Exclusive: Interview with Bob Comis of 'The Last Pig'
For more than ten years, farmer Bob Comis provided a humane – even picturesque – life for the pigs on his farm. But throughout those years, he would often suffer from what he calls, a “series of crises of conscience,” in which he would question the morals and ethics of raising animals for slaughter.
He wrote about his misgivings, with his soul-baring articles appearing in many publications, including the Huffington Post and Modern Farmer, and now his compelling journey is being brought to the screen in “The Last Pig,” a documentary by animal advocate and Emmy-winning film-maker Allison Argo. The film follows Comis’ last year raising pigs and examines humane farming and the disconnect between people and what they’re eating.
This week the film begun fundraising efforts on IndieGogo in collaboration with Farm Sanctuary. Argo hopes to raise $50,000 by mid-November to complete filming and create a 30-minute version for educational and classroom use with a teacher’s guide.
Now a vegetable farmer and vegan, Comis’ story is a powerful one, and one that definitely needs to be told. Ecorazzi had the opportunity to chat with Comis about his connection with the pigs, his hopes for the film and why few people are making connections between eating meat on their plate to the living animal on the farm.
What is your background with farming?
I don’t have an agricultural background. I grew up in the suburbs. I didn’t start farming until I was 30 years old. My wife and I been living in Philadelphia for 10 years and we were going to move to rural New York outside of Albany so I could go to grad school and she could be closer to her family. So we decided to get a few laying hens and pigs and it just sort of snow balled from there.
Why did you decide to raise pigs?
I raised most of the stock animals you can raise at one point or another. I raised dairy goats, sheep, laying hens, meat chickens, and of all of those animals, the most interesting and the most fun to be around, and the most enjoyable to take care of were the pigs. So I decided to focus on the pigs. And they were the easiest as well. They are pretty low maintenance.
Were you connecting with the pigs emotionally at all?
In the beginning, definitely, yes. In the beginning, I started very slowly. I raised two pigs for the first time, and then it was seven, fifteen, and after that it jumped up to where I was raising 500 a year. In the beginning, I knew each individual pig personally. When I first started farming, I was having trouble with disease so I was nursing the pigs back to health and nursing them by hand. So I was connecting emotionally to them and that made it a little harder to take them to the slaughterhouse. But not as difficult as you would think. I didn’t [take them to the slaughterhouse] mindlessly, even at the end when I was delivering 500 pigs. But I wouldn’t say that when I had that emotional connection, it was that much harder except for a couple of times.
What was the turning point for you that made you think, “I don’t want to do this anymore”?
Yeah, the turning point was very sudden and sort of punctuated. But it was the culmination of what I call a “series of crises of conscience” from over the ten years that I was raising pigs. Every now and then I would question what I was doing and evaluate whether it was okay to do. And ultimately I would answer yes, it was okay. Until one day, on January 27, 2014, I went out to take care of the pigs and I had very intense experience that the pigs were no longer things at all. They had taken on the aspect of beings and beings of the sort of rich and profound sense of the term. They were sacred and the idea of continuing to raise them for slaughter was just not possible anymore. It was a really profound experience.
How did you go from slaughtering to pigs to shutting down your farm? I read an article from last year in which you wrote, “I have no plans to stop eating meat or raising animals for slaughter.” So what happened?
That article that you’re talking about, in early spring of 2014 or something, I was publishing articles on the Huffington Post that were mostly rehashing of posts from my own blogs, so some of those articles were dated back from 2011 or earlier, so they were from that period when I was saying, “Yeah, I am going to continue to do this.” And when that article came out, I was still at the point where I was going to continue to do it even though I came to the conclusion it was something I didn’t want to do it anymore. I thought, and I still think, there should be alternatives to factory farm meat available because people will continue to eat meat for so long, so if we are going to continue to eat meat, we should be eating meat from alternative farms and not the factory farm industry.
So when I was writing these articles, I had a lot of contact with those in the vegan and vegetarian community and I would get various comments, some of them mean and some of them very nice. The most powerful comments I got, and it was what helped me to ultimately stop, was, and they appeared in various forms of, ‘if you take a step back and look at the things you’re saying and look at the things you’re thinking about, you’ve already made the decision to stop, so just take the next step and stop.’ And so that idea resonated to me, and I did step back and I thought, “these people are right,” and so I decided to stop raising pigs altogether, and I became a vegetarian, and then a vegan.
Why did you want your experience filmed?
That’s a good question. Actually I didn’t. I didn’t have the idea to seek out a filmmaker to make a movie about this. I was approached by Alison Argo and Joe [Brunette] and she had read one of my articles, Happy Pigs Make Happy Meat? And she said she was really moved by the article and she wanted to know if I was interested in making the story into a film. And, initially, I was a little bit apprehensive. For two reasons. The first one, I always told my own story. As a writer, I always write my own story items. At that point, no one else was telling my story. So I was afraid of giving up control of the story, exposing myself, making myself vulnerable to the creative fancies of whomever I was working with. And also, I was concerned with, there’s always a sort of exhibitionism in writing, you’re putting yourself out there, and I felt with film, having a movie made, went beyond exhibitionism to narcissism. It was like, “I am so important, that I am going to have a film crew follow me around and turn my life into a movie” and that made me feel uncomfortable because that’s not how I feel. But after thinking about it for awhile, Joe and Alison came to visit here at the farm, and they told me the story was powerful and important and it would move people. So I thought about it, having talked about it with them and I realized that film is just another medium. And it’s a powerful medium. So I decided in spite of my reservations that I would do it because I thought it could reach a broader audience through film. And because I was writing and publishing my story, I do want people to know this story. So doing the film ended up making sense.
What do you hope the film will shed light on in terms of farming and animal welfare?
Basically, my hope is…because my farm was an alternative farm, a pasteurized farm, where in the narrative happy pigs were raised and killed quickly in the slaughterhouse, I am hoping that because that is how my farm was and I had strong enough feelings to quit, I am hoping people will be able to see that it’s not okay. Even though the pigs have had a nice life, a wonderful life in some instances, it’s not okay to kill them because you are taking the life of a being. So I hope that the film is able to convey, one: that the pigs, and basically all animals, are beings and not things, and they are not just sentient. They are more than that. I mean, beings who deserve equal consideration. Not exactly in terms of moral beings, but equal beings in terms of interest. They are interested in playing and staying alive as I am.
And the second thing I hope people take away from it is that killing them is a horrible violent act, and it’s ending the life of a being. It’s not innocuous, it’s not benign. People tend to think that because the animal is raised well, then killing it is okay. But my feeling is now that regardless if whether the animal was raised well, killing it is not okay. Because you are taking the life of a being who exists in the world. Not just because they feel pain and suffering, but also because they walk around the world, thinking about things. Whether or they actually do, scientifically speaking, I don’t care. I watched them for ten years, and I know they have a life experience of some sort. So you are snuffing out a life. So those are the two things that I hope people take away from it. I want people to realize that there is no such thing as happy meat. There are happy pigs, like pigs that live on farm sanctuaries, they are very happy. But there is no such thing as happy meat.
Maybe this is a spoiler, but were you able to save any pigs in the end?
Yeah, I was. It was very difficult to save even a few pigs because there aren’t many sanctuaries, and the sanctuaries that are out there are often full and can’t take in many animals. But I was able to save eight pigs and place them in sanctuaries, thanks in part largely to Farm Sanctuary. They were able to take two pigs, and find places for six others. When I made my decision, there were 250 pigs on the farm, so to save only eight of them was a token gesture, but it was an important gesture for me to make, particularly for my psychological well-being. I wanted my last farming act to be one that embraced life and not death. So, it was great that I was able to send a few to sanctuaries.
Why do you think few people are making connections between eating meat on their plate to the living animal on the farm?
I think there are a couple of reasons. I think the first reason is the complete distancing from the live animals that we have experienced in our modern twenty first century lives. I had never seen a pig until I started raising pigs. I hadn’t been within 100 feet of a pig. When I found out they had hair, I was shocked. I thought they were pink and hairless. So there is a literal distance between what we see on the plate to what the pig used to be. We have only the most abstract notion of the connection between those two things simply because of that distance. We don’t see them get slaughtered either, and that’s an important part of it as well. You might go and see the pigs on a farm and then go to the grocery store to pick up a package of meat, and even then you might not make the connection. But when you add in witnessing the slaughter, it’s hard not to realize the pork chop on your plate is the same pig you saw on the farm.
But even when people do that, they often to continue to eat meat and that sort of leads into one of the other reasons why I think people continue to eat meat. We don’t decide to eat meat. Unless you’re raised vegan. We are fed meat as soon as you’re allowed to feed babies meat. So eating meat is literally as familiar as opening our eyes and seeing our parents. So it’s completely thoughtless. There is no deliberative process. There is no questioning of, “Is this okay to do this?” So to be confronted with this question of, “Is it okay to eat meat,”or or even to come to that question on your own, is extremely rare. And to have someone explicitly say, “What do you think you’re doing?” To say no, that it is not okay, is to rock the very foundation of your own identity. And that’s very difficult for people to do. You’re basically saying, “The person I’ve been my whole life, I have been making a huge, tragic mistake, and I don’t want to be that person anymore.” And that’s very difficult.
What’s your ultimate hope for animal consumption? That we just stop doing it altogether one day?
Yes. I wrote an essay and so I believe we re actually heading into the direction, but what I believe is that it will take generations and generations before it happens. I think over the next century things will really change. I don’t know if in a hundred years from now we will stop eating meat, but I think in a hundred years, there won’t be animals in zoos or circuses anymore. I don’t know when exactly, but someday, maybe eons from now, we will evolve into a species that doesn’t eat meat. That doesn’t kill to eat.