The secret life of pigs

Image credit: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Pigs are very misunderstood creatures who, if we knew them better, we’d probably love just as much as we do our companion animals. In truth, pigs aren’t too different than dogs are. They are complex, intelligent, and empathetic animals who deserve our consideration. It might be time to update our frameworks for how we think about — and treat — pigs.

How smart are pigs?

According to some experts, pigs are one of the smartest animals, even smarter than cats and dogs. Some experts even consider them to be the fourth smartest animal.

Pigs have great directional skills and memory. They can remember where food was and can return there later in search of it, too. When lost, pigs can find their way home from really long distances away. I certainly can’t say the same for myself without using GPS. The New York Times even reported on some pigs who used mirrors to find food.

Pigs’ intelligence might even rival chimpanzees. In one study, pigs were taught to move a cursor on a screen and ask to pick out scribbles they recognized and had seen before from those that were new. The pigs were able to do this as quickly as chimps. They also have the capacity to manipulate objects like food and water devices and turn fans or heaters on and off.

How do pigs behave and feel?

Pigs are much more complex than you may have thought. Veterinary science expert Dr. Mike Mendl has said, “pigs can develop quite sophisticated social competitive behavior, similar to that seen in some primate species.”

There’s no shortage of evidence that pigs in relaxed and fun environments can enjoy themselves. Pigs love sunbathing and playing around. Some of my favorite pigs to watch on the internet are Pickles and Esther the Wonder Pig.

Pigs love pets and belly rubs — just like some dogs you might know and love. There’s plenty of cute evidence of this on the internet too.

How are pigs treated today?

The lives of most pigs today are quite miserable, and this is a tragedy considering their complex emotional and intellectual capacities. In America, very few laws and essentially no federal laws protect how pigs are treated. One of the few federal laws, the Humane Slaughter Act was passed in the 1950s under President Eisenhower and has barely been updated or enforced since. Meanwhile, production has scaled up drastically and conditions have gotten far worse.

Farms, where pigs are raised, are far from an idealistic pasture where pigs can run free. Instead, pigs are raised in dark, smelly, and dirty factory farms with thousands of other animals cramped closely together.

In factory farms, pigs are faced with incredibly cruel “common practices”. Shortly after birth, at just two to three weeks old, they are separated from their mothers. They go through cruel mutilations: male piglets can be castrated, and piglets’ tails are often “docked” meaning ripped or cut off. This all usually happens without the use of anesthesia.

Breeding mothers are often placed in gestation crates for their entire pregnancy and after. These are cages that are usually so small, mother pigs can’t even stand up or turn around. Gestation crates usually stand on slates of metal where their droppings go through. This leads to high levels of ammonia as their waste is often neglected. They are impregnated 2-2.5 times a year and have to go through this cycle again and again until they are considered “spent.”

Pigs’ lives have become incredibly short as well. Pigs who are well cared for can live for 15 to 20 years but on factory farms, they are usually slaughtered between just 4 and 12 months.

How can we help pigs?

Regardless of faith, you can recognize that how pigs are treated on factory farms probably isn’t in line with your values. Luckily, there is a lot we can do as individuals, and as a society, to create a more humane world. One of the best things to do is to leave animals like pigs off of your plate. We encourage you to try vegan this Lent. To help, we have a Vegan Starter Kit, full of recipes, nutritional information, and further learning suggestions.

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