We have a few daily chores that must be completed before breakfast in our home. I figured, if the farming and ranching families in our community could have morning chores, so could we. One of the morning chores is to care for the animals. We have two big dogs, three small fish and, as of a couple of weeks ago, two young pigs, both pink with faint gray spots, that the boy is raising for a 4-H project. Think Babe or Wilbur. At this point it should be noted that, other than our failed poultry experiment several years back, we've never attempted to raise barnyard animals. We really don't know what we're doing AT ALL. This morning, he decided to not only feed and water the pigs, but muck out their stall, which was badly in need of such work.
Since the nights aren't consistently above freezing yet anyway, we've been keeping the pigs in the barn while we get their outdoor pen area cleaned out, fenced and ready for them. This might sound reasonable to most readers, but understand that our barn was never intended to be a home for livestock. It was built by my grandfather when he and my grandmother first bought this property in the early 1970's. Being a simple structure with a cement floor and cinder block walls sided with wood, it went up first and served as their home while they built the house. It has a main large room with a roll-up bay door and two very small rooms off that main area. An outside staircase leads to a loft. After their house was built, the barn became Grandpa's 'man cave.' The main room was used as his personal auto shop, as his primary hobby was buying wrecked cars, fixing them up and reselling them. The two smaller rooms on the main floor held everything else he needed for auto repair, home maintenance, yard work, hunting and fishing. Since we purchased the house seven years ago, it has continued to be his personal storage space and we are just now in the process of cleaning it out and reclaiming these spaces for our own storage needs. One of the little cement rooms currently houses the pigs. With no easy access to the outside, it is difficult to keep clean. I was excited to see the boy take the initiative to clean it out first thing in the morning without being told.
Fifteen minutes later, he came in the house to let us know that the pigs were outside if we wanted to see them. He'd tried to get them out before, but they'd always been too shy to leave the comfort of their stinky little room and would squeal in terror at Tano's attempts to force them out the door. They've come to trust Pig Farmer Tano quite a bit, though, as he brings them food and water faithfully, occasionally treats them to yummy scraps from the kitchen and gives them plenty of good back scratches. So this, time, when PFT opened their pen, opened the door to the barn and enticed them toward the sunlight, they were hesitant, but willing to try it out.
Ten year old Ellie and I, who had already started school, came out to say hello to the little 80 lb. bacon bits. They're awfully cute, I'm afraid, so I must refer to them in terms such as this, in hopes of not getting too attached. Still a little nervous, they didn't want to stray far from the barn, but seemed happy to be able to explore and stretch their legs. We brought Drake, the better behaved of our two dogs, out of the shop building for a little meet and greet. They have shown great interest in each other before, but had never had the chance to interact. There was much sniffing and wagging of tails among the three of them, but the dominant pig, Napoleon, was clearly in charge and several times put Drake in his place, even though he was several inches shorter than the big dog. With a name like that, I suppose it was to be expected. Drake countered, but it was mostly friendly (except for that one little nip). It went as well as could be hoped for and the girl and I went back into the house.
After another half hour or so, I was starting to get concerned that the boy was not going to be able to get his school work done before his youth group meeting tonight. He loves that youth group, but I was prepared to keep him home if he was not able to focus on anything but his pigs. Just as I was planning how I would deliver the threat, I heard his feet pound up the steps of the deck to the front door. Oh, good, I thought. He must have realized he was taking too long cleaning out the stall and put it into high gear.
When he came in, though, it wasn't to buckle down to his school subjects. "Uh, Mom," he started hesitantly, "do you think you could come out and help me get the pigs back into the barn? They are so comfortable outside now that they don't want to go back in."
He looked a little concerned.
Ellie and I followed him out. Sure enough, the little pork chops were happy as could be. They were chasing each other around playfully, rooting and rolling in the bit of mud by the water spigot, nibbling tufts of grass, and just generally frolicking in the sunshine. They wagged their little tails at our approach (who knew pigs wagged their tails?) and didn't mind a bit that we were hanging around. Those were some contented pigs.
The three of us began to herd them back toward the barn. They didn't want to go. Just as we would get them almost there, one riblet or the other would slip between our legs or bolt just out of reach. They weren't acting upset or stressed at all, still grunting happily, but they definitely did not want to go back indoors. I honestly couldn't blame them. It was a lovely day.
We allowed them to play for a while before trying again. This time we tried to work together better as a team. Surely three humans could be smarter than two ham sammies. We herded some more, but to no avail. The pigs hustled around us and then ambled slowly up the back hill, sending us scrambling again to get ahead of them and work them back down.
We tried tempting them with some of their favorite snacks. Tano dug up a few wild onions, which they LOVE. Nibble, but no follow. I went in the house, cut up the cantaloupe on the counter and put all the guts in a bowl. One bite each was enough for them both. I took the bowl back in the house and filled it with milk. Yummy milk! They each took a slurp, wagged their little tails again in appreciation...and walked away, completely uninterested in taking another sip--if it meant moving toward the barn.
The little sausage links explored the front of the house, sniffing the tires on the cars. The crazy mom and two very tall children spread their arms wide and tried in vain to shoo them toward the barn. They wandered down toward the neighbor's house. We ran to get in front of them. They went out to see the garden and we hustled to keep them from tromping through it. They hid under the deck and we helplessly called them to come. They were thrilled to be exploring the vast, wide open spaces of the west--all the glory of Big Sky Country. Elbow room and don't fence me in and all that.
Those naughty sons of briskets.
I wish you could see how relaxed the pigs were as they wandered around, compared to the amount of effort that the three of us humans were exerting. I'm sure it would have been truly comical to watch and we stopped our efforts several times just to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
At one point, Tano even attempted to pick up one of the little rump roasts. Oh, the squealing and squirming! It was just too heavy and wiggly. He put the piggie back down before he even had a good hold on him and he, the pig, trotted over to his partner-in-swine for their next adventure.
After nearly two hours of this--yes, you read that correctly, dear reader--after nearly two hours of unsuccessfully trying to herd pigs, I suggested that PFT call some of his other homeschooled 4-H friends who are experienced with pigs. The first phone call was of no use. She suggested that we offer snacks and gently herd them back toward the barn. Been there, tried that. The second call was to the Ward family, who had offered to help with anything we needed.
"Uh, hi, Mr. Ward. This is Tano. I have a little problem with my pigs..."
After only the briefest of conversations, Tano handed my phone back to me. I asked what Mr. Ward had recommended.
"He just said they'd be right over."
I was a little embarrassed at the thought of another family having to come over to our house to help. I wished we could have done it on our own, but I was willing to admit that our efforts were clearly not getting us anywhere. We kept the piggies somewhat near the barn while we waited, by turning on the water spigot at the well. The pigs love that spigot and it made for a great momentary distraction. It's like a shower, you can drink out of it, and it makes mud. What could be better?
Within minutes, the Wards showed up. They parked their car and walked toward us, two adults with compassionate smiles and sections of plywood panels and their 13 year old daughter with a long stick. They approached the pigs (who didn't look too concerned) with confidence, like they'd done this a million times before. Mom and Dad surrounded the pigs with their panels and moved in. Daughter protected a vulnerable spot by tapping the pork rinds gently with the stick if they tried to move in her direction. With tall walls (taller than short pigs, at least) surrounding them, they moved nonchalantly toward whatever opening they could find. The Wards expertly made sure that the only available opening was their pen in the barn. The whole operation took perhaps 90 seconds.
We laughed together for a few minutes as they told us about their first experience trying to get pigs from pen to trailer. Their pigs did the same exact thing. It took them two hours to figure out the panel trick.
All of us needed to get back to our school day. We thanked them; Mr. Ward tipped his hat, and they were off.
I remember an old joke we used to tell when I was in high school. The punchline-that-wasn't-really-a-punchline involved sheep, but this works as well.
Q: Guess what I herd?
Sometimes I just can't believe what my life has become, moving to Montana a scant seven years ago.
Oh, and you'll be happy to know that Tano was still able, just barely, to complete all of his work so he could make it to youth group. That reminds me, it's time to go pick him up. Be well, all.
P.S. You get the title, right? It was my husband Andy's idea. He saw what I was working on here at the computer and laughed. "Pigs..." he said, then stretched out his arms wide, "...in space!"