On the morning of April 21st, my phone showed several missed calls. My colleague Cath had been burgled in the early hours. We spoke briefly as she waited for the police to arrive, and then a text came through, ‘The car’s gone, I’m catching the bus.’ I text back, ‘Forget it, we can postpone’. She replied, ‘I’m on the bus.’
It was a Friday, and we’d spent an intense week constructing toys for the pigs at Easter Howgate Farm. Today we had planned to take our designs to the pigs, to see if we’d understood what would interest them, and if our workmanship would withstand their exploratory investigations by snout.
A few months earlier, I’d asked Cath to join me in designing and producing sculptural play objects for pigs. Cath was an obvious ally; as a research fellow at Edinburgh College of Art, she had previously created artworks in collaboration with bees. The idea was to make objects which would appeal to both humans and pigs, so the experience would be a shared one and – hopefully – mutually enriching. We gave ourselves four days for production and set about making eight sculptural objects that we could present to the pigs to stimulate and intrigue them. We wanted to create excitement in the pens and give the pigs something that would both engage and bring pleasure.
Throughout the process of designing and making the objects we were thinking about what matters to pigs.
Throughout the process of designing and making the objects we were thinking about what matters to pigs, and carefully crafted objects that they could interact with and which would fit their body proportions. We chose materials that the pigs could smell, tear apart and eat and named the objects as if designing for a carnival or fun fair: Pig KerPlunk, Popcorn Piñata, Fruit Machine, Sweep Sensation…We were offering them an invitation to play.
For Pig KerPlunk, we sourced a whisky barrel and bored holes through the staves, so we could push through broom handles to create a grid structure. Apples and pomegranates were balanced on top of the grid with the idea that once the pigs wrestled and jostled the sticks, the fruits would fall and scatter. The Popcorn Piñata was perhaps the greatest success. This was a nine-pointed star piñata and to create it we covered a large silicone sphere with papier-mâché, using flour and water as an edible paste. Cones with jute tassels were added to give the pigs a hold, and the entire piñata was filled with popcorn.
Apple Barrel and Melon Mines almost describe themselves. For the former, we chose a lightweight barrel that the pigs could push and shove around the pen and half-filled this with apples and pine cones. It was the pigs’ first experience of apples, and we saw that they sniffed and rolled the fruit but took only tentative bites. For Melon Mines we drilled holes through water melons and speared them with hazel rods. When the pigs pulled the rods in different directions the melons split open, to a resounding crack.
It was an exhilarating week and on the day very much a team effort for which I am deeply indebted to a photographer and a film maker and to the animal behaviour scientists, vet and research technicians, and especially to Cath for insisting the show must go on. Above all, I’d like to pay homage to the pigs who participated on the 21st, and whose keen curiosity for novel objects and enthusiasm for play is now evidenced and captured on film.