This is the story of the most infamous animal that ever lived on our farm. Yes, I’m talking about Misery the Sow. This article was printed in Countryside Magazine Vol. 98, Number 1.
I was attempting to be clever and literary when I named our new sow Misery. I had no idea that her name would be a portent for things to come.
There are plenty of pigs in literature: Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web; Snowball and Napoleon in Animal Farm; Babe. There’s even Pretty Pig in the Game of Thrones books, but I just had to go with the Stephen King reference. What was I thinking?
Our adventures with Misery began in the spring of 2012. We had purchased Sebastian, an Ossabaw Island boar and were on the lookout for a sow to be his companion. We were looking for a larger heritage breed that would compliment the deliciousness of the Ossabaw with a larger carcass and faster rate of growth. We learned that a nearby hog farm had a proven sow that was half-Tamworth and half-Berkshire. Perfect.
I drove over to get our new sow, whose old name was No. 9. Her owner told me that she was originally destined to be meat, but she escaped her pasture and got in with the boars. Now she was bred and waiting on a trailer to come home with me. I climbed up on the trailer to take my first look at Misery. She was huge.
Unloading our boar was easy when I brought Sebastian home a few weeks before. He walked beside me like dog and I led him right into his yard. Not so with Misery. I opened up the trailer and shook a scoop of feed at her. She showed no interest whatsoever. It took a few minutes, but she finally worked up the courage to come off the trailer.
I shook the scoop at her again. Misery looked at me with her red eyes and then took off into our back field.
After about a hour of chasing a 400lb pregnant sow all over our property, we finally chased her into some electrified poultry netting that we had set up around the opening of the hog yard. I thought our trouble was done.
When I came out the next morning, Misery was in our front yard. This time, after she had calmed down a bit, she was willing to follow a scoop and it was fairly easy to get her back in the pen. But I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how she got out.
Our hogs are set up with a large pasture enclosed by electric strands. This pasture is attached to a small yard constructed with hog panels, which are supposedly tall enough to contain a hog. The idea behind this set up was that we could close the pigs in the yard if we needed to separate somebody. The hog panels are held up by T-Posts driven several feet into the ground. I thought the yard was impenetrable.
Misery escaped the pen several more times before I realized that she was going over the hog panels. Yes, you read that right. Now I know what it means when Tamworth hogs are described as athletic. Maybe I should have named her Houdini.
I resolved our problem by setting electrified wires along the inside perimeter of the hog panels. I thought our hog problems were at an end, but they were only just beginning.
July finally rolled around and I walked out one morning to discover that Misery had not come up from the back pasture to be fed. I climbed into the pasture and went looking for her. She had farrowed in the most inaccessible part of our entire property, as far away from water as she could get. The piglets, all nine of them, were healthy and nursing vigorously, but I knew that Misery wouldn’t last the day if I didn’t get some water down to her. I went back to the house and grabbed every hose on the property in order to reach her. She stayed in that spot for more than a week, and the wallow she made there still fills up every time it rains. We call it Lake Misery.
A few weeks went by and it was time to castrate the piglets. I lured Misery into the hog yard and quickly closed the gate, separating her from her babies. She stopped eating before I even had the gate tied shut and began testing the yard for weaknesses. Remember how she was able to jump over the hog panels? I realized, with horror, that the only thing separating me from almost certain death was a tiny wire flowing with electricity.
My wife, Rachel, and I scurried into the back field and rounded the baby pigs into an enclosure. They squealed like little demons as we carried them one by one to the back of my pickup truck, and as I drove past the hog yard, Misery barked and growled like a monster in a Stephen King novel.
We castrated the piglets with the help of our neighbor, stuck them in the back of the truck, and drove them back to the pasture. I had stupidly let Misery out of the hog yard by this point, figuring that reuniting with her gilts would help calm her down. She ran up to the fence line as I dropped the first squealing piglet over the fence, barking and glaring at me all the time with her red eyes. I turned around and saw that both Rachel and my neighbor had jumped into the bed of the truck, leaving me to my fate should Misery decide to brave a little jolt of electricity. Thankfully, I managed to get all of the babies back on the right side of the fence before their mother turned me into her dinner.
I should say here that swine are generally not overly aggressive animals. Most of the year, Misery is as docile as can be. She lets me pet her and loves a good scratch between the eyes. In addition to being athletic, Tamworths are also known for their excellent mothering abilities. Many sows will crush their babies when they flop down, but Tamworths generally lay down on their front knees and ease their backsides carefully to the ground. Misery certainly fits this bill, but when she is nursing, when her hormones are raging, she’s a different animal entirely.
At eight weeks, Misery weaned her babies and was apparently in the mood. I had Sebastian locked in the hog yard, and Misery dug under a hog panel with her snout and lifted it, and the t-posts that were holding it down, right out of the ground. There was really no question after that if she had been bred or not.
Fast forward to January 2013. I went out to feed the hogs one cold morning and once again found that Misery had not come up to the hog yard to be fed. I went searching around and found her in the midst of her labor. I actually got to see several of her babies being born, and I can tell you that it was a beautiful site. This time she had thirteen!
It was bitterly cold that day, so we moved a calf hutch down to Misery as a wind break. We didn’t figure that they could use the hutch for cover, as there was a lip on the opening that the babies couldn’t go over. But Misery had other plans. Within a few minutes, she crawled into the calf hutch and moved it over top of her babies. They were under cover, and Rachel and I were amazed.
A friend of ours and his kids came over the next day. His son leaned into the calf hutch to get a better look at the babies, and Misery bounded suddenly to her feet. She charged right at Rachel, knocking her to the ground and standing right over her with her huge snout in Rachel’s face. It was terrifying, but she didn’t bite anyone and after all, she was just protecting her babies.
We heard that a big snow storm was coming the next day, so we decided to move Misery and the babies into our barn stall. This was not wise, but the only option available to us at the time. We couldn’t let those babies stay in the open during a snow, they would freeze to death. We backed my truck up to Misery’s nest and Rachel climbed into the bed with a pig catcher. This is a tool that should clearly be twelve feet long, but is actually only about three feet long. Someone should look into that.
I paced around, distracting Misery while Rachel snatched each of the babies and put them in the back of the truck. Once again, they shrieked and squealed, urging their mother to come up into the back of the truck with Rachel, but we managed to secure all of the piglets before Misery turned us into chop suey.
We drove back toward the barn with the babies on board. As we got to the top of our pasture, our stupid dog started barking and circling around the truck like he does whenever a vehicle crosses the perimeter of his territory. Misery, figuring that the dog was in on the plot to abduct her piglets, charged after him and ran down the dog. This pooch isn’t a little Doxen or something, he’s a black lab and Misery overtook him and pinned him to the ground. Rachel thought the poor dog was dead, but I foolishly stopped the truck and ran over to him. I don’t know what I thought I could do against a 400lb velociraptor, but there I was. Rachel screamed as Misery diverted her attention from the dog to me.
What did I do? I grabbed a baby pig and used it to lure Misery into the barn stall. She followed in after the pig, and I closed the door behind her. We were safe. As for the dog, he was fine. Misery didn’t hurt him. She was just protecting her babies.
It turns out that a barn stall is not the ideal place to contain an athletic mama sow. We milk our cow right outside the stall, and it really spooked her when Misery would stand up against the stall wall, peering into the cow’s big brown eyes. This wall is four feet tall, mind you. I began to fear that Misery was going to come over the wall, so I decided after six weeks that it was time to move her back onto pasture. She was already weaning the babies and the weather in Virginia had turned downright pleasant. It was time.
I opened the stall door and Misery shot out into the center aisle of our barn. I began shaking my scoop, and Misery started to follow me to the back pasture. We were about fifty yards from the barn when she suddenly stopped and turned back. She realized that her babies weren’t with her and she was going back for them.
I scurried after her, realizing that Rachel might be out in front of the barn and about to come face-to-face with a T-Rex. I rounded the corner. There was Misery, but Rachel was nowhere to be found. Had she been… eaten?
My worst fears were alleviated a moment later when I saw Rachel standing on top of a huge stack of straw bales in the garden. She was safe, for now.
I tried for about an hour to get Misery to follow a scoop, but she was having none of it. She was more interested in rooting up some new apple trees that I had planted a few weeks previous. I realized that there was nothing I could do, and so it was with great sorrow that I went into the house to get my gun. I was going to put Misery out of my misery.
I called my neighbor, Bob, as I was loading the rifle. He has a pretty nice tractor with a bucket, and I was hoping that he could lift up Misery’s body so that I could butcher her. Bob managed to talk me out of shooting her, and even offered to help get her to the back field. I noticed, however, that he was wearing a pistol on his hip when he came over.
“Just in case,” he explained.
After deliberating for several minutes, we decided that the best option was to lure Misery to the back field with a baby pig. Bob graciously volunteered to ride in the back of my truck as I drove through the tall grass to Misery’s yard. The piglet was screaming its little lungs out, and Misery came charing after us like something out of Jurassic Park. I stopped as we crossed the threshold into the yard, and then I heard the back window of my truck shatter as Bob, who is in his seventies, crashed through the glass. I thought Misery had come over the sidewalls and gotten him, but it was just me coming to a sudden stop that had caused the accident. Thankfully, Bob was fine. He would go on to risk his life on our farm on another occasion, but that is a story for another day.
We tossed the piglet on the ground and Misery swirled around her protectively. I backed up in hurry, jumped out of the truck and quickly closed the fence. Misery was contained at last.
We ended up putting Misery in the freezer a few months later. She was too aggressive and it was only a matter of time before she hurt or killed someone. We butcher hogs in early December here on our farm, and feed our family for most of the year. It’s important to get them done early, when it is refrigerator temperature overnight but not freezer temperature. It’s much harder to cut up an animal that is frozen solid. Believe me, I’ve done it. As a full-time farmer, I can’t stress the idea enough that you have to do things at the time they need doing. In my novel, The Bleak December, I portray several characters that are still putting up wood and trying to fill their freezers when a supernatural blizzard knocks the entire state of New Hampshire off the grid. As a person that has chopped wood in the snow and butchered on sub-zero days, I can promise you that it’s better to close that barn door before the horse is gone. Amen?