June 22, 2012

How to Castrate a Pig in Madagascar

The Farm Visit

I cut out a pig’s left testicle.

The day before, I was at a Peace Corps conference.  The last activity for attending volunteers, before going back to our sites, was to visit a farming school, meet the students there, and observe what they do.  The volunteers were instructed to sign up for an event to observe during the visit.  The list included “compost making” and “planting” and other things that didn't interest me.  The one that stood out was “pig castration” and my friend and I signed up for it.  I will refer to said friend as “The Butcher” for reasons that I will soon make obvious.

The next day we arrived at the farm school.  We met the students, did introductions, etc.  I say “etc.” because the only thing that mattered to me that day was pig castration.  I don’t know why I wanted to see it.  Morbid curiosity, I guess.

After introductions and etc., the volunteers and students dispersed to attend their respective events.  The Butcher and I went to the building where the pigs live, which I guess is called a pig sty, but I’m not sure because there were goats there too.  A corridor ran through the center of the pig/goat house, and on either side were stalls for the animals.  The students came in with a bucket of water and some tools.  They dissolved iodine tablets in the water and dropped the tools in to be sterilized.  The tools included clamps and razors.

Three of the students went into one of the stalls and, after some commotion, dragged out a full grown pig.  It took all three of them to pin it to the ground, and I vaguely remember kneeling on a portion of the pig to help, but my pre-castration memories are dim because they exist in the shadow of the memory of what followed.  It was clear that the pig knew what was going on.  It was screaming and soiling itself, which is precisely what I would do if Malagasy kids pinned me to the ground to emasculate me with a razor.

Prepare to Castrate

Then the students gave The Butcher castration instructions, and handed him a razor from the bucket, which he happily accepted.  I had thought we were only observing so I was surprised and a little uneasy.  I just wanted to watch.  It was decided that The Butcher would take one nut, and I would take the other.

I had a other assumptions that turned out to be false.  For example, I assumed there would be a room especially reserved for animal operations.  Wrong.  They had the pig pinned down right there in the walkway, in the middle of everything.  I assumed the pig would be anesthetized.  Nope.  I assumed the castrators would wear latex gloves and maybe even those white muzzles that doctors and dentists wear.  That one was so wrong that I still feel stupid admitting it.  I had all these antiseptic, animal-friendly notions in my idiot American mind, and they were all wrong.

If my assumptions had been right, maybe I wouldn’t have minded participating in the operation.  By the way, “operation” is not the best word here.  Classifying this castration as an “operation” would be like classifying midget-tossing as a “gentlemen’s game”.  Imagine: high-caste British dudes, wearing stovepipe hats and three-piece athletic formalwear, tossing well-dressed midgets and saying stuff like, “Wretched weather for a midget toss, old boy, what?”  It all makes sense except for the midget part.

Brief Digression on Pig Anatomy

Before moving on, let me fill you in on the anatomy of pig manhood, as I witnessed it.  It’s not like a human’s.  A pig’s satchel is not free-hanging and spacious.  It’s flush against its rear end.  There is an outer layer of skin, an inner layer of membrane, and then the testicles.  Separate incisions must be made for each layer, and for each testicle.  Moving on.

The Butcher and I Get to Work

So, The Butcher was now armed and towering over the squealing pig.  Then he knelt down with what I considered a bit too much nonchalance, as if he were going to tie his shoe.

I saw very little from behind the backs kneeling around the pig.  All I remember is an increase in the intensity of squealing and writhing, and The Butcher’s elbow twitching back and forth.  It was clear he was having a hard time with the two required incisions (he later complained that the razor was dull).  At length he stood up, with what I considered a bit too much triumph, as if he had just tied his shoe for the first time.  He was entirely unfazed and I believe he’s found his calling in life.  Voila.  The Butcher.

It was my turn now.  I was squeamish from the squealing – pigs’ screams sound somewhat human and I was losing my nerve.  But I knew that if I backed down, I would never hear the end of it from The Butcher.  He would rub it in and emasculate me too (figuratively).  So I committed myself to it, asked the students to repeat the instructions (which they repeated very clearly), and knelt down behind the howling pig.

I was worked up at this point, and even more so when I was given a brand new razor.  Then I became suddenly calm, and I made the first incision.  It cut cleanly and straight, and the incision opened to expose the inner membrane, which I also cut.  There was not much blood, and I felt I had done well to open the pig’s scrotum so neatly.  I was focused and confident.

Then someone’s hand came in, grabbed and squeezed, and a massive pale blue testicle burst out, and I thought I would faint and go face first into the gore.

It wasn’t over yet.  I had to clamp the vas deferens.  I couldn’t find it in the bloody mess, but I did manage to clamp down on something.  And then that same massive hand hove into view again, fisted the exposed nut, and began twisting – yes, twisting – again and again and again until it snapped off.  Yes, they twisted it off.  I could feel my own two testicles twitching in panic, wanting to retreat into the safety of my chest cavity.

Finally, I was handed a spray can of iodine to sterilize the wound.  In my delirium I sprayed blindly and instead of spraying the wound, I sprayed the nearest hand and turned it blue.  I apologized and aimed at the empty cavity.  And then it was done and I was grateful.

The testicles were wrapped in plastic and saved, I was told, to be eaten later.

The Value in Castrating a Pig

Intrusive images of the castration pestered me for the rest of the day.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and each time I imagined that massive ball of raw nerve endings bursting forth, to be grabbed and twisted off, I shuddered.  I like to think that I did an ok job, and that I can enter a new experience to the dossier.  But I think I’m lacking the indifference required to perform these kinds of things.

A naïve American could read this and easily point and accuse, “animal cruelty!” but I disagree.  That’s how things are done here, and in many places all over the world, and it has been this way since the dawn of animal husbandry, thousands of years ago.  Most Americans are ignorant of this (as I was).  They just know that they can go to the supermarket and buy refrigerated packaged pork chops.  Everything that comes before ‘refrigerated packaged pork chops’ is an unknown.  So I’m glad for experiences like these in that I gain perception.  I imagine myself, after Peace Corps, browsing the meat section in a supermarket, reaching out for a package of animal meat, and instantly my testicles begin twitching in panic (as a sort of Pavlovian effect), reminding me of all the events that must precede this packaged meat.

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