Meet the Animals: Pigs
Pig Behavior, Emotion, and Intelligence
- Pigs “have the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly three-year-olds.” — Professor Donald Broom, Oxford University
- “Our results suggest that pigs can develop quite sophisticated social competitive behavior, similar to that seen in some primate species.” — Dr. Mike Mendl, Bristol University
On farm sanctuaries, pigs are playful and social; they enjoy running, socializing, relaxing, and playing in the mud. Like dogs, they recognize their names and come when called (if they like you). As scientific advisor to the British government Dr. Donald Broom explains, pigs “have the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly three-year-olds.”¹
Indeed, pigs are the smartest of the barnyard animals. As just one example, pigs have been taught to play video games. Wired reports that “pigs could be as smart as chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates,” says Stanley Curtis, former professor of animal sciences at Pennsylvania State University. Curtis says that the pigs learned to play games every bit as quickly as [chimpanzees]. In fact, “Hamlet and Omelette exhibited more interest in the task at hand than their primate cousins…”² Animal cognition researcher Dr. Sarah Boysen notes that “pigs are capable of focusing their attention with even more intensity than a chimp.”³
Similarly, pigs are also emotional beings, just like humans. For example, the UK daily The Independent writes that researchers “taught pigs to give one response when they felt normal and a different response when they were anxious (in this case, they were given a drug designed to induce temporary anxiety). Not only could the pigs discriminate between these two states but later they made the same ‘anxious’ response when exposed to novel events such as an unfamiliar pig or a new pig pen.”4
Finally, pigs are socially quite advanced, exhibiting methods of interaction with one another observed previously only in primates. A story from the Press Association titled “Pigs ‘share brain skills’ with humans and primates” discusses research from the University of Bristol (UK) that found that “pigs use their brains to outwit each other in much the same way as humans and chimpanzees. For instance, they were able to learn to follow other animals to desired items such as food before stealing away the prize. Victims of such thefts responded by behaving in ways that lessened the chances of being followed.” As Dr. Mike Mendl explained, “Our results suggest that pigs can develop quite sophisticated social competitive behavior, similar to that seen in some primate species.”5
Meet Nikki and Rose
Two pigs who exhibit all of these qualities are Nikki and Rose, who escaped from gestation crates during the Iowa floods of 2008 and are now living happily at Farm Sanctuary’s New York Shelter.
Nikki was found on a levee during the floods, exhausted and emaciated, protectively nursing her newborn babies and letting out cries of alarm when approached by rescuers. Nikki and her babies were kept together at Farm Sanctuary, and every night she continued to build a nest for them to sleep in.
Now, Nikki and her babies continue to have a relationship that any human mother or daughter would recognize: There is authority, and there is friendship. She remains a gregarious and happy pig who enjoys socializing — and who welcomes all guests to the barn with her loud voice. One thing that Farm Sanctuary guests learn right away is that Nikki remains extremely protective of her babies, as you might expect from someone who had such a traumatic early experience with them. Caregivers must be especially careful even with otherwise routine tasks like health checks; if Nikki is worried, she will tear gates off walls to protect her young. Fortunately, after years of building up trust, Nikki can tell when caregivers have her piglets’ best interests at heart, and caregivers have learned how to give health checks calmly and with reassurances to Nikki.
Rose’s story is sadder. When Farm Sanctuary found her, her babies were dead from the flood. She was depressed and refused to eat. When she arrived at Farm Sanctuary, caretakers introduced her to the other pigs, who refused to let her stay sad. They tried to play with her, and tried again, and tried some more. Graciously, Nikki allowed Rose to help raise her babies, and the little guys thus enjoyed the attention of two moms.
Gradually, Rose came around. But her experience had been traumatic, and you could see it in her eyes and demeanor: During the remainder of her life at Farm Sanctuary, she remained skittish and wary of new animals. She would come when called only if she knews her caregiver fairly well. Rose was always happiest in her pasture with her favorite pig of all, Rory, one of Nikki’s children (who she raised as her own), but, as you can imagine, she wasn’t one to seek out new adventures.
¹New slant on chump chops. (March 29, 2002). Cambridge Daily News.
²Pig Video Arcades Critique Life in the Pen. (June 6, 1997). Wired.
³He is smarter than you think. The Weekly Telegraph (June 11, 1997).
4Helft, M. (Feb. 16, 2005). This little piggy has depression. The Independent.
5“Pigs ‘share brain skills’ with humans and primates.” (Sept. 11, 2002). Ananova, and Pigs and chickens are smarter than you think. (Sept. 11, 2002). Reuters.