Is a Pig a Person?

THAT is a pleasant story which Mr. Nordhoff tells in the October, 1919, Atlantic, about the old Mexican woman who had a pig, ‘the very apple of her eye, christened Narcisco after a departed son’; and the end of the story is still pleasanter, when the convalescent visitor, wishing to repay her for her hospitality, addresses her as follows: ‘I have a favor to ask of you. It is evident, to one in sympathy with pigs, that Narcisco feels the absence of his companion. It would relieve my mind to know that he was not lonely, so please take these twenty pesos and provide him with a fitting mate.’ ‘ One in sympathy with pigs’ is a fine phrase.

I really know very little about pigs, though I have numbered two or three among my barnyard acquaintances. There was a certain engaging frankness about them, an interest in gastronomy, a singleness of purpose, and a simplicity of tastes that appealed to me. I cannot, however, pretend to know much about them. But I have known intimately so many animals of different kinds, that I feel reasonably sure that the old woman made no mistake in looking upon Narcisco as the apple of her eye.

The truth is that any animal becomes a person the moment you know it well enough. I should be willing to go further and say that any plant may become a Picciola; but I must try to keep to my subject. ‘Any animal,’ I said, although I know that the reader can think of several in no time at all, which, he is willing to wager, could never, even after the longest intimacy, become persons. I admit, of course, that my opinion is open to argument, expecially in so far as it relates to polyps, amœbas, and other animalcules; and that, even for one who holds it as enthusiastically as I do, there is a line beyond which it can be only an article of faith. I mean that, while I can never prove that a polyp becomes a person upon close acquaintance, I can believe that it does; because I believe that my theory is sound.

When we look at a swarm of ants, we tell ourselves that they all look alike, and yet we know perfectly well that to an ant they all show differences, idiosyncrasies, personal traits — perhaps even varieties of facial expression; and a moment of reflection will suggest to us that our supercilious feeling regarding ants, our hasty conclusion that they are all alike, is due to no more important a cause than our own defective organs of vision. We may suppose that the Angel Gabriel, leaning lazily on the ramparts of heaven, looks down upon New York with equal perfunctoriness. ‘Funny little creatures,’ we can imagine him saying, ‘running hither and thither, all looking alike, all doing the same things. I ’ll stir them up with a stick and see whether they have a vestige of brain.’

On the hither side of the boundary at which faith begins, however, the soundness of my theory will be evident immediately to anyone who has ever been sensible enough to make a friend of a toad or a hen, — they are of about equal intelligence, — let alone a cat or a dog. The moment I speak of cats and dogs, indeed, the reader will agree with me. ‘Oh, cats and dogs,’ he will say, ‘and horses and donkeys and elephants — of course, in a way and after a fashion, any one of them will seem like a person if you are fond enough of it; but as for pigs and sheep and hens and toads, are n’t you riding your hobby pretty hard?’ ‘Not a bit of it,’ I reply. ‘At our present stage of socalled civilization, it is almost impossible to ride this hobby too hard.’

To a merely sensible person a man is a man and a pig is a pig, and there is nothing more to be said; but to a philosopher or a saint or a poet or a little child — four kinds of people who are never sensible unless they feel like being so — a man is by no means always a man or a pig always a pig. For any of these a pig may at any time be even a kind of angel with wings, or a sort of man with coat and trousers, like the Pig in Sylvie and Bruno, who wrung his hoofs and groaned ‘because he could not jump. This, however, is a creature of allegory. I am talking about real animals, and they provide a subject quite large enough for our purposes. For some philosophers, some saints, most poets, and all little children, the distinctions between men and animals are unimportant, however handy, and can, most of the time, be ignored.

It is really a waste of time to speak of children in this connection. For them, between the ages of four and eight, an animal is far more truly a person than any human being can be, and almost any animal will do as well as another. I know a little girl who every summer adopts several woolly-bear caterpillars, a few grasshoppers, and some crickets, names them Susy and Lucretia and Theophilus and so forth, builds houses for them with beds, tables, chairs, and kitchen sinks, and talks to them with more perfect assurance that they understand than she customarily evinces when she talks to her father. She tells me that Benjamin Brown Bear is entirely different in temperament from William Yellow Bear and both from Thomas Black Bear, who is, I gather, inclined to be obstreperous.

Now, I cannot believe that this little girl is excessively peculiar, or that her father ought to be jealous because she imperfectly distinguishes between him and a caterpillar. She is merely instinctively enjoying a wisdom that she will soon lose, unless she by any chance develops into a poet, a saint, or a philosopher; in which event she may retain her childlike conviction that the world is all of a piece, and that distinctions between people because they have two legs or twenty are purely academic.

Of the poet, too, we can dispose in a few words. He is simply, as one of his kind has called him, the Great Lover; and, having called him that, it would be superfluous to give instances of his brotherhood. There is a difference, however, between the diffused sense of the friendliness of the earth and its indwellers and the specific sense of the friendliness and reciprocal understanding of every creature, however humble; and I wonder sometimes whether the latter is not more often found among the poets who cannot write grandly than among those who can; as if nature, in withholding the gift of expression from some, gave them, in compensation, the gift of friendship. For it seems that it is in the very minor poets, and in the mute poets we meet in the walks of daily life, that the sense of companionship is strongest, whether between man and man, or between man and brute. However, this is only a speculation, and I may be merely confusing a warm heart with a poetic soul.

As for the saints, the best of them — by ‘best.’ I mean those who appeal to me most—have had animal cronies. There are Saint Jerome and Saint Euphemia and Brother Zosimus and their lions, and Saint Hubert and his hart, and Saint Hugh and his swan; but these are said to be only symbolic. It is among the Franciscans — Saint Anthony, Saint Francis, and Brother Juniper — that there is singular intimacy with animals. In the Borghese Palace at Rome is, or used to be, a picture of Saint Anthony preaching to the fishes, and an old book says that he is addressing them as ‘ Dearly beloved fish,’and that the salmon and the cod are listening ‘with profound humility, and grave and religious countenances.’ The saint, we are told, preached this sermon in order to convince some skeptics; but this is the addition of a sensible person. For Saint Francis, as everybody knows, all creatures were his brothers and sisters, though the birds were his favorites. He rebuked the ants, but tenderly, for their too great forethought: ‘Do you not know, my sisters, that it is quite contrary to the spirit of the gospel?’ He had a pet lamb with him always at Rome, and pet doves for whom he built nests in his cell at Ravacciano; and we may be sure that he talked to them as equals.

I do not think that later generations have fully understood the Franciscans’ predilection for animals. Even so poetic an interpreter as Ernest Hello sees in it only a natural extension of their yearning to save the world of men; but I prefer to think that it was rather a result of their discovery that man is in no absolute sense any more worthy than the animals; that the world is no more his than theirs; and that heaven without the animals would be a strange place. It may have been some unformulated sense of these truths that made them preach so earnestly to their little dumb brothers and sisters. It is perhaps, however, only the philosopher who really thinks so far, adopting as a principle what others simply feel.

In James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold is a Philosopher whom to know is to love. True, he appears to be a little ‘off,’at least to the extent of carrying rather far the metaphysician’s favorite failing of making his facts fit his theory; but who ever loved a man for his philosophy? He has a pleasant habit of speaking of animals as ‘people’: for example, he calls cats ‘a philosophic and thoughtful race’; owls ‘a venerably sagacious folk’; bats ‘a very clearminded race’; the salmon ‘a dignified fish.’ It is, to be sure, a part of his philosophy to argue the foolishness of men from the common sense of animals; but perhaps it is as good a ‘method’ as another. For instance, ‘since crows,’ he reasons, ‘are a gregarious race with settled habitations and an organized commonwealth . . . if policemen were necessary to a civilization, crows would certainly have evolved them,’ as would jackdaws, ants, fish, squirrels, rats, beaver, and bison. Since, at the moment when he says this, he is being escorted to jail by four policemen, it suggests an engagingly detached and judicious temper in him to go so far afield for his comparisons. What is especially noteworthy, however, is his habit of viewing the world as all of a piece, speaking as respectfully of the people (‘People, my granny!’ says the Police Sergeant, who is no philosopher) of wood, hedgerow, and stream as of the people of hamlet, village, and city. Even the fish, whom he disapproves of because they believe in washing, he refers to in the same vein. ‘I have often fancied,’ says he, ‘that fish are a dirty, sly, and unintelligent people.’

To convince ourselves that this is not a unique philosophic attitude, we may consider two others from sources as different as possible. In Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du Goût we may read: ’I have for these creatures’ — he is speaking of fish, for the cooking of which à la matelote he has just given a recipe — ‘a sentiment akin to respect, springing from a deep conviction that they are antediluvian; for the great cataclysm which drowned our granduncles about, the eighteenth century of the world’s history, was for the fishes nothing but a time of joy, conquest, and festivity.’

He was a philosopher of a warm and merry heart. Many a time, listening to some dinner companion boasting of family and lineage, he must have chuckled inwardly as his eye rested on the sole or turbot before him, whose granduncles were embalmed in coal after a short life of joy, conquest, and festivity in the carboniferous swamps. As a philosopher, he knows better than to condescend toward even a fish; and perhaps he is the greatest of gastronomers because his philosophic mind raises him above the abjectness of loving even a fish only carnivorously.

Our other philosopher wrote a letter — which gave me great comfort — to the newspaper a week or so ago, protesting in a fine indignation against the common assumption that human beings are superior in any absolute sense to the animals, and especially against our habit of applying such terms as ‘dog’ and ‘brute’ opprobriously to one another. ‘ Don’t vilify the animals,’ says the writer, ‘who are neither dirty, cruel, nor low, but obey the natural laws governing their life circle with a fidelity that makes a human life seem the acme of unreason.’ This is in the true vein, and proves that all those who have a sense of the dignity of animals are not dead.

Lest I be misunderstood, I hasten to protest that I am not advocating ‘nature-faking,’ or sentimentality, or a’stheticism, or any other mode of thought or habit of mind which passes for ‘love of nature’ but is really a form of selfindulgence. I am only suggesting that the time has come when societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should make way for societies for the Promotion of Friendship with Animals; when the test of a nature-lover should not be whether he knows a golden-crowned kinglet when he sees one, but whether he can love a barnyard rooster as a friend, not merely as a prospective roast; when the test of a dog-lover should be, not whether he can love a pampered, pedigreed winner of blue ribbons, but whether he can love what Sydney Smith called an extraordinarily ordinary dog; and the test of a citizen of the world should be whether he feels, not only his brotherhood with men, but his brotherhood with every lowliest creeping thing that lives and eats and dies on the earth.

We must bury all prejudices, all traditional hostilities, and try to get back to that intimate communion with the animals that our remote, credulous forefathers enjoyed. We have not only lost that communion, but millions of us have almost forgotten that the animals exist, remembering them, when at all, as prey and food. Even in our cities there is a numerous population that does not appear in the Directory, being born, feeding, multiplying, and dying all about us, to whom we give not a look or a thought.

Landlords and janitors will no longer permit us to keep a pig, and are even setting their faces resolutely against dogs and cats and children and other animals; but we can still adopt, say, a frog, in order to keep the wellsprings of our nature from drying up. A frog is easily procurable in any park lake, when the park policeman is not looking, and is an appealing little animal, given to humorous ways. He can also be pathetic, as you must know if you have ever used him for bait. I tried to do so only once; for, when he put up his hands in an attitude of prayer, it was too much for me. I let him go, preferring to be fishless rather than to be haunted by his sorrowful countenance.

If we will contemplate our frog for half an hour every day, letting our mind run free, we shall learn to admire his color, his dandified shirt-front, his delicate fingers. In time, we shall find that a feeling of coolness, verdancy, and calm is creeping over us. We think of pools and sunlight and lily-pads and pebbles — thoughts especially cheering in the dead of winter. Before long, we begin to philosophize, recalling that a frog has no worries, or, at most, simple and elementary worries, such as the proximity of a pickerel or the approach of frost. He never gives a thought to the income tax, the high cost of living, the value of the classics in education, or the open shop. He is somewhat gregarious, but he never forms a union. Above all, when he is down-hearted, he sings — after his peculiar fashion, it is true, but without self-consciousness.

So far, our reflections have had to do with frogs rather than with our frog; but it will not be long before we realize that our frog is different. He has his minute preferences, his own particular degree of shyness or boldness, his special manner of catching and gulping a fly. Even if he is otherwise indistinguishable from the rest of his kind, we have set him apart from them by merely looking at him and talking to him. He is our frog as one would say our friend, not merely because we own him, but because we have entered into soul-communion with him. He has become a person.

A friend with whom I discussed the question whether a pig is ever a person, replied, rather ironically, ‘So far as I can see, a pig may be a person to a person who is willing to a certain extent to become a pig.’

He thought that he had settled the question by a smart retort, not realizing that he had made a profound remark. For what he said is entirely true. There can be no true friendship where there is no reciprocation.

Just how far our frog, or pig, or other animal, is willing to reciprocate, I do not know. There are mystics — and they may be the wisest of men— who understand the old Oratorian perfectly when he says, ‘I do not wholly despair of the brute beasts. It does not seem to me impossible that some day I shall see them bowing down and adoring.’ At any rate, one thing is certain; and that is that, so long as we never think of most of the animals except as objects of sport or material for food or subjects of scientific study, we shall never know very much about them.

If we assume that every animal we meet is a presumptive or potential person, worthy of being noticed and of being treated with dignity and respect, the animals will certainly give us a gift in return. You remember the character— in The Way of All Flesh, I think — who used to go and sit for an hour or two in the Zoo for the sake of his nerves, finding association with the animals more soothing than the same amount of time spent in a sanitarium? That is the gift which the animals have for us: they shame us into contentment; without saying a word, they teach us the worth of quiet industry, obedience to the laws of nature, selfdependence, and a fine humility.

In an old manuscript I have come across an apologue which I copy for what it is worth. It seems to have several morals, such as that he who laughs last laughs best, and that brain is superior to brawn, and such trite lessons; but it also suggests to me the idea that the author has aimed a shaft against human conceit. However that may be, here is the fable.

After Dame Nature had finished making the animals, she sat down to rest and to survey her handiwork; and the animals stood about for a time regarding one another, and then they began to chuckle, smirk, and snigger. Nothing could exceed their amusement over one another’s peculiarities. Dame Nature watched them with a quiet smile, but in her wise eyes shone a look of anticipation. And then there walked out of the woods her latest experiment in modeling — a man. For an instant the animals gazed upon this apparition in astonishment; and then there rose a laugh, such a snorting, grunting, growling, braying, bleating, cackling, howling, roaring laugh as never was heard on earth before or since. They nudged one another in the ribs, slapped one another on the back, rolled on the ground, panted, choked, wept. But Dame Nature, resting her chin on her hand, only smiled and waited. And then the man quietly took from the ground a good stout stick, and he weighed it in his hand and tried its strength and suppleness, and he walked forth from the woods frowning, and he laid about him with the stick with such precision on haunch and shoulder and rib that the laughter turned to howls of pain. And then Dame Nature clapped her hands and threw back her head and laughed with a laugh like the sound of winds and waters. From that day man has never hesitated to laugh at the animals, even in their presence; but they laugh at him only when he is not looking. He has, however, long since forgotten the incident.