Most butchers only like their pigs dead and broken down into pieces when they enter their shop. Or prefer them golden brown, lying next to some fingerling potatoes and roasted vegetables. But Gerard Zwensloot of free-range butchery Zwetsloot in the Netherlands has different and unique ideas about this altogether. In his down time from selling meat cutlets and sausages, he cuddles his pigs. Or he takes them for a walk.
"Come on kids! Jack and Jill!" shouts Gerard as his two piglets walk into the street.
The swine pretend they don't hear a thing. "Shit—now I'm going to have to jog, too," sighs Gerard. There goes the good fella running through the streets of Kamerik, chasing the two daring creatures with their decadent, fattened bellies. Pedestrians aren't fazed. In Kamerik, everyone is familiar with this scene. "It's quite the chore to keep all five together," wheezes Gerard upon his return. "But I enjoy taking them for a walk. I take great pleasure in this and want them to have a good life."
"Make sure the gate is secure because of free-range pigs," the sign states in front of Gerard's yard. When I walk through it, I enter a yard that has been adjusted to fit the needs of the pigs, including large open kennels and shacks. I can hear delighted grunts all around me.
Gerard takes his pigs everywhere, from the Kalverstraat shopping street to the beach. "You should see the faces of the people around us. It's just hilarious! Once, we went for a drink at one of those beach joints," he said. "Three pigs came with me and they were huge. We sat outside and stopped paying attention to them for a second. They had smelled food somewhere and climbed over the balcony railing to visit some of the other guests. They were eating these people's food off their plates! We laughed so hard. All other customers just stood there with their plates above their heads."
Gerard is also occasionally a victim of his own pigs' mischief.
"One fell into a ditch once because it was covered with duckweed," he shares. "I wanted to pull him out of the water with a rope, but then the beast suddenly dragged me into the water. I was covered in dredging and it was incredibly gross. While I laid there in the water, he calmly swam to the edge and climbed out." Gerard start laughing. "When I got home, I wanted to get out of the dirty clothes as quick as possible. I stripped off my clothes in the barn and continued to run into the house naked. At that exact moment, a bunch of kids walked by on the street! 'Look, there's the butcher in his birthday suit!'"
For some, these are stories straight from a children's book, but lack the happy ending. In Gerard's ending, all of these piglets will end up being sold over the counter, cutlet by cutlet. "Billy most likely won't," Gerard explains while pointing at a tiny, pink pig. "He is so sweet. Perhaps we'll keep him his entire life, but we're not completely sure. This means that you'll be committed to it for at least ten years."
These are not the first pigs that Gerard has raised. Time and time again, he's stuck with the same dilemma: should he allow each pig to live or should it be butchered?" As soon as you give the pig a name, you'll get attached to it. It's irrational and unnatural, but it's also human. You do this to yourself," explains Gerard.
The farmer where Billy came from wrote him off completely because he was underweight and the runt of the litter. "He might be lighter in weight, but if it's up to me, he'll easily weigh a hundred and fifty kilos. Plus, I can give him my undivided attention."
The farmer didn't even provide hay for young Billy to lie in. "In those empty cages, they nervously pace back and forth all day. That farmer can't change much about it because consumers are merely watching the money they spend. Those businesses give the people bang for their buck and farmers pay the price, and the pigs are the victims of these circumstances."
Gerard is convinced that you can taste that environment in the meat, which contributes to why he believes that the pigs he raises are incredibly tasty. "I can give all my time, love, and attention to these pigs. A happier pig tastes better. Compare it with apple pie. The one from the supermarket is made thousands at a time and doesn't taste particularly good, but the apple pie that is made fresh in your own kitchen… is unparalleled."
In 2010, the documentary film Divine Pig was made about the butcher and his pet pigs. In the film, Gerard follows his beloved pig, Dorus, through her life until the moment he says goodbye to the creature and eats him. "Everyone knew Dorus—even Matthijs van Nieuwkerk. I met him at the Dutch Film Festival that I attended because of the documentary. Prior to the film premiere, he told me: 'Don't let me know if Dorus is butchered! I would never speak to you again!.'"
It wasn't the first time that Gerard got this type of response. "I don't get it. Customers of my free-range butchery think it's normal that a pig is butchered, especially after having had a happy life. But supermarkets always think this is weird. They believe that meat comes from the factory and milk comes from a carton. Butchering an animal after you've given it a name is simply not done!"
Caesar, Dorus' companion, has barely cheated death. "I walked him to the place where he would be butchered that day," shares Gerard. "But he knew where we were going and was refused to take another step. I called my son soon after, who came with a cattle trailer. Caesar completely flipped after we placed him in there. Geez, he practically broke its doors. I called my wife and we decided to sell Caesar to the Promised Pig Land of Dafne Westerhof. This is a place where pigs are spoiled and get old. Dafne receives funds from people sympathetic to her cause and think I'm an animal torturer."
Gerard enjoys having a discussion with these people. "See, my pigs also could have been raised in the bio industry. There, they would have been butchered after four months. Here, they live at least three times longer and they have a better life. Why does that make me the animal torturer?"
When Gerard picks up Billy, the screaming is deafening to the point that I almost understand the stance of Gerard's adversaries. And still it's clear to me that Billy has nothing to complain about.
If it's really true that a pig tastes better when it's had a happy life, then the sausages that Billy makes must be delightful. Perhaps Gerard has to ponder over this one again.