It has been found that pigs are among the quickest of animals to learn a new routine, and they can do a circus’s range of tricks: jump hoops, bow and stand on two hoofs, spin and make word like sounds on command, roll out rugs, herd sheep, close and open cages, play video games with joysticks, and more. Pigs are also slow to forget. They can learn something on the first try, but then it is difficult for them to unlearn it. They may get frightened once and then have trouble getting over it.

Farm pigs have been a barnyard staple for at least 8,000 years, when they were tamed from the wild boar of Asia and Europe. Domestication was easy, given that they loved to root around in dumpsites. The pigs were hard to hunt, but if you put the garbage out, many would be drawn out from the woods. People realized they did not have to hunt them. All they had to do was put a fence around their garbage.

Even in domesticity, pigs have retained much of their forebear’s high intellect. Pig intelligence is attributed to the same evolutionary pressures that prompted cleverness in primates: social life and food. Wild pigs live in long-term social groups, keeping track of one another as individuals. This is the best form of protection against predation. They also root around for difficult a food source, requiring dexterity of the snout not unlike the handiness of a monkey.

Researchers have recently presented evidence that domestic pigs can quickly learn how mirrors work and will use their understanding of reflected images to check out their surroundings and find food. It has yet to be determined whether the animals realize that the eyes in the mirror are their own, or whether pigs might rank with apes, dolphins and other species that have passed the famed mirror self-recognition test thought to be a marker of self-awareness and advanced intelligence. Monkeys had been shown to use mirrors to locate food.

A research group at Cambridge University decided to look for a similar sort of so-called assessment awareness in pigs. They began by exposing seven 4-to-8-week-old pigs to five-hour stints with a mirror and recorded their reactions. The pigs were fascinated, pointing their snouts toward the mirror, hesitating, vocalizing, edging closer, walking up and nuzzling the surface, looking at their image from different angles, looking behind the mirror. When the mirror was placed in their pen a day later, the glass-savvy pigs accept it as part of their environment.

Can pigs obtain information from a mirror? When put in a pen with a mirror, young pigs made movements while apparently looking at their image. After 5 hours spent with a mirror, the pigs were shown a familiar food bowl, visible in the mirror but hidden behind a solid barrier. Seven out of eight pigs found the food bowl in a mean of 23 seconds by going away from the mirror and around the barrier.

To use information from a mirror to find a food bowl, each pig must have observed features of its surroundings, remembered these and its own actions, deduced relationships among observed and remembered features and acted accordingly. This ability indicates assessment awareness in pigs. The results may affect the design of housing conditions for pigs and may lead to better pig welfare. Most important these new findings should change the traditional attitude to pigs. And give them the respect they deserve.

We might wish to ponder what pigs think of humans, as J. B. Morton did: “One disadvantage of being a hog is that at any moment some blundering fool may try to make a silk purse out of your wife’s ear. “

Rosalind Scott-Gibb

By Papa

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