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Tossing Lines: Swimming pigs a mirror to the human soul

In our new virus world, I miss my zany, funny conversations with my hairstylist, Laura. We share lots of laughs.

Before the virus, she announced: “We’re going to swim with the pigs on Exuma in the Caribbean. It’s quite popular.”

Huh? Swimming with pigs?

I’ve crisscrossed the Caribbean multiple times and never heard of such a thing. But I’ve discovered they are, indeed, worldwide stars.

The District of Exuma is a long chain of tiny islands, part of the Bahamas, with crystal clear, aquamarine waters.

Pigs had always run around Great Exuma, but to improve tourism back in the 1960s, residents moved the animals to offshore islands, delivering food regularly by boat.

The pigs began to recognize the sound of the boats and started swimming out to meet them.

As tourism grew on Great Exuma, the word spread, and visitors began asking to see the pigs swim.

In 2010 Sandals Resorts arrived, and a Canadian financier who recognized the strange relationship between pigs and people began marketing the swimming pigs.

Pigs were brought closer to Great Exuma, to Pig Beach on Big Major Cay. Popular tours soon departed regularly from Sandals and other points.

Then, an award-winning documentary film ignited a media and internet firestorm, global celebrities visited, and the worldwide hit show “The Bachelor” arrived in 2015. The image of a pig swimming with a red rose in its mouth was “pure marketing dynamite,” according to T.R. Todd, author of “Pigs of Paradise.”

Over six million people visited the pigs in 2018. They have become the tourism lifeblood of the islands.

Todd says people have a strange but strong emotional bond with the pigs. People call from around the world when hurricanes hit, concerned for the pigs. After all, we lovingly immortalize them in children’s books, on TV and in movies. The same animals we readily slaughter and eat by the millions.

Studies show pigs are like us: intelligent, playful and creative. They exhibit social and emotional complexity similar to primates, our closest ancestors.

Even our organs are similar, and human cells can be grown inside a pig. We’re that compatible. In fact, my wife Susan has seen pig valves used as human heart valve replacements through the ultrasounds she performs at L&M Hospital. She agrees they pretty much look the same.

But are humans that inconsistent that we’ll travel to the Caribbean to joyfully watch one of our major food sources swim without a shred of guilt? Well, yes.

Apparently, it’s what psychologist Leon Festinger called our “cognitive dissonance,” the innate ability to ignore our own hypocritical behavior, to “lie to ourselves to create a sense of comfort.”

Considering swimming pigs, Professor Marc Bekoff, of the University of Colorado, suggests “Something about the innocence and purity of animals makes them an effective mirror for the human soul.”

I gazed into that mirror when I met Smithfield, a talented pig-artist at the North Carolina State Fair, as he intently painted, holding the brush with his mouth.

He was an artist trapped in a pig’s body. An abstract artist, for sure, but his eyes revealed emotion and intent behind his brush strokes. It meant something to him.

Pigs are intelligent, creative, and emotional, so why wouldn’t it? Maybe they are like us.

I bought Smithfield’s painting. I wanted to own an animal’s artistic creation and I was touched that he was raising money to fix a hole in his snout caused by cancer.

Next morning for breakfast, I ordered my favorite: a ham and cheese omelet, with an extra helping of cognitive dissonance.

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com.

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