PIG STORIES: The Last Squeal

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
Originally published in The Faster Times
June 1, 2010

This is the third story in a three-part series examining the lives and deaths of Asian pigs.

Everything but the squeal...
Everything but the squeal…


The squeal of a soon-dead pig is hard to stomach. It’s high and loud and long. The animal knows.

I hear the telltale shriek one evening in Phnom Dek, in the rural Cambodian province of Preah Vihear. We’re gathered at the front of a highway restaurant, sipping cold beer with a thick layer of sweat and dust caked atop our skin. It’s just before Chinese New Year, and a family has chosen its holiday pig. It’s a happy, gamboling little  creature one minute; frightened and bound the next. Just a juvenile, about 2 ½ feet long.

I know what’s coming, just as the pig seems to sense it, too. But I want to see because I eat pig and I want to know, precisely, the origins of what I eat and the steps between animal and plate.

It takes two men and a boy to complete the job. They tie the legs and lay the pig on a bench, back side down. One man holds the tied legs in the air and the other grabs the snout while the boy dumps water across the wide open neck. One bucket, two buckets—it seems like forever he’s cleaning that neck as the pig continues to squeal. But really, it’s only seconds. And after just a few seconds, the pig quiets in a surreal calm. Its body releases, it excretes its last.

The older man holding the snout drives a kitchen knife into the throat and makes a deep lengthwise cut. Blood spurts, then streams into a bowl on the ground beneath the pig. The man’s hand and forearm are bathed in red.

It takes a few moments for the animal to still; less than a minute for the twitching to stop, the involuntary spasms to end. Eventually the body goes limp and the boy helps the men lift the animal into a metal basin, the sort used for laundry. The wooden bench is stained with a thin streak of blood; the knife and blood bowl are set to the side.

“Tomorrow, for the new year,” the older man says. They will roast it in an above-ground oven, the entire pig.

Jerry takes pictures, I take notes. And even as I’m scrawling in my notebook, I know there will be inevitable questions, someday, when I publish a piece about this incident. Why? Readers will ask. Why recount the gore? Yet I also realize the Cambodians here think nothing of killing a pig (nothing, perhaps, except the price of that pig and its taste on their tongues). Killing a pig is routine. It’s life (and death). It is what’s done. Therefore, I am sure the Cambodians here think my interest is in the New Year—a special day that warrants a feast—rather than the mundane slaughter itself.

I grew up in a Midwest household with a freezer full of neatly packaged meat. I recall a kindergarten (or was it preschool, even?) field trip one year to the local supermarket, where we met the butcher and inspected his display of prime cuts. He took us to the back room, where thick slabs of beef dangled from hooks or chains. This is what I remember. As a child, it was the closest I got to visualizing the link between cow in the field and steak on the plate.

After decades of detached eating, some Americans are choosing to butcher their own—rabbits, even—as many, of course, always have. But the hobby that’s sweeping parts of the West today is unremarkable for most of the world.

In the end, the Cambodian pig slaughter wasn’t horrible. It was normal. It was as humane as possible for the technology at hand, when it comes to killing a pig in a village in Cambodia. That family had plans for every porcine bit of its being—the skin, the head, the feet, the blood (Asians have always eaten snout to tail.) That animal had a happy life, scrounging for scraps and wiggling its little legs in any direction. Just a few minutes passed between the time that pig was caught and the moment its body went still.

I think of industrial farms, the stench of a thousand animals crammed together, wallowing in waste. Eaters are far from the source when food reaches plate. Yet even the so-called “good” bacon I buy—nitrate/nitrite-free from the best farms I can find—reflects little of the meat’s origins. It’s sanitized, on a whitewashed supermarket shelf that meets government code. Still, somewhere back in time, that bacon had a squeal too.

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