Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Wonders of Warthogs

Many years ago while visiting the San Diego Zoo, I had the sudden urge to jump into a wild animal pen and cozy up to the critters, who, to my mind, exuded the most vibrant personalities, curiosity, and quirkiness. I wasn’t particularly interested in the monkeys, who, between tagging each other over the boulders, hunkered down to play with themselves or scratch fleas on another’s back. But, at this particular animal pen, Edgar almost had to hold me back from jumping amidst them.
The critters inside were African warthogs.
With faces full of bristles, over-grown side-burns, and knobs and tumor-ish growths all over their faces, anyone unappreciative of porcine particulars would have thought them hideous, deformed, entirely un-handsome. But I, with my penchant for anything swiney and bristly, became immediately enthralled with them. What creative force could have dreamt up such a fantastic creature proportioned so strangely, out-fitted with a cacophony of facial structures: thinly-sparsed, stringy hair, four knife- tusks, and various shapes and sizes of “warts” that, considered together, most humans would only regard as unfashionably eclectic? If ever, during the formation of the world’s creatures, God or Goddess had a chance to flirt with surrealism, hog-architecture became that moment. To me, a warthog reflects its creator’s humorous, thoroughly extreme, side. After designing more conventional creatures, the Goddess must have yawned, taken out her Bohemian headdress, and created, to my delight, the warthog.

While Edgar strictly forbid me from climbing into the warthog’s pen that afternoon in San Diego, I had never forgotten that feeling of synchronicity between the warthogs and me, for while I had no compelling physical excesses as did they, I certainly was non-traditional in my thinking and sometimes extreme in my behavior. People, similarly, tended to be either attracted to me or repelled by me. And how fitting was their physical design for such creatures that seemed, like me, at once quirky and lovable, reflecting intelligence and inquisitiveness alongside athleticism and laziness. Their looks and their personalities matched like stilettos with a mini-dress. The odd-looking warthog seemed to teeter, as I observed them in their relationships with each other, between pushiness and acceptance, friendly nudging and bad-ass attitude. They were, at once, schoolgirls and gangsters—demure yet ruthless. They were moody: ferocious one moment, playful the next. They looked like animals yet bore (excuse the pun) human traits. They reminded me of me; therefore, I loved them.

Last Sunday I finally got my chance to converse with and experience the aura of, not only a warthog, but also a whole range of other swine species: Bornean bearded pigs, Russian wild boars, Eurasian boars, red boars, pot-bellies, and farm pigs. Amidst this swinal throng I was the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy enjoying Munchkinland—twirling and swirling amongst the pig populace, laughing and singing amid the fantastic landscape of porkers, totally enthralled in this newly-discovered pigdom..

I was fortunate enough, years ago, to have become friends with Carol Eiswald, who, together with her husband, Jim, have their own private pig sanctuary, The Tusk and Bristle. The Internet has a way of connecting like-minded people, and pig people tend to seek each other out. Through numerous emails, Carol and I became friends. When Carol sent me photos of Suzy the warthog lying stretched out and asleep on one of their living room’s leather chairs, I knew I had to visit--my big chance to cavort with a warthog. I couldn’t wait.
Edgar and I arrived early this past Sunday morning, and Carol and I hugged at the airport as though we had known each other for a century. We drove to their sanctuary, and I was so excited to meet Suzy that, like a little kid, I could hardly stand still. I was close to peeing myself, I was so ecstatic to be in the midst of such company—human and pig. Carol finally asked if I’d like to meet Suzy.
“Are you kidding!” I said. “I have been waiting years to meet your warthog.” Y
Carol smiled, the large kid hopping at her side. Then, she pointed a finger at me. “I’m warning you; you’re going to get muddy. Suzy is in this pen over there with her cohorts, the Bornean bearded pigs, Tobias and Ellie Mae.”
We walked into the woods surrounding their home. I said, “Will they come to us?”
Carol laughed. “Oh, I’d say so. They enjoy people. The beardies can be a little rough, but all three are exceptionally sweet.”
The Eiswalds have adopted and rescued approximately 100 pigs of varying breed, and they roam their wooded property above Syracuse, New York. Miles of fencing run through the 35 acres of piney forest, some separating the more aggressive pigs from the more mild-tempered ones. I couldn’t see where one pen ended and another started because the fencing followed the natural landscape amidst the pines, hills, and brush. No rectangular pens under the scorching sun existed here. All was integrated into the environment. Except for the paths created by the food-bearing ATV’s and those used by the Eiswalds to visit their pigs several times a day, one would have thought she was simply hiking somewhere in the Poconos.
Carol and I walked through a gate, and Carol called out, “Suzy! Where are you? Soo-zy! Tobias! Ellie!” I peered through the brush for a glimpse of the wild pigs, and I didn’t have long to wait. Suddenly the bushes off to the left crackled, their branches breaking under the force of something terrific, and Suzy the warthog came galloping up to us.
My hands flew to my mouth, eyes wide open. She was beautiful! Though she was hardly larger than a spaniel, her body was solid muscle, with that sinewy look of a hardened Olympian. Yet she was petite, delicate-looking. She had tiny, goat-like feet, very nimble and quick to navigate the rocky ground. She had hardly any body hair except for a bristly mane—of sorts—that was gray and resembled a teenager’s mohawk. But it was softer, more sparse and flowy that a guy’s hair-strip. It started right behind her head, continuing over the top of her body, finally disappearing at her hind end, where it transitioned into a two-foot long bare tail tipped with a pouf of hair.
Together, Suzy’s face and its matching personality truly bowled me over. Even though I had seen warthogs before, I hadn’t seen them up close and personal. I was about to experience a lifetime of entertainment in just a few minutes. After Suzy greeted her human mom, she trotted right over to me. Suzy was no shrinking violet when it came to welcoming strangers. I squatted down to meet her, and she pushed the beardies aside, skittering to a halt right in front of me--nose to snout.
“Oh, wow!” I laughed, steadying myself against a nearby tree. I was speechless. Suzy’s enthusiasm had almost knocked me over. She continued to smell and poke my face with her petite snout--friend or foe here? she had to be thinking. I was so flattered; she thought I was just as special as I thought she was. I sensed it within her intense curiosity with me, her need to really “get in my face,” and her desire to stay, planted, at my side. Suzy liked me.
I, too, probed her face as a blind person would, for Suzy was a very tactile, palpable being. Just seeing her and observing her behavior couldn’t explain her entirely. I had to touch her face, run my hands all over jaws, snout—everywhere--feeling the flatness of what we’d call her forehead and down the length of her nose. I clasped her tiny, feminine ears and stroked her five-inch tufts or beards on either side of her jaws. She was a living work of art and her creator the most imaginative of artists. Totally awe-stricken, I felt the tiny bumps I supposed to be her “warts” that were beginning to erupt all over her nineteen-month-old face.
I gasped as Suzy snuggled my neck. She made very tiny chirping noises that sounded much like a baby raccoon’s, and those chirps were very quiet, as though she were thinking and analyzing me and talking to herself about me. I put an arm around her neck and held her close, whispering sweet something’s in her ear, and I marveled that this wild being was accepting me as a friend; she was trusting me to be kind to her. And though her eyes were smaller than those of a farm pigs’, I recognized the human element in them--even in this wild thing--that I had long ago recognized in the domestic farm pig.
Suzy didn’t have me to herself for very long. Tobias and Ellie Mae, the bearded Bornean pigs, wanted in on the deal, and they weren’t nearly as delicate as Suzy was in their greeting, even though I would not have called Suzy’s introduction all that restrained. The bearded pigs had the perfect handshake with their ten-inch snout. Together, both Ellie Mae and Tobias said “Hello” in their own way, with their long snouts sporting beards the likes of Santa. The ant-eater-like noses were checking me out everywhere: my jacket pockets, my face, my knees, my shoes. They planted dabs of snout-mud all over me, but I didn’t care. They were hardly content to sniff my face and have it returned with a simple hug and pat on the head. No--the beardeds were as athletic and lithe as Suzy, but even though one was a female, the overall impression I had was that they were not nearly as feminine and soft-hearted as Suzy. Even Ellie Mae was pushy, nosing my arm as I tried desperately to take Suzy’s and Tobias’ pictures. Every time I thought I had a good portrait shot of one of them, one of the beardies nudged my arm and ruined the picture. But they were having fun with me—probably sniffing out my own pot-bellies from home and our cats and horses, too. To them I was an interesting mélange of scents.
After the formal introductions to Suzy, Tobias, and Ellie Mae, the seven of us went on a walking tour of the sanctuary. Suzy and the beardies followed us like dogs, trotting alongside as we went from one pen to another visiting all kinds of pigs, from pot-bellies to huge farm pigs to other breeds of wild pigs. What amazed me, too, was how well all the different breeds of pigs got along together. I didn’t see any evidence of porcine racism. Of course, some were slower than others, and Suzy checked everyone out as soon as we entered another gate. But we heard very little fussing between pigs, and when we did, it qualified more as a moment of irritation than any kind of real battle.
Before we knew it, one hundred pigs trailed behind us, aside us, in front of us--some walking, others trotting. We were as much entertainment to them as they were to us. And I felt a curious sensation that I had felt once before while scuba diving in Grand Cayman. This same feeling of oneness with the pigs had gripped me before while diving with a huge school of horse-eye jack. At once, while I knew I was different from the fish, I felt as though I was accepted as one of the school. Here, too, though I knew I was different from the pigs, walking amongst them, I felt like one of the herd. On our walk through the sanctuary, there were no distinctions between humans and pigs. We were creatures simply on a hike together.
What people who are not used to the company of pigs don’t and, possibly, can’t understand is how human-like these animals are. Because pigs have the intelligence of a three-year-old child, they are able to express emotion that people can understand—“speaking” in over 32 vocalizations. They can be shrewd and are easily capable of out-thinking a dull-witted person. Readily they engage a person in play and have a sense of timing that compares to a good comedian.
What is most human-like, however, is a pig’s eye. Every person should look a pig in the eye, and that person will be forever changed. In that eye resides honesty, questioning, evaluation of the thing being seen. The eye cases a person’s motives and sums her up fairly accurately and just as quickly. The eye is kind, but like a human’s, it can be a bit suspicious until it makes a discovery either way. Long lashes border the eyelids as the eye itself turns, darts, stares, and evaluates within its socket, the whites of the eye revealing emotion itself. But if a person stares long enough into a pig’s eye, she will see an individual there in the iris, in the pupil, in the closing and opening of the lids, in the flash of the white. She will recognize an intelligent, perceptive, friendly being within the orb
She will see the human within the animal.

I will never forget my experience at Carol’s The Tusk and Bristle. Though the farm is not open to the public, I was fortunate enough to meet many of its guests, the most captivating of whom was Suzy.

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