Maxwell the baby pig was found on the highway in Illinois after falling from a truck likely headed to slaughter. Little Maxwell was given a name and taken in by Heartland Farm Sanctuary, where he will live out his days in peace, socializing with other rescued pigs and farm animals. Animal lovers in southwestern Wisconsin felt inspired by this second chance at life the cute, charismatic piglet was given. Nonetheless, it’s likely that most continued to eat bacon, ham, and pork chops originating from factory farms, where piglets just like Maxwell live a much darker life, without a second thought.
What explains this “meat paradox”1, where American animal lovers feel revulsion at the thought of harm coming to animals but will gladly serve them for dinner?
Importantly, meat carries significance for a diversity of cultures and many people have a vested interest in keeping their feelings about animals separate from those about meat. Additionally, cravings and appetite are connected to emotions, and are strong motivations for keeping animals and meat separate. A study in 2012 found that many Americans reconcile their meat-eating habits by consuming animals that have perceived low intelligence and avoiding consumption of animals thought to have higher mental capacities.2 That means that cows, pigs, and chickens are fair game, while dogs, horses, and cats are quite literally off the table. Even if the level of intelligence an animal possesses is the moral baseline for which it is considered friend or food, is there evidence that animals farmed primarily for consumption in fact lack the mental capacity of their off-limits counterparts? The research suggests not.
Sociality is often considered a hallmark of intelligence in animals. Long-term social interactions require animals to keep track of who they’re dealing with, which can require a great deal of mental prowess. It pays to know who to avoid and who has your back. Research shows that many farm animals not only have the capacity to form strong social bonds, but actually benefit from them. Dairy cows have been shown to have preferred “friends” they spend time with and even feel less stress when they are present.3 I’ve personally seen friendships between pigs form at the above mentioned farm sanctuary; stall-mates are rarely seen apart from one another, even when roaming, and sleep huddled together at night. Hens form stable social dominance hierarchies that promote group cohesion, but, along with pigs, also seem to form preferred friendships within their groups and change their own behavior by watching that of their partners.4 Even stereotypically “dim-witted” sheep show remarkable ability in recounting not only the individuals within their own group, but individuals in groups they frequently interact with.5
Farm animals don’t fall short on measures of cleverness either. Just like our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, pigs have demonstrated the ability to learn hand symbols, and even understand those symbols when arranged in simple sentences.6 Pigs also understand how to follow a pointing finger, a skill that actually does not come so easily to our chimpanzee cousins.7 Chickens, long decried as brainless and thus “bird-brained”, show a remarkable ability to learn quickly, and can even perform basic arithmetic if taught as chicks.8
Where do farm animals fall in their capacity to feel emotions, such as happiness, grief, and fear? Despite what many like to believe, it is well accepted within the scientific literature that animals experience emotions, albeit they may not be as complex as the ones humans experience. Yet, one of the strongest emotions farm animals experience is shared with humans: the mother-infant bond. When mother cows and their calves are separated, they both show distress until they are reunited. Mothers form bonds with their calves five minutes after birth, and vocalize in distress long after their infant has been taken from them.9 Farm animals experience fear, which leads to negative physiological stress responses, which in turn affect their health and quality of life. Many are able to recognize and differentiate between humans that have mistreated them, showing signs of distress when in their presence.10 Many scientists are reluctant to assign grief to animals, and thus there is a dearth of research into the grieving process of almost all non-human animals, farm animal or not. However, sanctuaries across the country can attest to grieving animals who have lost friends. Primatologist and animal advocate Barbara King writes about the story of two ducks rescued from the cruel foie gras industry. Inseparable friends, when one got sick and died, the remaining duck never seemed to recover from the loss, dying shortly after.11
Perhaps what is most astounding about farm animal cognition is just how little we understand about it from a scientific perspective. Despite mounds of anecdotal and video evidence from sanctuary workers about the amazing cognitive feats of many farm animals, rivaling or surpassing that of dogs, scientific interest in their minds is dismal. Even welfare assessments are typically oriented toward mitigating poor situations rather than promoting positive ones.12 However, as more people become aware of how sentient farm animals can be, scientific interest in their cognition mounts. Tool use, a skill once thought to be uniquely human has now been observed in several species, including cousins of the domesticated pig. Researchers are finding evidence to support what many already knew: much like beloved dogs, cats, and even humans, farm animals are not blank-minded lumps meandering around in a thoughtless fog, but given the opportunity, form strong relationships, feel fear, love, and are more clever than we give them credit. So to my meat-eating, animal-loving friends, perhaps it is time to reconsider whether or not if it is still not so disturbing to eat these intelligent animals.
- Loughnan S, Haslam N, Bastian B. 2010. The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals. Appetite 55: 156-159.
- Bastian B, Loughnan S, Haslam N, Radke HRM. 2012. Don’t mind meat? The denial of mind to animals used for human consumption. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38: 247-256.
- McLennan KM. 2013. Social bonds in dairy cattle: the effect of dynamic group systems on welfare and productivity. Doctoral thesis. The University of Northampton.
- Mench J and Keeling LJ. 2001. The social behavior of domestic birds. In: Social Behavior in Farm Animals, Keeling L and Gonyou H (eds.). CABI.
- Fisher A, Matthews L. 2001. The social behavior of sheep. In: Social Behavior in Farm Animals, Keeling L and Gonyou H (eds.). CABI.
- Cerbulis IG. 1994. Cognitive abilities of the domestic pig (Sus scrofa), Thesis in Department of Psychology, Ohio State University, 1–108.
- Nawroth C, Ebersbach M, von Borell E. 2013. Are juvenile domestic pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus) sensitive to the attentive states of humans? – The impact of impulsivity on choice behavior. Behavioral Processes, 96, 53–58.
- Rugani R, Fontanari L, Simoni E, Regolin L, Vallortigara G. 2009. Arithmetic in newborn chicks. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276.
- Marino L, & Allen K. 2017. The psychology of cows. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 4(4): 474-498.
- Rushen J, Taylor AA, de Passillé AM. 1999. Domestic animals’ fear of humans and its effect on their welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 65: 285-303.
- King B. 2016. Animal mourning. Animal Sentience 4.
- Nawroth C and Langbein J. 2019. Editorial: Advances and perspectives in farm animal learning and cognition. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 6: 172.