Studies showing the intelligence of farm animals fuel new campaign of reform and awareness

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There’s extensive evidence that pigs are as smart and sociable as dogs. Yet one species is afforded affection and respect; the other faces mass slaughter en route to becoming bacon, ham and pork chops.

Seeking to capitalize on that discrepancy, animal-welfare advocates are launching a campaign called "The Someone Project", which aims to highlight research depicting pigs, chickens, cows and other farm animals as more intelligent and emotionally complex than commonly believed. The hope is that more people might view these animals with the same empathy that they view dogs, cats, elephants, great apes and dolphins.

“When you ask people why they eat chickens but not cats, the only thing they can come up with is that they sense cats and dogs are more cognitively sophisticated than the species we eat – and we know this isn’t true,” said Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary, the animal-protection and vegan-advocacy organization that is coordinating the new project.

“What it boils down to is people don’t know farm animals the way they know dogs or cats,” Friedrich said. “We’re a nation of animal lovers, and yet the animals we encounter most frequently are the animals we pay people to kill so we can eat them.”

The lead scientist for the project is Lori Marino, a lecturer in psychology at Emory University who has conducted extensive research on the intelligence of whales, dolphins and primates. She plans to review existing scientific literature on farm animals’ intelligence, identify areas warranting new research and prepare reports on her findings that would be circulated worldwide via social media, videos and her personal attendance at scientific conferences.

“I want to make sure this is all taken seriously,” Marino said. “The point is not to rank these animals but to re-educate people about who they are. They are very sophisticated animals.”

For Marino and Friedrich, who are both vegans, the goals of the project are twofold – to build broader public support for humane treatment of farm animals and to boost the ranks of Americans who choose not to eat meat.

“This project is not a way to strong-arm people into going vegan overnight but giving them a fresh perspective and maybe making them a little uncomfortable,” Marino said.

“Maybe they’ll be thinking, ‘Hmm, I didn’t know cows and pigs could recognize each other and have special friends,’” she said. “That might make them squirm a little, but that’s OK.”

The major associations representing chicken and pork producers are not pleased with the project. 

“While animals raised for food do have a certain degree of intelligence, Farm Sanctuary is seeking to humanize them to advance its vegan agenda – an end to meat consumption,” said David Warner of the National Pork Producers Council. “While vegans have a right to express their opinion – and we respect that right – they should not force their lifestyle on others.”

A pig’s life

Some researchers say pigs’ cognitive abilities are superior to 3-year-old children, as well as to dogs and cats.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a section on its website entitled “The Hidden Lives of Pigs,” which depicts them as social, playful and protective animals with a vocabulary of more than 20 different oinks, grunts and squeaks.

“Pigs are known to dream, recognize their own names, learn tricks like sitting for a treat and lead social lives of a complexity previously observed only in primates,” the website says. “Like humans, pigs enjoy listening to music, playing with soccer balls and getting massages.”

The website recounts news stories of pigs saving the lives of imperiled humans and saving themselves by jumping off trucks bound for slaughterhouses.

Treatment of pigs has been a political issue in several states due to efforts to pass laws banning the confinement of breeding pigs in gestation crates. In fact, the treatment of factory-farmed animals is so cruel and brutal that industrial farming corporations in some states actually have pressured lawmakers into passing laws making it illegal for activists to videotape abuse. Opponents say these “ag-gag” laws violate free speech, food safety and animal and worker rights.

For instance, a law in Iowa makes it illegal for investigative journalists and activists to take jobs at animal facilities for the purpose of recording undercover footage. The laws were enacted after videos were posted on the Web showing such horrors as workers kicking, beating and electrically torturing “down cows” – cows that are weakened  from sickness and starvation  or crippled from their long, overcrowded ride to the slaughterhouse.

“(Legislators) would recoil in horror if dogs and cats were subjected to the same conditions,” Friedrich said.

Bob Martin, a food systems expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said he developed an appreciation of pigs’ emotional complexity while serving recently as executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.

“Pigs in gestation crates show a lot of signs of depression,” he said. “When I went to a farm operation in Iowa where pigs were not confined, they came running up to greet the farmer like they were dogs. They wanted to interact with him.”

Bernard Rollin, a Colorado State University professor who teaches both philosophy and animal science, said he expected increasing numbers of meat-eaters to join the ranks of those demanding changes in the way pigs are housed at many large facilities.

“You have to have ideological blindness to think these animals are not intelligent,” Rollin said. “I hope we go back to an agriculture that works more with the animals’ biological and psychological needs and nature rather than against them.”

“The trouble is, we’re used to seeing them as herds,” he said. “You see 1,000 cows or pigs and think, ‘Oh, they’re all the same.’ But there are actually huge individual differences.”

According to Farm Sanctuary, cows become excited over intellectual challenges, chickens can navigate mazes and sheep can remember the faces of dozens of individual humans and other sheep for more than two years.

There is existing research suggesting that campaigns such as The Someone Project may make headway in influencing consumers.

In one recent study examining doubts that people might have about eating meat, University of British Columbia psychologists Matthew Ruby and Steven Heine concluded that the animal’s level of intelligence was the foremost concern.

Another recent study by university researchers from Australia and Britain concluded that many meat-eaters experience moral conflict if reminded of the intelligence of the animals they are consuming.

“Although most people do not mind eating meat, they do not like thinking of animals they eat as having possessed minds,” the researchers wrote in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Dena Jones, manager of the Animal Welfare Institute’s farm animal program, predicted that public awareness of farm animals’ intelligence would steadily increase, leading to more pressure on the farm industry from food retailers and restaurant chains.

“It’s the retailers who are going to force the industry to bring their practices into line with consumer expectations,” she said.

Louis Weisberg contributed to this article.

On the Web

HBO's "Death on a Factory Farm"