The smell of fear
Writing about our recent addition of five chickens to the Fleck household has caused me to reminisce about my spouse and her animals.
Willie, the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, was already a ten-year-old on Sabra’s rural Iowa acreage when I first started dating her in the last half of the 1990s. A more unlikely creature– the pig, not my spouse-to-be– you’ll never meet. His head, the size of a melon, was draped with folds of loose skin that completely covered his eyes, making him blind. The tiny triangular ears that nipped from the top of his massive head didn’t work much either in his senior years, leaving him near deaf. His body was a bowed tube, like a super-sized sausage propped up on either end by stubby legs, making him slow. Old, blind, deaf and sluggish he spent his days curled up under a pile of straw in a corner of the pole barn near the chicken coop quietly dozing away.
In other words, he was a low maintenance pet except on vet days.
Twice a year Willie had to be taken to have his tusks trimmed, a procedure performed under a general anesthesia, something that knocks a pig off its haunches for an entire day. He had to be brought in at 8 a.m. so he’d be back to his old piggishness by 6 in the evening, the end of the day at the vet’s office.
Getting Willie ready so early was no easy task. First he had to be found by gently probing the straw pile. Once nudged, he’d protest mightily, making grunts and squeals as if being dipped in boiling oil. Next he had to be walked and coaxed to answer nature’s call, a biological function made less likely due to his state of agitation. Finally, he had to be lifted into the back of Sabra’s station wagon. Weighing nearly 80 pounds it was a two-person operation. Sabra lifted his head, and I lifted his, well, business end.
As Willie drifted deeper into his senior years a problem arose. He developed a bashful bladder, and two trips in a row, Sabra couldn’t coax him to go in time to make the appointment. Fingers crossed she headed out but had no luck both times as Willie let it slosh at the first corner. Sabra’s car became in affect a rolling litter box without litter and a big problem for a woman who scorns even a speck of dirt on a floor mat.
I suggested solving the dilemma by turning an old and unoccupied doghouse into a pig-holding crate, and driving the old pickup truck she owned instead of her car. I made a makeshift door for the old doghouse with some salvaged slats of wood. The next vet day Sabra and pig headed out in the old Tacoma. They made it to the highway when Sabra saw in her review mirror Willie working his snout feverishly into a gap in the door. First one slat sprung and then another.
Sabra stopped and caught him just as he was leaving the crate. Her plan was to pick him up and put him in the truck’s back seat, no small task for woman tipping the scale at 110. Before she could get him to the door, however, Willie struggled free. As detailed earlier Willie’s top speed was about one mile a day, but he was aided by a steep incline on the side of the road. He slid away.
Sabra gave chase and caught him at the bottom of the ditch just before Willie reached terminal velocity. Aided by a surge of adrenaline, she managed to catch him, pick him up and begin the climb back to the truck. With only a few steps to go, Willie struggled again, and Sabra lost her balance. She fell but did not let go, and the pig and the woman went rolling back down the hill, jowl over hoof. It was at this moment that Willie’s urge to go exceeded his shyness and agitation. While Sabra didn’t let go, he did.
Eventually, she managed to wrestle Willie back up the hill and get him to the vet’s office. Returning home, she related to me the morning’s excitement ending with a lament about how hard it all was on Willie. “He was so scared,” she said, “that you could smell his fear.”
I’ve always maintained that it wasn’t his fear she was smelling.