It's not news that pigs are among the most intelligent, sensitive creatures on earth. Well, unless you're the type of scientist who still needs experiments to learn that mice feel pain and suffer. But Science Daily reported that new research from Newcastle University's School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development shows "that pigs are capable of complex emotions which are directly influenced by their living conditions."
Dr. Catherine Douglas and her team set up a Pavlov's dog type of experiment where they taught a group of pigs to associate certain sounds with certain outcomes. A note on a glockenspiel meant a treat and a dog training clicker meant the unpleasant rustling of a plastic bag. Then, half the animals were put in a pig-friendly environment with toys, straw and room to roam and play. The other half were given less space, no straw and only a single boring toy to share. Regardless of what the pigs had previously learned about sound associations, when a new sound was played, the pigs living the good life responded with curiosity and excitement, expecting a treat, and the group who didn't have it so good acted fearful, expecting it to be another plastic-bag-rustling unpleasant experience.
"It's a response we see all the time in humans where how we are feeling affects our judgment of ambiguous events," said Dr. Douglas. "This 'glass half empty versus glass half full' interpretation of life reflects our complex emotional states, and our study shows that we can get the same information from pigs."
Perhaps my favorite part of this report is that Dr. Douglas referred to the reactions of the pigs as "optimistic" and "pessimistic." Those are terms usually reserved for humans, so to hear a researcher apply them to non-human animals means that at least one study has gotten past the myth that animal reactions are just shallow, physiological responses.
Dr. Douglas hopes her study can help improve the welfare of pigs and other farm animals. Factory farmers often defend their use of gestation crates — confinement systems where a sow cannot walk, turn around or move while her piglets nurse — by saying that sows kept in larger groups will become aggressive toward each other. These farmers need to consider that their pigs aren't living a glass-half-full kind of life; the conditions on these farms would put anyone in a miserable mood. And thanks to this study, they don't just have to take animal activists' word for it.
Now that researchers have proven what we've known all along about pigs, maybe it will help more people realize that there's not much difference between the pigs who are raised for food, the dogs who are our companions, and us. Pigs deserve to have their glasses more than half full.
Note To My Critics:
Wednesday, August 4, 2010