Swimming Pigs of Paradise Spark Global Imagination

An interview with the author of a new book on pigs of The Bahamas.

Posted Dec 05, 2018

The pigs "heard all around the world" who sparked the imagination of millions of people

Howie Sonnenschein
Pigs swimming in The Bahamas
Source: Howie Sonnenschein

About a year and a half ago T. R. (Jeffrey) Todd contacted me about a book he was writing called Pigs of Paradise: The Story of the World-Famous Swimming Pigs. We exchanged a number of emails and had some phone calls about his book and the pigs that focused not only on the behavior of these fascinating animals but also on the nature human-animal interactions. The book's description is right on the mark: "Pigs of Paradise is an unlikely story of humble beginnings and a swift rise to stardom. With interviews from historians, world-renowned ecologists, famous pig owners, and boat captains, it thoughtfully considers what this phenomenon says about not only these animals but also about us."

I thoroughly enjoyed all of our interactions and eagerly awaited the publication of his book. Now that it has appeared and I've read it twice, I asked Mr. Todd if he could answer a few questions about what I like to call "the pigs heard all around the world."

T. R. Todd, used with permission.
Cover of Pigs of Paradise
Source: T. R. Todd, used with permission.

Why did you write Pigs of Paradise?

They say life imitates art, and that could not be closer to the truth with Pigs of Paradise. In 2014, we embarked on a campaign to bring these animals to the world. It was remarkably successful — far more successful than we could have imagined at the time. The swimming pigs are now a globally known phenomenon. So the book looks at their origins, this rise to stardom, but what I am most proud of is taking pigs, as animals, a bit further. I think pigs are absolutely fascinating animals for many reasons. This explosion in popularity never would have happened, in my view, if it had been an island populated only by chickens. There is something about pigs. Pigs lend themselves well to our imagination. So I really enjoyed using the swimming pig phenomenon as a means to explore this animal and our relationship with it. And I hope it broadens our way of looking at animals generally. 

Were you surprised the pigs were so popular?

When we decided to do a marketing campaign around the swimming pigs, we had an idea that they would be popular. Those who knew about them loved them. But it had remained a relatively niche attraction. All we did was amplify what was already there. 

Rachel Crockett
Pigs and people on the beach in The Bahamas
Source: Rachel Crockett

Some people are concerned about the pigs' well-being. Are they doing better now and what is being done to protect them from well meaning but abusive/intrusive humans?

The swimming pigs have encouraged millions of people to take a second look at pigs, and think about these animals in a new and unusual way. At the same time, because they became popular so quickly, they have also presented challenges in terms of conservation. It was important to me, in the book, to devote an entire chapter to these challenges. I would say, overall, that the pigs have a great life. The people who look after the pigs genuinely care about them. They are valued. It is certainly a preferable life to the slaughterhouse. At the same time, it has also been a process for The Bahamas to be a responsible custodian to this unexpected, worldwide attraction. Nobody expected this to happen a few years ago. Therefore, new regulations and standards are being introduced all the time to ensure the pigs' well being. I think it is moving in a positive direction. 

What have you learned about the importance of coexistence between humans and nonhumans?

I think the swimming pigs teach us that humans have a natural desire to interact and co-exist with animals. Even animals as humble as pigs can spark the imagination of millions. Under normal circumstances, humans would have no relationship with a pig. Maybe they would see one on a farm. More likely they would simply eat them. But place them on an island, in one of the most beautiful places on earth, it provides a forum in which we look at them in a new and original way. I think, as most of our population now lives in cities, it is especially important to create opportunities for humans to have a deeper understanding and interaction with animals – especially animals who are so heavily used in domesticated farming.  

Have you seen any examples of where bonding with the pigs has helped bridge the empathy gap with other animals?

The swimming pigs have changed the way a lot of people in The Bahamas look at animals. These pigs now represent a major tourism attraction for the country. Lives have been changed because of them. On many occasions, I have spoken to tour boat operators, and others, who say they look at pigs and animals differently than they used to. They are animal lovers now. Keep in mind, it is the tour boat operators who care for these animals. They bring them food and water each day. They have built enclosures and permanent water installations. So as a result of this success story, their lives have changed. 

Are you confident the pigs will be OK in the future?

I am. I think we have reached a point where the well being of the swimming pigs is considered important by the locals and by the government of The Bahamas. I have heard that the country is looking at introducing formal regulations and standards for the swimming pigs, which I think would be a smart move in the long run. There is now a movie based on the book. See a preview here.

Thank you doing this interview, Jeffrey. I hope that the pigs do in fact help to bridge "the empathy gap" because there are many people who remain worried not only about their well-being -- previous abuse and future abuse -- but also how effective they will be in actually getting people to extend positive feelings and actions toward other animals in other contexts in which they serve to entertain humans. I'm in this camp. I'm very concerned. Of course, the pigs' well-being must be first and foremost. They have to come first. 

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Comment from Barbara J. King, author of Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat, emerita professor of Anthropology, College of William and Mary

According to an essay published in 2017 in National Geographic, last year alone somewhere between 7 and 10 of the pigs died as a direct result of tourists' feeding practices, and others were harmed. It's clear to me that this program, however well-intentioned, puts pigs at risk in the name of entertainment and empathy-building. Must it not be the case as well that some of the animals are being killed (the euphemism is "culled") so that the area is not overrun by them? Do we really have the full story here? Empathy for pigs and other animals comes, I believe, from appreciating individuals who live their lives on their own terms; this situation concerns me because the pigs' well-being manifestly does not come first. 

Comment from Lori Marino, PhD, President, the Whale Sanctuary Project

A number of organizations, including National Geographic, have documented cases of abuse of these pigs.  Many of them have died with sand in their stomachs and many have been abused by tourists who force-feed these animals alcohol and junk food.  There is nothing fascinating about a typical tourist trap where other animals are exploited for profit in the name of “empathy”. I’d like to ask these operators if they serve pigs to these same vacationers at their restaurants and how they think that action comports with trying to “bridge the empathy gap”. I have done a lot of research on animal tourism and the use of other animals by zoos, circuses and marine parks and have repeatedly found that this kind of exploitation has absolutely no positive impact. So they are not fooling anyone by framing this circus act as some kind of high-level ethical effort for the animals.  Been there and seen that.