Saturday Story: How the flying pigs became a crackling good tale

The Saturday Story

Even Thought For The Day caught swine fever. The subject for Radio 4's religious slot yesterday was the fugitive Tamworth pigs whose fate, a worthy godslot contributor informed us, has gripped the imagination of the nation.

Excuse me. Yes, I know that the august Guardian yesterday used the same phrase on its front page, and without apparent irony. The tabloid papers have given over page after page to the subject. News at Ten has revelled in a story which might have been tailor-made for its "And Finally ..." slot. And there's the rub. But before we come to that, for those readers who have today returned from holiday in a less sentimental clime, here is the story so far.

Nine days ago two Ginger Tamworth pigs escaped as they were being transferred from a van into an abattoir yard in Malmesbury. They ran round the yard before forcing their way through a hole in the fence and ran off across the road into the fields opposite. Confronted by the barrier of the River Avon, they dived into the icy waters and swam to freedom. They then went to ground in the gardens of the town.

Their owner, a council road sweeper with the improbable name of Arnaldo Dijulio, who had reared them for slaughter on his smallholding, tried to catch them, as did other locals, but they ran off with a surprising turn of speed whenever anyone tried to get hold of them.

So much for the facts. Had it been France, Germany or Italy, or more especially the United States, someone would then have got a gun and shot them. There would have been no news.

But this is Britain. When reports filtered through to London teams of newshounds were dispatched. They chased the unhappy animals on foot, by car, in hired four-wheel drives. ITN even sent a helicopter. The pigs were variously named - Fred and Ginger, Babe and Algy, Butch and Sundance and, more universally, the Tamworth Two.

The papers and the local RSPCA office proclaimed themselves to be inundated with calls from people offering money to save the beasts. A mystified Mr Dijulio suddenly found himself being offered as much as pounds 15,000 for his pigs which the week before would have fetched him pounds 40 a piece.

The tabloids filled double-page spreads with terrible puns: "Squeal meet again" said hacks who declared themselves to be "on the pig's tail" in an a attempt to capture the "cheeky swine" and then take them to an animal sanctuary where the might live "high on the hog". And on it went, liberally illustrated with photos of "Ginger Tamworths, like the one above".

The broadsheets carried more discursive pieces, sprinkled with references to George Orwell and Lord Emsworth but nonetheless managed to fill prodigious amounts of column inches. The men on the telly, deprived at first of actual pictures of their prey and forced to create their own images where none existed, resorted to codding up "great white hunter" scenes in which reporters, equipped with metaphorical stout stick, felt the temperature of the spoor freshly imprinted in the ground.

Dog bites man, you will recall, is no story in the British news lexicon. But this was pig bites man, putatively at any rate for, as the papers kept informing us, the Tamworth Ginger could give you a nasty nip.

What is it about the British and animals? For we have been here before. Remember Blackie the Donkey? He was rescued by the Sun from cruel Spaniards who wanted to kill him in 1987 in an annual ritual to mark the execution of a rapist centuries ago, and then pinched by the Daily Star which took him to join 7,000 others in the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon. Then there was the rabbit saved by an intrepid Mail on Sunday reporter who ventured into the lair of Colonel Gaddafi to recover the pet, which had been abandoned when diplomats quit the British embassy during one of those Libyan crises (we forget the crisis, you see, but not the rabbit).

I have, I must confess, forgotten the name of the Tripoli bunny. Which is probably why I am back on rabbit pie. "Once an animal has been given a name, it is difficult to eat it," according to Julia Berryman, a psychologist at Leicester University who has made a study of people's attachment to animals. "Pets [except goldfish] are invariably named, and you form a relationship with them," she said. So close that one third of pet-owners, her research shows, have a closer relationship with their pet than their spouse. "These pigs have stepped out of line. They have crossed over from being farm animals to companions. They have been given names. Once that happens you can't reverse the process."

This explains something of our ambivalence about creatures which one minute are just potential bacon sandwiches and the next have become stars. It was a swift transformation. The day that we first heard of the pigs we were, elsewhere in our newspapers, continuing to regard the pigs and Wiltshire in an altogether different light.

Wiltshire, you may recall, is at the centre of the row between the British and Italians over whether Parma ham, the most upmarket transmutation a pig can undergo, can legitimately be sliced in Wiltshire. The Parma Ham Consortium is seeking an injunction to prevent Asda from selling its meat cured in Parma but sliced and packaged in Chippenham. They might be better off just giving the hams cute little nicknames.

It goes further than that. We give them not just names, but personalities. Anthropomorphism has been a British weakness since the three little pigs first went to market. Small wonder that the device surfaced again this week. The Evening Standard printed the first "exclusive interview" with the Tamworth Two clad in dark glasses. The Daily Mail carried a wince- making "world oinksclusive" - complete with invented quotes which had they been from a person his editor would have wanted "improved". Even the Times printed a piece with pig quotes prefaced with expletives like "Phew".

There were those who were not amused. "It's fantastically hypocritical," said Rev Professor Andrew Linzey, Fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford, who holds Britain's first academic post in animal theology. "Five hundred million animals are slaughtered every year and are treated with hideous cruelty - pigs have their teeth clipped with metal pliers and their tails pulled off."

But it's not the tabloids he blames, so much as Aristotle. "He was the first to say animals are there for our use, and then the idea came into Christianity via Thomas Aquinas who conceived an intellectual hierarchy from angels, men, women, animals and plants."

Such priorities became embedded in English culture and law. In the Seventies, Amnesty International financed experiments to torture pigs to find out whether certain kinds of torture could be used without damaging skin. In the 1980s, a man charged with cruelty to prawns successfully argued in court that they weren't sentient beings (he had thrown the live crustaceans on a hot plate and watched them jump). More recently the Nuffield Committee on xenotransplantation decided that it was ethical to use pigs for organ transplants but not primates like monkeys and apes because they were too close to human beings.

The Tamworth Two, both back in custody last night, were originally part of a three-pig group when they entered the abattoir. The third animal was, according to the butcher, "processed in the usual way." If only he'd had a name.

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