Swine defined at the farm

As the outdoor crowds dwindle, the air grows cool-crisp and leaf colors catch fire,  I make my occasional trek out to the zoo’s family farm. In the past month, scheduled repeatedly for a full hour on the Northern Trail, I hiked out there twice: once in sun, once in cloud. I’m not normally much of a farm girl (for one thing, I’m allergic to hay), but I’m drawn to the pigs and the informative signs. These two signs nicely sum up the farm’s mission and niche within the zoo:

This sign’s final observation got me thinking about domestic pigs and their wild cousins. But first, a quick and fuzzy digression:

I don’t have a whole lot to say about sheep, except look how cute they are! As a teen and twentysomething, I built up quite a gift collection of fuzzy stuffed sheep toys. The last one I remember receiving was a Lamb Chop puppet my in-laws picked up at a garage sale en route to my house. I never thought of sheep as endangered, and most varieties aren’t. But Shetland sheep, like the zoo-farm residents in this photo, actually are.

But I digress. Let’s talk about pigs — or rather, swine.

On my cloudy-day farm visit in early October (see how green the trees are!), I stopped by the swine barn and was momentarily flattered when its crossbred domestic pigs lurched to their feet on my arrival. (Two zoo staffers who’d come to feed them were right behind me.) Here’s the most informative sign of all: a guide to swine terminology!

If anyone had asked me the difference between a gilt and a barrow before this, I couldn’t have told you. I’m not sure I realized “swine” was the most general term possible, embracing every type of pig, boar or hog, and it’s good to know that the pig vs. hog cutoff is 120 pounds. I must note, however, that while a “boar” can be a male domestic pig, “wild boars” comprise nondomestic swine of either gender, including these residents of Russia’s Grizzly Coast:

Wild boar live all over the planet and range from 90 to 700 pounds. The ones in Russia’s Far East tend to be large because they feast upon pine nuts. A fact that cracks me up for some reason: In Russia, they keep to the southern forests because their short legs prevent them from moving easily through snow. And a funnier fact: The bristly hairs on their necks were used in toothbrushes until synthetic alternatives were developed in the 1930s. In Minnesota, the DNR considers wild boar a potentially invasive species.

On the Tropics trail, we’ve got the handsome red river hogs (above), weighing 100-250 pounds and native to sub-Saharan Africa. And we’ve also got Visayan warty pigs, weighing 50 to 90 pounds, whose range has shrunk to two small islands in the Philippines. Far from being invasive, they’re one of the few endangered varieties. Because of their mohawk-like hairiness, zoo signage describes them as “punk rock pigs struggling to survive” — sort of the Lisbeth Salander of the swine world. Just one more thing to appreciate about zoo signs. And swine.

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Sleepy pigs arise!

You might assume the two red river hogs in the new Faces of Africa exhibit never wake up — and so far at midday, I’ve only seen them in various states of repose — but stop by in the late afternoon, and it’s a whole different scene.

Photographically stymied at the zoo last week, I took my husband for a quick pre-dinner visit yesterday, aiming to dodge the end-of-school-year crowds and midday hubbub. Normally curled up at the exhibit’s far left edge, the hogs were trotting all over and mingling with the colobus and De Brazza’s monkeys alike.

The two male hogs even head-butted each other for a while in the deepening evening gloom, just as the zoo literature says they do in the wild. True to the species’ name, one of them splashed around a bit in the mini-river at the exhibit’s center. Sleeping or playing, their ears are a thing to behold: “leaf-shaped” and “tasseled,” as zoo lit describes them. Their sharp lower tusks help dig for roots and bulbs “like garden hoes,” and the warts beneath their facial hair protect against the jab of another hog’s tusks.

With a maximum size of 5 feet long and 250 pounds for males, these guys are still too “ugdorable” (zoo-lit term) to be intimidating. And despite the gloom of a rainy weekend evening, the zoo near closing time had a warm, intimate feel. The crowds had thinned out, but judging from the look of the parking lot at 5:55 p.m., the rest of us were reluctant to leave.