

Update: There is scientific research that shows that animals like pigs, sheep, cattle and such are stressed by observing decapitation but not by observing the stun/kill nor slaughter.

Outdoors: 29F/11F Mostly Cloudy
Tiny Cottage: 68F/61F

Related posts on Death and stuff:
To Kill or Not
Kindest Killing Blow
Pi in the Sky
Death on the Farm
A Quick Death
Brief Dance with Death
Breast Ice Cream in Vermont an anti-dote for seriousness…

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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22 Responses to The Second Pig

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting post Walter. Although I've seen how cape/water buffalo will respond to the distress calls of a fallen member, as will elephants. (both herd animals)

    It's a good thing you aren't farming those in the hills of Vermont. Wouldn't that be something… Walter J. the 'phant farmer.


  2. Gail in Montana says:

    Very informative post, Walter. None of us, even those of us who grew up on small farms, would have known all this information. Good to know that the animals that are herded aren't bother by death and such. I knew that about chickens as my mom used to wring their necks and hang them upside down to bleed. "Fond" childhood memories, lol. But when you are on a farm, such things happen. Not like today, when we just go to the store and purchase our meat, with the exception of those of us who are married to/or hunt for ourselves, like me. My hubby is an avid hunter. I so hope he gets an elk next year, as his cancer is getting worse!!

  3. Sailor says:

    Walter, That was an excellent post – rational, well thought out and well expressed. I have farmed and raised livestock for years, but it helped me connect the dots on animal behavior. Thanks so much. I'm thinking humans can be either herd or pack animals, depending on their situation. Thanks again.

  4. Andreanna says:

    This all fits whith how I have seen pigs cattle sheep and other herd animals act. Frank I think you are confusing behaviors of how the head of the herds act as opposeded to how the herd members act. buffaloo are just the same from all the documentaries I have seen. Elephants if they are different may be a special case because they are more intelligent than cattle buffaloo sheep or pigs. Same as dogs are more intelligent than pigs and sheep and cattle so this may be part of the diff btweeen a herd and a pack to. Great article Walter! This is one I will refer people too. Hope you dont mind my linking to it. Really good stuff here.

  5. Frank,

    In all the wild animal videos I've watched with our kids where they showed cape buffalo I have never seen them demonstrate coming to the aid of each other like a pack. Maternal instincts, yes. Alpha dominance, yes. Aid of another no? They scatter from predators and ignore the dead.

    As individuals cape buffalo are reputed to be very dangerous. As a herd they're very dangerous to get in front of when stampeding. But this is all just herd behavior, not pack behavior. It all fits with what we've seen in pigs, sheep, ducks, chickens and other herd / flock animals.

    As to elephant farming, I've always been a big fan of Oliphant's cartoons… But I don't think they'll fare well in our climate so I'll stick to pigs, sheep and chickens. :)



  6. Holly says:

    Frank mentioned that the Elephants and Water Buffalo responding to a distress call. This is a key different issue.

    When a piglet is stuck in the fence and squeals out a distress call, the herd certainly responds with lots of noise and concern. In fact, they look to us to fix the problem. When we come down they move out of the way to allow us to help the piglet.

    When two pigs are battling for position in the hierarchy and making lots of angry bellows, the other pigs just stay clear and go about their business. I stay clear too as I am not about to get between several hundred or thousand pounds of angry pork.

    On the other hand, a properly slaughtered pig, sheep or chicken doesn't make a noise. It just drops to the ground. When the anoxia kicks in the muscles jerk but there is no noise. There is no distress call.

    This fits with keeping things calm. It is important that the pig is relatively relaxed and does feel the need to bellow out in distress. The pigs may respond to a distress call but they are not worried about seeing another pig killed. Two different issues. Walter's post was very targeted on the issue of how the second pig acts regarding the death of the first pig, the smells, blood, etc. The question being can one provide a stress free humane death for the second pig of the day.


  7. Mary Ricksen says:

    Many years ago when I was in Nursing School, we had rotations and we spent one of them at a mental hospital in VT. It was strange to say the least.
    There was a farm attached to the hospital where those who could worked. I remember watching them hang a huge pig upside down alive, and then just slit it's throat. It sure didn't seem humane to me. It made me so sad I had nightmares for months.
    How do you do it? I know why they did it that way, but I wouldn't call it humane.
    Maybe it's the feelings that we as humans have that undid me.

  8. Melissa says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful answer!

    That is interesting, I would have thought pigs (and other livestock) would at least be averse to areas where there are signs of death such as blood or carcasses. It seems like an extreme lack of self preservation not to. I guess an aversion to death (as opposed to an aversion to pain) is really a much higher order function than I'd thought.

    Or another angle, perhaps their cues are audible and scent based rather than visual? They recognize piggy smells and sounds that mean 'I'm in pain!' and 'I'm scared!', but the visual of a herd mate being butchered doesn't connect. It's hard to imagine from my human, sight-oriented view of the world! I'll look up Temple Grandin's work, thanks for the reference.

    I've heard of horses 'mourning' for a pasture mate that was put down humanely, maybe they're intelligent and bonded enough to have that reaction despite being herd animals. (Though it seems to be rare.) Do cattle have the same reaction as pigs, do you know?

    The idea of slaughtering a pig in the middle of a field full of other pigs who couldn't care less is somewhat eerie from my point of view, but I'm glad it works out that easily for the pigs.

  9. Mary, hanging a live conscious animal would be an example of a completely INhumane method of slaughter. That is awful. That is the wrong way to do it. Hanging the pig upside down and then slitting its throat was dangerous for the people, inhumane to the pig, reduced the quality of the meat (stress hormones released) and I suspect was nasty for observers as well.

    Every once in a while I hear someone talking about a holding a pig down and sticking it. They talk about how loud pigs are when killed. Thus the phrase, "squealing like a stuck pig." This tells me instantly that they are doing it wrong.

    With proper, humane slaughter the pig should be silent. They go quietly into death. It should be the most calm of transitions. Anything else is being done wrong and inhumane.

    Correctly done killing is quick, quiet and painless. The animal drops soundlessly from a stunning blow (captive bolt, electric, low caliber bullet to the brain, etc) and is no longer conscious. It feels and remembers nothing more. In fact, memory has been erased backward by ten seconds to a minute. The animal is then bled out at that point and hung. Bleeding can be started before or after the animal is raised up but it is already insensate, that is, not feeling a thing. See this article for more discussion.

  10. Anonymous says:


    You're absolutely right in what you said re the distress calls. My reference to 'phants and buffalo was to highlight how stress free your method of slaughter sounded.

    Walter, I'll see if I can find a couple of videos of what I was referencing on YouTube. I think your family would enjoy them.



  11. Mary Ricksen says:

    It was the worst thing I'd have ever seen in my life.I was only l9 so I had a lot left to see.
    But I am so glad to hear how it's done the right way!
    I couldn't eat pork for years.
    There was nothing humane about it.

  12. Diane N. says:

    I lived in rural China for a few years and one year got to stay in a village for Chinese New Year. That is the time families who keep a pig or two will usually slaughter a pig: the first of the meat goes into the New Year's celebration meal, & the rest is prepared to use for many months to come.

    I watched the slaughter. The pig was brought out of its den, which did make it nervous & squeal some. About 8 to 10 men stood to herd it to a large, low table in the family courtyard. They all were involved in getting the pig on the table and holding it in place – at which time the pig calmed & lay still. The men were very calm about the process; most of them had the job of holding down the pig. One man who cut its throat, and they caught the blood in a bowl. The first of the blood was used in a thanksgiving prayer & then the animal was bled more completely.

    Later they took it down the street where an enormous pot of boiling water was prepared to scald off the hair.

    We had some of the pork in dinner that night – it was wonderful.

  13. Tamera says:

    So right Walter!
    We raised pigs for years and
    the biggest problem we had at
    butcher was keeping the other
    pigs at bay! Not because they
    were worried about their "piggy friends" but because they wanted to slurp the blood. As long as you deliver the killing blow properly
    the other pigs have NO idea what is happening. It's the "Im scared" or "I'm hurt" cry that really gets their attention which shouldn't happen in a properly done field kill!

  14. Anonymous says:

    When my neighbor shot his pig the others gathered around to see if there was any blood for them. No reaction to gunshot, or dead sibling.

    Likewise sheep will ignore dead sheep and go on eating.

    All as long as death is quick.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this honest look at death and our food chain.

  16. Jeff says:

    Hello Walter and Holly, have given any though of offering pig slaughtering workshops? I'd pay for that kind of training!

  17. Jerry says:

    The very same day that I first read this post, for some reason a group of our laying hens got to picking at one of the others. By the time I got there she was already badly wounded and ended up dying over night. If I had not retrieved her from the pile, they'd have eventually picked her clean. While this was going on, the rest of the flock was calmly browsing on the ground as normal.

    I thought immediately of the irony in having read this post that very same morning. Just another small example of what you are explaining (so well I might add) here.

  18. karl says:

    interesting post walter, i found it comforting and inspiring. i plan to butcher our next pig on farm. it seems like the right thing to do for everyone involved.

    i must say that our cow was seemingly upset by the smell of blood when i butchered her steer for weeks afterword. even now when the dog gets a bit of frozen bone from slaughter day the cow won't let her sleep next to her. probably the lack of being an omnivore makes her dislike the smell of blood.

    when i butcher chicken i don't let them see the event just in case;)

  19. Karl,

    My guess is what you are seeing is a pavlovian response. Your cow smelled the blood at the same time as the distress of the cattle you recently slaughtered. Their distressed (stress hormone smells, distress calls, other?) trained her that blood means trouble.

    This emphases how important it is that the slaughter process be painless. It benefits not just the animal being slaughtered, the people slaughtering, the quality of the meat but also those animals who are still alive afterwards.

    This sort of association can certainly be trained and you may have succeeded unwittingly in doing so. It can also be de-conditioned if you would like to take the time. Each time you feed her bring the smell of blood with you. Spend time being gentle, talking with her. Gradually fade in the smell to higher levels. This should eliminate her hemophobia.



  20. Elin says:

    This has to be one of the greatest posts of all time. People especially those in cities just have totally lost touch with how real life is and how natural death is. Thank you for this great post.

  21. GordonM says:

    I agree completely about reactions to death, but my Belted Galloways will definitely form up and present a united (and aggressive) front to any canine making annoying noises too close to the fence.

    They miss their departed friend, but after some licking and nuzzling didn’t work, they paid no particular attention to her death, or the disposing of her body.

    I agree completely – if a herd animal experiences fear, it’s fear of pain. Only pack animals fear death.

  22. michael ryan says:

    Hmm some red pill farm wisdom , as if there any other kind. But very skillfully delivered. I have over a 100 acre homestead up in the rockies hydro elecric etc did pigs etc when kids was young plan on getting more serious when I retire next year Id like to see you operation

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