‘The Last Pig’ has farmer rethinking his perception of pigs

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Courtesy thelastpig.com

Let’s face it: Pigs have an abysmal reputation. They are maligned for being dirty, messy, fat, gluttonous, dumb, and downright … piggy. Their very name frequently becomes a harsh slur hurled at someone uncouth, uncaring, and probably obese too. Some religious traditions and scriptural passages even brand the hapless creatures as unclean abominations.

But sometimes when humans get up closer to and more personal with these much-criticized animals, a more positive image emerges. They discover pigs are bright, gentle, faithful, and even playful. Kind of like a perfect pet!

When Betsy Burmeister learned about this little-known side of pigs, she wanted to share it with the community. She has arranged a free showing of “The Last Pig,” a documentary about pig farmer Bob Comis, who abandons his business after realizing the essential nature of his animals.

Directed by Allison Argo, the hourlong film will be screened on Earth Day, this Sunday, April 22, 4 pm at the M.V. Film Center. While there is no charge for admission, Burmeister hopes to raise awareness, as well as donations for a livestock sanctuary. Argo will be on hand for questions and conversation. There will be tempting raffle prizes and vegan delicacies by Not Your Sugar Mamas.

Betsy Burmeister is a cheerful presence as recreation director at Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where she has worked for 23 years. In her job, she is passionate about making the days of Windemere residents bright, fulfilling, and joyful.

In her non-work hours, Burmeister expands her care and compassion, and is passionate about the well-being of animals. From sharing her home with cats and dogs to once rescuing and helping provide for 40 feral cats, to assisting Second Chance Animal Rescue in bringing homeless dogs from the South to the Vineyard, she has helped needy animals whenever possible.

Burmeister’s deep dedication to animals started early. As a 13-year-old growing up in Woodbury, Conn., she decided to become a vegetarian, and has never turned back.

“I found out where hamburgers came from, and I didn’t want to be part of killing animals. I just stopped,” she recalled in a conversation last week.

Burmeister is as committed to the welfare of imperiled jungle animals as she is to her own pets. She has sponsored rescued elephants in Africa, and dreams of volunteering at a Thai elephant sanctuary. Livestock raised for food production are another focus of her heartfelt concern.

Her interest in pigs began after seeing online stories and videos about “Esther the Wonder Pig,” a charming animal adopted by two Canadian men as a family pet.

“I read more about pigs and how intelligent they are,” Burmeister said.

Hearing of a Vineyard pig farmer seeking to sell his herd for slaughter, Burmeister prevailed upon him in hopes of saving the animals. He offered her a mother and son, Piggly Wiggly and Silver.

With the help of like-minded friends, Burmeister arranged for the pair to be sent to Happy Hill Farm and Animal Refuge in Pennsylvania. They will live out their days with more than 100 creatures, including pigs, cows, donkeys, ducks, chickens, and others rescued from abuse or slaughter. Funds raised at the screening benefit Happy Hill.

With these animals still foremost in her mind, Burmeister came across “The Last Pig,” and discovered its Emmy-winning director Allison Argo is a Cape resident. She began strategizing a way to present the film here and invite Argo.

“The Last Pig” traces the emotional journey of Bob Comis, a successful New York State pig farmer, as he cares for his animals and begins to see them not as mindless products or economic units, but as intelligent, thinking, feeling beings. Recognizing his charges are no different from his beloved dog, and have as much right to live as any human or animal, he realizes he cannot continue raising them for meat. He has killed his last pig.

“I have to give up my job, my livelihood, in order to live in line with my ethics,” said Comis in an interview. “It’s a colossal effort. It’s a terrifying effort. It’s overwhelming. But I’m committed to doing it.”

“I hope that the film is able to convey that the pigs, and basically all animals, are beings and not things. And that they are not just sentient. They are more than that. I mean, beings who deserve equal consideration. They are interested in playing and staying alive as I am,” Comis said.

“The second thing that I hope people take away from the film is that killing these animals is a horrible, violent act, and it’s ending the life of a being. It’s not innocuous, it’s not benign.

“Regardless of whether the animal was raised well, killing it is not OK. Because you are taking the life of a being who exists in the world. I watched the pigs for 10 years, and I know they have a life experience of some sort.”

Comis said that although he raised his animals responsibly and made every effort to give them good, comfortable lives, “there’s no such thing as happy meat.”

The film, which the director promised contains no graphic or violent footage, is intended to raise thoughts about compassion, the sanctity of life.

It is a gentle, thoughtful story, more sweet than shocking. Filmed on the farm with its expansive fields, woodlands, and lush greenery, the piece has a lyrical, meditative atmosphere.

The pigs are the real stars, engaging and endearing, curious and cute. They follow the farmer like faithful dogs, tear ecstatically through the woods, cavort in the straw, “talk” with soft grunts and snuffles.

Allison Argo is a six-time Emmy winner and animal advocate. Often focusing on endangered and abused animals, her films on PBS and the National Geographic channel have won multiple international awards. With “The Last Pig” she hopes “to inspire compassion for all living beings and repair the disconnect between humans and what we consume.”

Assistance with event expenses came from the Veg Fund, an educational organization promoting vegan lifestyle, and from a private donor.

Beyond not wanting to kill animals, there are other reasons to stop raising livestock for food, Burmeister said: “Even if you don’t care about the suffering of animals, you’ve got to think about the environment.”

Citing several sources, she said livestock production takes a toll on the earth by using large amounts of water, land, and vegetation. Animal waste may contribute to water pollution, and produces a significant percentage of all greenhouse gases.

“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat meat,” she declared. “You can’t be an animal lover and eat meat.”

“The Last Pig,” a documentary by Allison Argo. Sunday, April 22, 4 pm. Doors open at 3:15 pm. Refreshments and raffle. Free admission. M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. For more info visit mvfilmsociety.com.