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Students smash, gash and slash pigs — for science

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CANTON — Shortly after lunch, a St. Lawrence University class hacked, sawed and bludgeoned fetal pig carcasses Friday afternoon — but they weren’t doing it in the name of any esoteric deity.

Instead, the students, members of Mindy C. Pitre’s forensic anthropology class, were trying to determine the effect of trauma on the decomposition of the pigs.

By studying the state of decomposition, information can be culled on the time and nature of a body’s death.

“A lot of times anthropologists don’t just get skeletons, we get bodies in various stages of decomposition,” said Ms. Pitre. “Bones and bodies can also help scientists identify long-dead people.”

Thanks to network television shows like the popular CSI series, forensic anthropology has become a popular subject these days.

Ian Weller, an anthropology sophomore, said he would like to become a forensic anthropologist after he graduates.

“I used to say I wanted to be a police officer,” he said. “I like it because it is helping out with law enforcement, and it is really interesting.”

The students expressed excitement, rather than nausea, as each pig was damaged. Aside from a control pig, left untouched, each animal was injured in different ways. One pig, given the tongue-in-cheek name Hatchet Hank, was given wounds to the leg and abdomen using an axe. Another, Suzie Saw, was given similar wounds with a hand saw. Mallet Marsha was struck twice with a hammer, and Trauma Tom was wounded using all three instruments.

Mr. Pitre explained that the experiment was designed by her class.

“We developed the experiment together,” she said.“We put research methods within our courses, it is a lot of experiential learning.All the things that students were thinking of, like what will happen to pigs — Will scavengers take them? They had to consider all of that before reaching this point.”

Erika Davin, an anthropology senior, took down measurements and information about each pig on a blackboard as others shouted them across the laboratory.

“I’m not really creeped out by this,” said Erika Davin, a anthropology senior. “It is a forensic anthropology class and it is all about getting hands-on experience.”

Each pig, donated by Serenity Acres Farm in Ogdensburg, died of natural causes.

Ms. Pitre explained how students would study the gradual decomposition of each pig.

“Students came up with a schedule of when they are visiting, what kind of data they are going to take,” she said.“They are keeping what we call decomposition diaries.They will be taking and making observations of the changes of the pigs.”

The five pigs will be left in the woods within chicken-wire cages until November 28, where they will experience the north country’s fluctuating late summer and autumn temperatures. Ms. Pitre said that the environment affects the rate of decomposition. A body in Miami, Fla., for example, might decompose faster than a body in Canton or Potsdam because of differences in heat and humidity.

“You can do this in every area because there are micro climates that affect decomposition,” said Ms. Pitre.“In every environment you would want to know how fast things decompose.”

The experiment is based on the work of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, sometimes called ‘The Body Farm,’ which studies the decomposition of human remains.

Ms. Pitre acknowledged that most of her students, unlike Mr. Weller, won’t want to continue to become forensic anthropologists after they graduate.

“There are skills that they are picking up that can be translated to other fields,” she said.“Whether or not they are going to be forensic anthropologists, this is a liberal arts college, students have time before they have to make a decision on what they want to be.”

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