Dedicated to Anita Krajnc of Toronto Pig Save standing tial on 24th August for the crime of giving water to dehydrated pigs on their way to the slaughterhouse.
“There is good scientific evidence to suggest we need to rethink our overall relationship to them”
Renowned neuroscientist Lori Marino
An oink is not just an oink, and a grunt not just a grunt. It seems from a new study by the University of Lincoln that just like us, pigs have quite a lot to say for themselves, which will come as no surprise to those lucky people who get to rub shoulders with piggy buddies. Or to the rest of us who call nonhuman animals our friends and equals.
As usual, science is catching up with what we instinctively knew already. But the research into pigs’ language is great news because it adds yet another to the fast-growing tally of studies into the richness of animals’ lives, their sentience and cognition – hot topics right now. It all helps to keep our fellow earthlings firmly in the spotlight, pushing their claim to have their interests considered ever higher up the agenda, and inviting us to give outdated cultural norms a thorough overhaul.
The new study from Lincoln shows that ‘proactive personality types’ – what we no doubt would call ‘extroverts’ – are, just like humans, much chattier than their introverted friends. And those chatty pigs are not just talking to themselves. They are communicating with each other, lead researcher Dr. Lisa Collins says.
“The domestic pig is a highly social and vocal species which uses acoustic signals in a variety of ways; maintaining contact with other group members while foraging, parent-offspring communication, or to signal if they are distressed. The sounds they make convey a wide range of information such as the emotional, motivational and physiological state of the animal”. Much like us.
Studies like this one help convey the message that pigs are individuals, persons in their own right, and their lives, their friends, their families, matter as much to them as ours do to us. To treat them as commodity units in an industrial system is a terrible injustice for which history will reproach us.
“Dogs look up to man. Cats look down on man. Pigs look us straight in the eye and see an equal.”
As well as their native pig language of expressive oinks and grunts, they’ve also been known to master with ease a visual language of symbols invented by humans, and to put the symbols together in complicated combinations to represent things – actions and objects. Much like us then, because that’s basically the same as the way we put letters (symbols) together in combinations to make words, which represent things – actions and objects.
When it comes to mirrors, particularly car wing mirrors, some of us struggle to work out what’s what. Well, pigs have mirrors all figured out:
“To use information from a mirror and find a food bowl, each pig must have observed features of its surroundings, remembered these and its own actions, deduced relationships among observed and remembered features and acted accordingly. This ability indicates assessment awareness in pigs. The results may have some effects on the design of housing conditions for pigs and may lead to better pig welfare.” D M Broom, University of Cambridge. Just maybe Mr Broom, we shouldn’t be ‘housing’/incarcerating them at all.
Other studies have demonstrated the high-level mental abilities pigs share with “other highly intelligent species such as dogs, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and even humans.” says Dr Marino.*
And like us they take on the feelings of their companions. So some pigs were trained to anticipate either rewards in the form of chocolate raisins or something less pleasant, being put in temporary solitary confinement. When untrained pigs who didn’t know what was coming were put with the trained ones who had learned to anticipate what was coming, the untrained pigs showed the same emotional response of happiness or stress (indicated by ear and tail postures, and release of the hormone cortisol) as their fellows. Researchers call it ’emotional contagion’.
Just like us, pigs have complex social lives, and demonstrate empathy. Like us they have the ability to learn from, and cooperate with each other. They have excellent memories. (In that particular attribute they are not just like me!) Like us they can find their way around mazes, and do puzzles.
Like us they enjoy sunbathing, swimming, and a good massage. They are curious and like trying out new things.
And like us, pigs just love to have fun! You can find innumerable videos of pigs at play on YouTube, But just to highlight the likeness in intelligence and playfulness, but the stark difference in status, the Dutch Playing with Pigs Project has developed an electronic game called Pig Chase that humans and pigs can play together.
“So what we have is a game that enables humans to play with an animal they normally only consume as meat. For pigs, humans are transformed into a source of entertainment.”
So world, isn’t it time to do as science says – time to get rethinking pigs.
Respect for the lives of others should not, it goes without saying, rest its case on a creature’s being clever, playful, sociable, or empathetic. But if we can be persuaded to see just how much like us pigs are, we may start to question the unhappy life and untimely death we have consigned them to. Then hopefully we will make changes to the tragic situation we see in the chart above and the video below.
Starting with what’s on our plates.
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*”Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus is the book resulting from Marino’s and Christina M Colvin’s comprehensive review of available research