A news item that appeared and quickly disappeared before the New Year reflects how the words we use to describe and explain things can have a profound effect on our way of thinking. The word “cull”, for example, was used in reference to the 630,000 pigs that were put down in order to stem the spread of African swine fever.  A dictionary definition of “cull” goes like this: “to reduce or control the size of (something, such as a herd) by removal of especially weaker animals.” Interestingly, the word “cull” appears to have a completely different etymology than the word “kill,” even though in essence, the meaning is very similar, and it is only the sound of one vowel that separates the two words. “Cull,” of course, is a euphemism. It nicely explains a not-so-nice action.

Let’s for a moment imagine that number again, and give it some perspective. Six hundred and thirty thousand is roughly equivalent to the number of seats in Hong Kong stadium (40,000) multiplied by 16. And given that pigs, when they go to market, which is sometimes referred to as a slaughterhouse, weigh over 100 kilos, the number of pigs killed is at least equivalent to the same body mass of 16 stadiums full of people.

File photo: Unsplash.

However, this bloodbath, otherwise called a culling, occurred over 23 provinces on the mainland so it was probably manageable. Anyway, no one wants to hear all the gory details about the actual processes involved in the killing and disposing of the animals. Similarly, no one is interested in the fact that vast tracts of forests in the Amazon basin have been cleared to grow soybeans to feed these pigs. Instead, the real reason why the whole story was locally newsworthy was because there was a small chance that the African swine flu virus could make its way to Hong Kong. Notably, unlike the avian variety, there is zero chance that the swine virus can be passed on to humans.

But, the really big concern here is that there could be a disruption in pork supplies. Here, the word, “pork,” like the word “cull,” again serves as a convenient euphemism. Somehow, “pigmeat” sounds a little too close to the living animal. Using the word “pork,” however, removes any sense of there being a sentient creature involved when purchasing and eating the pig’s flesh. Collectively 1.5 million pigs are eaten by Hong Kong’s population each year, which is essentially about one pig per person every four years. Such massive amounts of meat essentially makes pork and bacon a commodity similar to oil. The fact that there is a living, breathing mammal involved doesn’t register.

File photo: Pxhere.

Pigs are said to be intelligent animals, even smarter than dogs. Some people even keep teacup pigs as pets because they are quite sociable and, similar to a dog, they can be trained.

This comparison with dogs raises what appears to be a disturbing hypocrisy concerning our selective treatment of animals. More and more, pet dogs are treated like equal family members here in Hong Kong. Their new arrival in families is a time of celebration. When they are hungry, they are fed, often with the meat of other animals. When they are ill, they are taken to the vet, often at great expense to the owner. When they die, they are mourned. When news of dogs being eaten reaches the media, there is outrage among dog lovers. Tellingly, the term, “dogmeat,” has no euphemism.

Returning to the pig, as we embark on a new year, which happens to be the namesake of this animal, the time seems right to give the pig our due sympathy. By reducing our consumption of pork, we not only show some consideration for this hapless animal, but also do a favour for the planet and our own health.

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.