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Animals Raised for Food Have Deep Cognitive and Emotional Lives—So Why Do We Treat Them With Such Cruelty?

There is a misperception of pigs and other farm animals as stupid and unfeeling.

Photo Credit: fritz16 / Shutterstock.com

The following excerpt is from The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce ( Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

In 2008 Bill Crain and his wife, Ellen, opened Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, New York. It provides a permanent home to animals rescued from slaughter and abuse, and the sanctuary currently houses eighty-nine animals, including chickens, goats, sheep, turkeys, partridges, pigs, and horses. All of these animals display their own kinds of intelligence and personalities, too numerous to describe, but we will let Bill’s heartwarming story about Leo the Lucky Pig serve as an example.

One day a pot-bellied pig was brought to our farm sanctuary. Pot-bellied pigs are related to the standard breeds but are smaller. This pig was particularly small because he was only two months old.

All our staff members adored him, and he liked everyone. When people gave him a pat on the back, he rolled over for a belly rub. The word soon got out that there was a cute little pig at our farm, and visitors poured in. We named him Leo, after Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer, pacifist, and vegetarian. Leo was brought to us by a family in Queens, who purchased him as a pet.

The family became very attached to Leo, and Leo became attached to them. But the family had to leave him alone during the day, and he sometimes cried. This disturbed the neighbors, who complained to the landlord. The landlord found out that Queens, like the rest of New York City, forbids residents to keep pigs, and he gave the family two weeks to get rid of him.

The family felt terrible. They didn’t want to send Leo to an animal shelter, where he would probably be euthanized, or to a farm that would slaughter him when he came of age. (Pot-bellied pigs are often killed for food.) But, as the deadline approached, they couldn’t find Leo a new home.

Our farm wasn’t set up to care for a pig, but the situation was so urgent that we said we’d adopt him.

So the family put Leo in their car and drove him to our farm. The mother, however, stayed home. She felt the trip would be too emotional for her. After two months went by, she did decide to visit Leo at our farm, and she was thrilled to see him thriving. Leo seemed to remember her, too. Although Leo is widely adored, he also gets into considerable mischief. He sneaks into chickens’ aviaries and eats their food. He knocks over garbage cans in search of scraps. He crawls under gates and scampers around so vigorously that he frightens the turkeys and sheep. Staff members must constantly keep on the lookout for him. If he’s not in sight, it’s a good bet he’s causing trouble.

The staff members do their best to control Leo’s behavior, but it’s difficult. If, for example, he’s in an aviary eating chickens’ food, it’s difficult to get him to leave. The staff tries to shoo him out, but he ignores them. Occasionally a staff member resorts to picking him up and carrying him out, and he squeals loudly in anger.

We have had a few troublesome animals like Leo on our farm, and I have noticed that these animals soon respond surprisingly well to one or two particular individuals. In each case, the individual is exceptionally devoted to the animal. For Leo, this person is Donna Scott. Whenever Donna calls, Leo comes to her. Even if he’s eating other animals’ food, he stops and runs to her. I asked Donna, “How did you accomplish this?” She said, “When I see Leo, little hearts pop out of my head. I give Leo lots of rewards. Sometimes the reward is a small treat like a raisin, but most often the reward is just some form of affection. I always pet him or brush him when he responds to my call. I believe Leo can sense my love for him, I think all living beings respond to love.”

While Leo enjoyed stealing the chickens’ food, Doink, a particularly clever adopted pig who lives with Joan and Don Hobbs at Happy Mama Acre outside Boulder, Colorado, is adept at stealing from two adopted alpacas, Tia and Junie B. Joan tells Marc that Doink is hardwired to know when she puts fresh hay in the alpacas’ shed. Doink is very specific about it: he tips over the feeder, snuffles the hay flakes apart with his nose, and uses his hooves and snout to gather pieces that he then stuffs in his mouth. When Doink notices that Joan is here he takes a circuitous route back to his shed. Joan has a video of Tia watching Doink steal her hay, in which she leans over and kisses him twice, as if telling him she is willing to share. But Doink seems to know that Joan does not approve. Joan proudly calls Doink “lovingly cantankerous.”  Doink reminds Marc of his dog Jethro, who was also clever at snatching food from under the noses of his friends, particularly his canine friend Sasha. While Jethro knew that Sasha was possessive of her food, he was careful not to rile her. He’d eye her carefully, watching for her to make the slightest move away from her bowl, then he’d quietly and quickly slink in, grab a few morsels, and gulp them down. After the theft, he would lick Sasha’s muzzle, then stroll away as if nothing had happened. Sasha had no clue. Jethro was also quite adept at stealing Marc’s food, a skill many dog owners no doubt find exceptionally well developed in their own companions. The similarities between pigs and dogs raises the question of how we can treat them so differently.

Leo the Lucky and Doink the Cantankerous offer personal examples that counter the misperception of pigs and other farm animals as stupid and unfeeling. In fact, the scientific literature on the cognitive and emotional lives of food animals is extensive and ever growing, like that for our canine companions. For example, a recent review of pig emotion cited well over a hundred papers on mood and emotion in pigs.  Like Leo and Doink, pigs display a range of personality types similar to humans, with some being extroverted and gregarious and others being more cautious about new friends and new experiences. Pigs experience prolonged mood states like depression and happiness and show empathy toward one another. Contrary to popular stereotype, pigs are naturally hygienic, carefully separating their sleeping quarters from the outhouse, and taking care to bathe and groom. In the wild, pigs can be highly social and are unlikely to display the hyper-aggression often seen in intensive-farming systems. Pigs are also able to recognize other individuals, and use a wide range of olfactory and auditory signals to communicate mood and intention and negotiate social hierarchies. Studies of pig intelligence often conclude that the cognitive abilities of pigs are even more advanced than those of dogs. For example, Stanley Curtis of Penn State University trained pigs to play joystick-controlled video games. The pigs, he observed, are “capable of abstract representation” and can “hold an icon in the mind and remember it at a later date.” He concluded, “There is much more going on in terms of thinking and observing by these pigs than we would ever have guessed.” As Johannesburg Zoo director and biologist Lyall Watson writes in The Whole Hog, “I know of no other animals [who] are more consistently curious, more willing to explore new experiences, more ready to meet the world with open mouthed enthusiasm. Pigs, I have discovered, are incurable optimists and get a big kick out of just being.”

Similarly rich literature exists for chickens, cows, sheep, turkeys, and a whole range of other animals used for food, and consistently shows these animals to have a highly evolved range of cognitive and emotional capacities at least equal to the animals we keep as pets and consider worthy of protection from cruel treatment.

So how can researchers know what emotions animals are experiencing? And more particularly, how can we know whether certain kinds of experiences, like constraint in a small cage or crate, elicit negative feelings? Measuring physiological markers like heart rate or cortisol levels in an animal can provide evidence that animals are feeling heightened emotions. But these physiological markers only measure emotional intensity. And emotions can be intensely good (excitement or anticipation or lust) and intensely bad (terror, dread). Cognitive-bias tests can provide additional information, telling us something about the emotional valence, namely whether an emotion is strongly positive or strongly negative. Research in humans and animals has demonstrated that emotional states can influence cognitive processes, including memory, attention, and judgment bias. Depressed humans are more likely to judge ambiguous events negatively, as are people who are in pain. Cognitive-bias tests can also tell us some useful things about the well-being of farmed animals.

One example of how to infer mood state from cognitive bias in farmed animals is a study on pain and pessimism in dairy calves, specifically relating to disbudding surgery (having their horns removed). Heather Neave and colleagues trained calves to respond differentially to two screens of different colors, one red and one white. The calves learned to touch the “positive” screen for a reward of milk and to avoid touching the “negative” screen, which action was punished by a “time out” with no milk. Ambiguous screen colors were then introduced randomly, alternating with the red and white screens. Researchers recorded how often the calves were willing to try the new colors, taking this as a measure of judgment bias. In other words, the more they respond to something new with curiosity instead of fear, the more positive an emotional state is indicated. The calves were then subjected to the operation and tested again with ambiguous screen colors at six hours postsurgery (the peak of pain behaviors and cortisol levels) and twenty-two hours postsurgery. In both tests, the calves showed a negative judgment bias, and were less likely to approach an ambiguous color than at presurgery.

It is worth emphasizing that the point of the study is not to assess whether hot-iron disbudding without anesthesia is painful, because that has already been established. Rather, the study tells us that a painful event has more than a momentary effect on calves’ emotional state. In this case, the researchers only studied emotional changes over a twenty-two-hour period; negative emotional states could have persisted even longer.

If behavior is a window into how an animal is feeling, then the capacity of farmers or stock managers to assess how animals are faring will depend on careful observation. Much can be gained, in terms of animal well-being, if a human knows the animals and is closely interacting with them and observing their behavior. For example, the ears, nose, and eyes of a cow are an excellent window into how she is feeling. Research by Helen Proctor and Gemma Carder found ear movements can be a reliable, noninvasive measure of an individual’s emotional state. The cow’s ears project backwards in a more relaxed position after they are stroked, which the researchers took to be a positive and low-arousal emotional state.  Another study found that the white of the eye can be an indicator of emotion in dairy cattle. When cows are scared and frustrated, we see more eye white than when they are stroked and calm.  We also know that a cow’s nose can tell us about their emotional state. There is a decrease in nasal temperature as their stress level falls. To pick up on these behavioral cues, however, the human caretakers have to know their animals and be paying attention. When Marc had the great fortune of meeting Bessie, a rescued dairy cow at Farm Sanctuary in Orland, California, he didn’t look at her ears, nose, or eyes, but he knew immediately that she savored his companionship. When he sat down next to Bessie, she leaned her big head into his shoulder as he told her how beautiful she was.

As farming methods become more intensive they also tend to become more automated and efficient, with human workers having less contact with the animals. One might be tempted to consider this a welfare improvement, since so many of the interactions that animals in food production have with humans are unpleasant and involve yelling and hitting and electric prods and pain. Indeed, the negative impacts of human-animal interactions on farm animals has been long established; we know that rough handling and unkindness causes animals to feel fearful and stressed. Yet animals can also benefit from increased interaction with humans, as long as this interaction is of the right sort.

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Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He is the author of Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Find him online at marcbekoff.com.

Jessica Pierce, author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, is faculty affiliate at the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities. She lives in Lyons, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, two dogs and a cat.