Be the Boar
Sex, sows, and courtship on a Danish pig farm
Industrial meat production seeks to turn sows into reproductive bio-machines, but the process of artificial insemination unsettles the boundaries of interspecies desire.
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By Katy Overstreet
We arrived at the pig farm in a rural area of western Denmark at precisely nine o’clock in the morning, just in time for kaffepause (coffee break). Having left the world of flat whites and croissants behind in Copenhagen, my colleague Inger Anneberg and I brought more traditional morning fare: bread rolls, cheese, butter, and jam. After introductions, the farmer, a middle-aged blonde-haired Dane with a friendly manner who I will call Mads, made coffee. He set it out on the kitchen table with a package of leverpostej (a widely eaten paste made from pig liver) for us to share.
Mads and his employees sat around the table, looking at us expectantly, clearly curious about why two anthropologists had come to visit their pig farm. We explained that we had come to study how Mads and his team handle female pigs during breeding, to inform our work on animal welfare. Denmark, where pork is revered as part of traditional foodways, makes for the perfect case study for this kind of work: the country prides itself on maintaining a “gold standard” of pig production based on its comparatively stringent animal welfare regulations, high productivity, widespread use of cutting-edge technologies, extensive research infrastructure, and strong public support for the industry. And the industry is booming: Denmark produces more than twenty-eight million pigs, largely for export, which is impressive for a country of under six million people.
After we’d had our fill of bread rolls and coffee, we set off for a day with Mads and his workers. We were soon invited to participate in artificially inseminating sows. As an anthropologist who has been studying industrial agriculture for more than ten years, I have participated in many different farm chores and activities. But this brief encounter with breeding sows at Mads’s farm raised new questions of ethics that I had not encountered in my previous work. Our experience that day illuminated the ways in which the boundaries between species, desire, and consent are blurred in the name of agricultural efficiency, and what this interplay can reveal about human-animal relations in industrial food systems.
The stalls of the breeding unit stretched from one end of the large barn to the other in rows of fifty. With four rows in this breeding unit, the barn contained around two hundred sows. Each stall was a bit wider than the large sow standing in it but not large enough for the animal to turn around. The sows all faced a pen in the middle of the unit, accessible through a series of gates. We followed behind Ana, a farm worker from Romania, who had been charged with leading us through the breeding process. Usually, on pig farms, female farm workers focus on more “nurturing” tasks, like caring for piglets, but Mads had proudly told us that Ana was willing to do it all.
As Ana prepared her breeding tools, three large, gregarious boars — distinguishable from the sows by their fur, their larger size, and their prominent testicles — were herded into the pens in the centre of the breeding unit. While scientists have done numerous experiments around sow arousal, nothing excites sows quite like the presence of live boars, so they’d been sent in to get the party started. The effect was immediate: the sows strained their noses through the bars of their pens trying to get a little closer to these potential mates, and the barn soon filled with the guttural grunts, barks, and squeals of the sows and boars calling to each other.
While the sows and boars touched noses and conversed, Ana started the breeding process. She entered the small gate behind the first sow and confirmed that the sow was in “standing heat”, meaning fertile and ready for breeding. She pushed and rubbed the back of the sow, watching as the animal locked her legs and stood rigidly. Ana then checked for other signs of heat, noting the perkiness of the sow’s ears and the swollenness of her vulva. The sow was ready.
Ana rubbed the sides of the sow, pulled at the top of her back legs, and pushed on her back. She pulled a cloth from the pocket of her coveralls and cleaned the sow’s vulva. Grasping the lower portion of the vulva, Ana pulled it down and carefully inserted a straw with a lubricated foam tip up into the sow’s vagina. She pushed until it met resistance and then pushed a little more firmly until it entered the sow’s cervix. Once the straw was inserted, Ana attached a small plastic pouch of sperm suspended in liquid to the other end of the straw. She hooked this pouch to a clip hanging from the ceiling by a string. Ana worked her way down the row of stalls, quickly connecting one sow after the other to an individual bag of sperm.
For now, the milky liquid stayed put in the bags. Ana explained to us that the sows needed to be encouraged to take in the sperm. When she had several pouches of sperm hooked up, she turned to Inger and me: “Be the boar,” she said.
Climbing onto the first sow and facing her rear, Ana explained that it was our job to imitate the weight and movement that a boar might make when mounting a sow. From her seat atop the sow’s back, Ana began rubbing the sow with her arms and legs. Her skilled imitation of a boar was quickly rewarded. The sow experienced uterine contractions that sucked the semen into her body, leaving the attached pouch empty.
Ana dismounted, removed the straw from the sow’s vagina, and opened the next stall, motioning me forward. My turn. I had never seen a boar mount a sow, but not being entirely new to sexual acts, I could imagine the scene. Nevertheless, I struggled with the idea of being the boar and found myself thrown into a moment of crisis. It was not the visceral nature of the task that put me off. As someone with extensive fieldwork experience on farms, the bodily demands of farm work and the intimacy of working with animals in these contexts were not new to me. What struck me instead at that moment was being asked to imagine myself in the position of a sexual partner and to perform a sexual act with a nonhuman animal in a system specifically designed to exploit the generativity of female bodies for profit.
Increasing generativity in the name of profit has been an ongoing project in Denmark for at least 150 years. Since the establishment of the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Copenhagen in 1856, there has been a focus on the application of scientific techniques for agricultural optimization. Concerted efforts in breeding resulted in the creation of the Danish “bacon pigs”, famous for their extra set of ribs. Other improvements in bacon pigs were their increased litter sizes and leaner meat. These developments were heralded by breeders and farmers as a major success of Danish ingenuity in breeding. Building on this “breed wealth”, farmers continued to breed for litter size, eventually leading to what is now referred to in industry-speak as the “hyperprolific sow”.
This engineered line of pigs produces some of the largest litter sizes in the world: some birth as many as thirty piglets at once, more than double the average litter size of even a few decades ago. In these excessively large litters, piglet mortality is extremely high, both before birth and during the first few days of life. Many are born as “dolphin-pigs”, with sloping foreheads, bulging eyes, and low birth weights. This is caused by running out of space to grow in the womb. Sows have only fourteen nipples, meaning that large and very large litters outstrip their ability to nurse their young. Piglets on Danish farms, therefore, have to be regularly redistributed to other sows, either replacing offspring who have died or sent to “nurse sows” kept in lactation through continually nursing piglets from other litters.
Large litters also mean that sows must endure prolonged births and often end up with immune disease or other ailments. Once with a litter, sows are kept in pens that include metal bars to prevent them from lying on and thereby killing their piglets, designed to protect their marketable young at the expense of their freedom of movement. The hyperprolific sow is truly a haunting figure of what “improvement” has come to mean in agricultural science.
Another key development in the field of pig breeding has been artificial insemination. Experiments with artificial insemination were recorded as early as the 1600s, but it was not until the mid-20th century that dairy farmers began to use it regularly. On pig farms, artificial insemination has only become common practice in the last couple of decades, gaining popularity as a means of increasing control over genetic lines and making breeding more efficient. This is in part because artificial insemination is often faster than “natural service” by boars, who are also considered expensive to feed and dangerous to work with. The move to artificial insemination required breeders and farmers to develop a better understanding of pig courtship rituals, because, without some form of stimulation, sows fail to have uterine contractions. These deep, pulsing movements are vital for increasing the chances of conception as well as litter size.
In his extensive ethnography of mass pig production in the Midwestern United States, Alex Blanchette shows how workers’ efforts to “stimulate” sows are often standardized according to the logics of efficiency and managers’ interpretations of those logics. Stimulate is a term used in the pork industry and in textbooks on pig reproduction. Blanchette adopts it to describe how a choreography of workers, sows, and technologies standardizes the sow — distilling her into a particular pattern of instinctual responses — as well as the worker — into an efficient and reproducible employee. Stimulation, then, imagines the sow as an instinctual biomachine and the worker as her operator.
Yet, on Mads’ farm, Ana’s careful tactile communication and her mimesis of an imagined boar seemed to me to be not only about domination and standardization. Although breeding takes place in a space designed for the mass production of pig flesh, which provides pigs with only the bare minimum of what they need to live, Ana showed us that the sows in this setting are also able to make demands on the humans who care for them. In the aforementioned ethnography by Blanchette, a worker named Felipe takes his time to learn the individuality of each animal. He approaches his work with gusto, pulling hair and tweaking tails, comparing the experience to being a responsive and inventive lover with human women. Perhaps, Blanchette argues, Felipe’s improvisations were also a refusal of the standardization of labour and an attempt to find dignity through the exercise of skilled work. Similarly, Ana appeared to respond differently to individual sows. She did not touch them all in the same way. Sometimes she would remark, “Oh she likes this,” while stroking a sow’s udder or scratching another’s back.
These acts of courtship show that arousal, rather than the stimulation imagined by agricultural scientists, might be a better term to describe what is happening to the sows in these interactions. Although it might be possible to imagine animals as machines in textbooks or among managers seeking to “stimulate” efficiency and profit, the workers touching the sows and interacting with them seem to know that whatever term the textbooks use, successful breeding depends on their ability to arouse the sows. Sows demand that if they are to be bred, they must at least be given a minimal courtship experience. The moment in which the human breeder is “being the boar” then, is a moment in which a sow asserts her subjecthood, even as the industry seeks to flatten that subjecthood into the lowest common denominator.
Even after more than fifty years of concerted research on stimulating the sow, successful artificial insemination still depends on getting the sow “in the mood”, so to speak. And while I cannot find any scientific literature on this point, it seems possible that the goal may actually be for the sow to orgasm. The curious absence of this term could be due to the taboo in animal science of using anthropomorphic terms to describe animals. Or perhaps it is avoided because being the boar is already dangerously close to bestiality, another very strong cultural taboo in Denmark as in most Euro-American contexts.
But I am not the first observer of human-animal social relations to notice that nonhuman desire shapes human action. Based on ethnographic research with falconers who engage in elaborate courtship rituals with falcons in order to collect semen and to inseminate female birds, Sara Asu Schroer argues that “bird desire… can be understood both in terms of a sense of sexual longing and lust and in terms of having (at times quite high) demands and expectations of their partner,” be they avian or human. In other words, falcons, who are notoriously difficult to breed shape social relations beyond simply refusing or cooperating. Courtship, instead, depends on improvisation in a varied and extensive repertoire of movements, offerings, and vocalizations. So fully do the falconers participate in these courtship rituals with birds that one falconer’s wife says to Shroer that “during breeding season ‘James was all bird’”.
In her ethnography of a Danish research clinic that uses piglets as model organisms for extremely preterm human infants, anthropologist Mette N. Svendsen invokes “substitution” to describe how different actors come to stand in for those of other species. For example, the researchers who care for the piglets (and later kill and dissect them) strive to care for the young animals as they would for their own children. The researcher responsible for giving the preterm piglets their food was, perhaps somewhat in jest, referred to as the madmor, or “food mother,” referring to a historical practice whereby the wife on a large farm would cook for the servants who were also part of the household and to some extent, a kind of kin. Svendsen argues that these kinds of substitution practices “unsettle and settle boundaries between humans and nonhumans, life and death, and belonging and not belonging”.
Being the boar similarly unsettles species boundaries because it implies an act of substitution, a mimicking of a sexual partner; mimicry which means becoming a little bit more porcine, at least for a time.
Back in the breeding unit, Inger and I were up to bat. Inger had far more experience with artificial insemination on pig farms than I did, and upon listening to Ana’s instructions, she confidently entered a stall to sit on the back of a sow. Somewhat more tentatively, I joined a different sow in her stall and gingerly sat on her back. I was worried that my weight would be too much for her, but Ana pointed out that my full weight and some firm pressure from my hands on the sow’s back would be more “boar-like” than my tentative and partial position, which had led only to the semen remaining placid in the pouch. I watched from my perch as Ana and Inger moved from stall to stall, clearly more adept at arousing the sows than me.
Finally, I began rubbing the animal firmly with my hands and tried again to put my full weight on her back. Apparently, the sow found me-as-the-boar adequate, and suddenly she sucked the semen out from the pouch and into her body. Perhaps she had an orgasm. Perhaps it was a moment of pleasure in her grim life, which was characterized by conditions of confinement and the demands of being kept constantly pregnant or lactating for human profit. Regardless, it was not an act that I felt justified in doing and not one that I came to innocently. I certainly do not feel comforted by a discourse of human exceptionalism but I “stayed with the trouble.” And through unsettling the boundaries between species and becoming a little bit boar-like, the sow showed me that, try as humans might to turn her into a piglet-popping biomachine, they will never fully succeed.
Katy Overstreet is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Copenhagen. She conducts research on human-animal relations, food and agriculture, and landscapes.
Thank you to the Feminist Food Journal editors, and to Inger Anneberge, for your thought-provoking comments and feedback. And of course, thank you to “Mads” for allowing us to visit his farm and to “Ana” for sharing her work with us.
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