Often seen wandering around the Park Blocks, Beef the pig is a therapy animal to owner Christan, a doctoral student in the systems science program at Portland State. Beef, who will turn 10 this December, has been with Christan since he was only eight weeks old.
Christan, who didn’t want to share his last name, was in an accident in late January 2004 and got Beef as a way to cope.
“If you’ve ever been in a near-death situation, they are really depressing,” Christan said. “Because you are very much reminded of your mortality—and it’s in a very instantaneous kind of way. Everyone you care about is very concerned, but still has to go to work and do their life, so that disconnect is really intense and can kind of put you in a dark place.”
Christan and his then girlfriend—nicknamed “Piggy”—had been entertaining the idea of getting a pig for years.
“When the accident happened, that was the trigger,” Christan said. “It was like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. It’s time to do this now.’”
About two weeks after the accident, Christan found an ad for a woman who had inherited a large number of animals.
“She had taught chickens, who are not notoriously intelligent animals, to jump up on her arm and give her a kiss,” Christan said. “That’s an exhibition of tremendous care, because it would take such a big investment of time to teach a chicken to do that. We kind of trusted where she was coming from.”
Though Beef and Christan have created a strong bond over the past ten years that goes beyond the accident, using an animal as a way to cope with trauma is fairly common.
“Having something to focus your energy on when you have a lack of focus is really important,” said Maren Couch, a client care representative at the Animal Behavior Clinic in southeast Portland.
“Animals are basically like having a child, so they do require a lot of care. Having something to care about other than yourself can actually bring you out of a depression, because when you’re only caring about yourself, you’re too focused on what you are doing here and what you have to live for. ”
Scott Gallagher, PSU’s director of communications, said the school recognizes two types of therapy animals: emotional support animals and service animals.
Gallagher also said both types of animals are allowed to live with their owner in residence halls. Service animals—those that are trained specifically to help their owner with a disability—are allowed around campus and in the classrooms as well.
“Service animals are defined as either a dog or a miniature horse; pigs are not listed,” Gallagher said.
The most well-known service animals are dogs for the blind, but Couch said that service animals can be used for many physical and psychiatric disabilities, like anxiety.
“If someone has anxiety and they don’t want to be alone in a crowd, that dog is trained to block their owner from approaching people,” Couch said. “So those types of things are really beneficial because they allow those people to go out in the world.”
She explained that, though emotional support animals don’t have any specific trainable skills, they can still help their owners through tough situations.
“Our bond with animals is really down to a chemical level. When you’re petting an animal and the sensation of their fur is against your skin, it actually can release some serotonin in your brain. So you are actually chemically responding to the texture and feel of the animal,” Couch said. “Because they are warm and soft, there’s something about them that is inviting, and they’re able to give you that support in a way that a person is less likely to do.”
Beef has provided Christan with emotional support throughout the years, and Christan considers him family.
“Beef kind of saved my life,” he said.
When the two of them are walking around campus, they often get asked the same questions. The most popular of them is why Christan named him Beef.
After joking that Beef picked the name himself, Christan explained he’s not sure he knows the answer.
“I tell people…that I like the Johnny Cash song ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and I thought along the same lines that a pig named Beef would be kind of the same idea,” Christan said.
The second reason is something he discovered over time.
“The disjoint between his name and what he maybe is identified with makes people think a little bit about their choices,” Christan said. “I love my pig, and a lot of people see how emotionally close I am to him, and they go ‘Oh, well I can’t relate to that, but I can relate to the idea that you are emotionally close to something, and maybe I won’t have an animal for dinner tonight.’”
Christan believes that his relationship with Beef will make a difference, one way or another.
“It makes a difference for a day, or a week or a couple times in their lifetime, and that’s that many more animals that don’t get killed,” Christan said. “And I think that’s nice.”