Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Barn Raising Weekend (and Pig Checks!)

What a day! This was the first weekend day (Sunday) that I spent at the farm, and with the new barn being raised the place was jumping with people! About 25 or so volunteers having just the best time! Lots of talking, laughing, and good feeling. This day was about the animals. It was one of those days that you always remember.

First, some new names.

Derek: Derek was outside taking photos of the work and of the animals when I arrived. I lost track of him afterwards. Derek doesn't know it but he's inspired me to unpack my 35mm. Will add some photos to this blog by Spring.

Dante: The sanctuary is situated in a valley at the base of several enormous hills. Dante works on a private family's farm on the other side of one of the hills and takes care of their animals. He was showing me something with Olivia called "stancing". He'd stand in front of Olivia, place his hand on her head and push down slightly. Olivia would in turn push upward slightly. He'd then push down a little harder and Olivia would push upwards a little harder. Dante continued this all the while raising his hand higher and higher so Olivia would have to crane and stretch to push his hand. The goal was to get Olivia as vertical as she would go. Dante said it's a game that's useful in getting a goat to dissipate stress and/or aggression. He uses this technique with his animals and Olivia seemed to like it.

Dawn: I didn't get to talk to Dawn much but I did find out that one of her favorite places to spend a Sunday afternoon is in the dirt underneath 12 pigs. (See below.)

Dorothy: Dorothy is Dawn's white Pitbull. An absolute sweetheart dog. We split corn chips at lunch.

Louicella: I'm sure I've mangled the spelling of her name, so here it is phonetically- lou*ee*sell*lah. Louicella speaks as lightly as air moving over Mandolin strings but can rope a moving 500lb. pig's mouth in a flash! (Again, see below.)

Wendy: I was introduced to Wendy briefly. She made lunch for everyone. As the farm is most definitely, and most proudly, vegetarian-geared, I was also introduced to some new eats. What they were, I haven't a clue! I forgot to ask! There were some triangular bread pieces soaked in a mildly hot sauce that were terrific. I've only recently started eating avacados and I scapped a few up when they came around. And there were some different sauces they I ever so lightly put on my salad greens. I didn't know what they were and I just hoped there wouldn't be any broccoli in them! There wasn't! Good stuff!

Chris: I'm sure Chris is a professional builder who was volunteering his time with the new barn. He seemed to be directing much of the work.

Mike: Mike was in charge of the "Dingo". A small earth-mover used to fill in the numerous fox holes that were dug the other week in order to lay the barn's footings. Mike and the Dingo served double duty by also moving dirt over to the pig barn where I and some others had dug up the floor while mucking. (Once again, see below.)

Splinter: When I walked by the new barn around lunch time, Splinter was set up on the side of the barn with a table saw and was cutting boards. (Should I have expected something different?)

Anthony: Anthony seemed to be doing a little of everything throughout the day. I think he's from either New Jersey or Albany. I get the feeling he's been with the farm for a while. Sheila, Anthony, and I gave meds to some of the chickens at the end of the day.

Okay, so about the day!

I actually didn't help with the new barn on Sunday. When I got there around 8:00, much of the weekend's work had already been done the day before. Not that there wasn't a lot to do on Sunday but the barn crew was already in place and other things still needed to be done. I'll get to hammer some nails next Sunday or thereafter. For me, this was a day of pigs. (Is there a JFK joke in there somewhere?)

Sheila set me up in the pig barn to start. Pigs, including these pigs, do not pee in their own barns. They go outside. Recently though, several of the pigs have started to pee inside the barn in primarily two different spots. I think it was Dante who told me that sometimes pigs will pee inside the barn if they feel they have a lot of extra room, and it is a spacious barn. Either way, it needed to be picked up and hauled out. This required a bit of shoveling as well because, naturally, pee soaks into the ground. (Is this all appetizing enough?) So, that's how I spent the morning. Me, Dylan and Olivia in their pens, Stormy and his lady friend, 12 mostly sleeping, hay-faced pigs, a pitchfork, a shovel, and a wheel barrow.

The thought had occurred to me previous but this morning really drove it home- there is no need for headphones here. As one might expect, the sanctuary has many sounds. They weave together in a rhythym throughout the day. A different day, a different weave. This morning, the pigs were grunting and schnorting as they always do, Dylan offered up the occasional moo, Olivia contributed some bleats every so often, Stormy and his lady friend were fluttering around the rafters (and walking on the sleeping pigs!), the distant roosters were still announcing the Sun's arrival, and there were the voices and worksounds coming from the new barn area. This was this morning's "sound tapestry". Though I may have been ankle deep in pig piss dirt, I was surrounded by animals, listening to the day, and in no need of distraction via headphones or anything else.

Okay, break for lunch.

Jen announced at lunch that several of us would be doing "Pig Checks" for the afternoon. Here's what's involved with a Pig Check:

* Check, clip, and file hoof nails.
* Check and clean ears.
* Check skin.
* Check "boy parts" and "girl parts".
* Check and saw off lower tusks of the males.

Well now, how do you think the pigs might feel about all this?

Here's the scoop:

In the pig barn there is a large floor space for the pigs and an adjacent small pen with a door that leads to the outside. The idea is to separate one pig into the small pen, lock the gate, do the check, exit the pig through the door to the outside, then bring in the next pig for it's check. Jen, Dawn, Louicella, myself, and later on a half-dozen others, would be doing this throughout the afternoon.


* A long strap with an end loop used to tie the pig while the work is being done.
* Hoofnail cutters. (Just think "tin snips" and you'll have the idea.)
* Several large metal files for nail trimming.
* Mineral oil.
* Cotton gauze.
* A flashlight.
* A greenish liquid used to stop bleeding in case the nail's quick is nicked.
* A "Giggly Saw" (probably not the right spelling) for sawing tusks. Think "dental floss", only this floss is made of rough-textured metal wire. When quickly and repeatedly pulled back and forth against a tusk, the floss cuts through the tusk.

The Process:

* Wake up the pig. Jen left no doubt how to wake up a sleeping pig. Just w-w-w-wind up and slap it in the ass!

* Next, coax the pig into the small pen with a bowl of food and close the gate behind it. This worked a number of times. When it didn't, the alternative was for three or four people to chase the pig around the room like sheepdogs (pigdogs?) using a large red plastic board until the pig eventually is funneled into the pen.

Yes, there is lots of noise!

* Once the pig was in the pen it was Louicella's turn. She was charged (her first time doing this, by the way) with slipping the loop on the strap over the pig's upper jaw and behind it's tusks. Once this is done, the pig begins to struggle and pull against the strap. This is where Jen, Dawn, and I come in. Our job was to literally push and maneuver the pig until it's face is 6" or so away from one of the pen rails. Once it's face is near a rail, Louicella would tie the strap to the rail and hold on. The pig would continue to pull back against the strap in it's mouth. As it could not go backwards due to the strap, for the most part, the pig would stay stationary. Louicella was "tusked" once in the leg. It seemed to hurt quite a bit for a few moments and work had to briefly stop until she was able to continue.

* Once the pig was stationary Jen and Dawn would go to work, one on each side of the pig, with clippers and files and trim the pig's nails.

This is where it gets a little scary.

The pig is intensely scared by this point and has little idea of our intentions. It's strapped to a pen rail and knows that it's being touched and clipped from all sides. As part of it's natural defenses it equates these actions with being attacked. And in a sense it IS being attacked but for benevolent reasons. It's natural reaction is to scream and so it does. Large, heavy, deep, loud screams. These are distress screams. They might only last for a second or two but sometimes a single scream might last 10-15 seconds or so. It's very unnerving and Jen warned us about it in advance. It naturally also upsets the other pigs who are for the most part still sleeping just on the other side of the rail.

The pig eventually calms down to a certain degree, with occasional screams and some thrashing and the work continues. It's actually quite remarkable at times how calm they DO remain for this process! While the clipping and checking are going on, I'm standing over the pig stroking it's back trying to calm it. Dawn was throwing off soft "OMs" near the pig's head. A light, steady tone that never once failed to induce calm in the pig at intense moments.

After nails were finished, ears were checked and cleaned, boy/girl parts inspected, and tires rotated.

Now for the tusks.

Male pigs have four tusks. Two upper and two lower. The lower tusks grow continuously. Left to themselves, lower tusks would grow straight into the pigs upper jaw until a point would be reached where the pig could not chew food. Therefore, the lower tusks have to be taken down to the gumline every so often. Tusks, as opposed to teeth, are not used to chew food. They're used for fighting and display purposes so afterwards the pig can still eat as normal using it's teeth.

Jen and Dawn handled this. Kneeling, sitting, and even laying next to and under(!) the pig's head, the Giggly saw would be placed around the tusk and the sawing would begin. (Again, think "flossing".) As the saw entered the tusk (there are no nerves so there is no pain) the pig would cry out at the sensation, however, more often then not, and remarkably so, for the remainder of the tusk cutting the pig would calm down even though it's tusk was being cut.

And so, that would be the end of one pig check. Each check takes about 15 minutes. The strap is removed from the pig's mouth and the pig is very easily(!) coaxed out the door.

Repeat these steps 11 more times and you have yourself a "Pig Check". This is done every 6-8 weeks. I kept a tusk. I also asked Jen if there is such a thing as a "Steer Check", or did a vet have to come and do that. She said there is such a thing as a Steer Check and it's done without a vet!


Some new pig names that I picked up: Julie (not "Juliet" as I first thought), Girlie (unless the name I heard was just an endearing term!), Phyllis, Oliver and Cromwell, Zach, Lodo, and Snubby.

Snubby is a gentle giant and is the largest of the group. I measured him to be easily the size of a Winnebago.

Well, it was nearly the end of the day. I helped Sheila and Anthony with the chickens, had some coffee in the kitchen, said my goodbyes, and left for home. The barn is progressing nicely with much of the main support structures in place. Next weekend it should take on a definite shape. It was a wonderful experience to be part of the humm of the day.

Some of you know Sarah who is a bud that I work with at the post office. Sarah has spent a lot of time around farm animals. While talking about the farm the other week, Sarah said to me "It's healing, isn't it?". She hit it perfectly.

When I got home, Ken had made a surprise dinner for himself, his friend Ed, Anthony, and I. A very memorable day.


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