Talking to our ancestors
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1998:
STATE COLLEGE, Pa., WOODSIDE,
Calif.––Eight thousand America
OnLine members on April 28 flooded Koko
the “talking” gorilla with more than 13,000
questions, in the first-ever public interview
of an animal of another species.
Actually “speaking” through a special
computer with a symbolic keyboard,
Koko answered about a dozen inquiries in 45
minutes. Monitored by reporters, who
packed the kitchen of the Gorilla Foundation
headquarters in Woodside, California,
Koko’s longtime teacher/translator Penny
Patterson converted typed text into sign language,
then summarized Koko’s responses
and e-mailed them out.
Koko talked about apple juice, her
favorite foods, her pet cats, her dreams, and
her personal aspirations. Nobody asked how
she’d like to become “bush meat,” the
African euphemism for poached primate.
Stan Curtis, 55, of the Agricultural
Sciences and Industries department at
Pennsylvania State University, is gambling––whether
he knows it or not––that the
computerized communication system he’s
developing to talk with pigs won’t eventually
be used to ask them the equivalent question.
If it is, the pork industry is going to
be up against real-life peers of Babe, Gordy,
and Wilbur, heroes of the films B a b e ,
G o r d y , and Charlotte’s Web––or, at least,
counterparts of Butch, Sundance, and
Rasher, three Tamworth pigs––a sow and
two boars, all from the same litter, but raised
on two different farms––who electrified
Britain in January and February with their
successful flights from slaughter.
Butch and Sundance had already
been recaptured and sold, by public demand,
to a Wiltshire animal sanctuary, when Rasher
made his break. Rasher’s owner, Mike
Hawker, had also weaned and sold Butch and
Sundance. When Rasher bolted from the
slaughter van, Hawker reportedly knew he
had no choice but to call sanctuarian Kevin
Stinchcombe. Fellow Britons had already
donated £24,000 to save Butch and Sundance,
and weren’t likely, Hawker thought, to let
Rasher be killed without a similar uproar.
Calling Mr. Pig
“Curtis is convinced,” Ralph
Vigoda of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported
on April 15, 1998, “that pigs, like primates,
can be taught to use icons on a computer
screen to relay their thoughts to humans.”
Curtis in July 1995 visited the
Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center,
saw bonobos and rhesus macacques playing video games with
reflexive and anticipatory skill often superior to that of humans,
and said to himself, “I bet pigs can do that, too.”
Explained Curtis, “Pigs always have their eyes open
for their next mouthful, so they are always surveying the environment.
They are very alert, and if they see some food at a
certain place, they figure out how to get to it. They solve problems
every day, and they have an ability to discriminate, so it
should come as no surprise that their intelligence is high.”
Curtis has relatively modest ambitions for his
$20,000 project, in which four pigs so far have learned to push
a tractor gear-shift lever with their snouts, using it like a joystick
to play video games.
Hamlet and Omelette, Ham and Eggs for short,
played throughout 1997, but became too big to handle. They
were replaced by Ebony and Ivory, two pigs of smaller breed.
Each quickly learned to match objects to get food rewards, and
to adjust the thermostat controlling the temperature of their pen.
The object, according to Curtis, is to improve factory
farm production by becoming able to ask the animals what
they want, in terms of flooring, pen design, and number and
nature of companions. After perfecting dialog with pigs,
Curtis hopes, he can find ways to “talk” with sheep and cattle.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we could communicate with
the animals directly and say, ‘How do you feel today?’” he
asks. Echoes of Dr. Dolittle, who craved meat but as a matter
of conscience gave it up, would appear to be strictly unawares.
Curtis even imagines that video games for animals
could become a standard part of confinement husbandry, entertaining
pigs, chickens et al during their short but tedious wait
In a still farther stretch of imagination, which Curtis
so far seems to leave to journalists, a Pig Pen Computer or
Poultry Pen Computer, PPC for short, might be used to propagandize
animals into volunteering for slaughter, in the belief
that they might be going to reincarnation in a better place.
Such concepts have, after all, inspired humans to self-destruction
many millions of times.
But again, a creature needn’t have much communicative
ability to recognize and explain, as ANIMAL PEOPLE
artist Wolf Clifton did in one of his very first sentences, that
“Animals don’t want to be eaten.”
Pigs of the world, unite!
Humans may not care. Humans should have
observed throughout our existence that animals run away from
predation, if they can; flowering plants by contrast invite it,
having made predation part of their reproductive system.
Maybe, though, the human notion of reciprocal morality, i.e.
doing to others as one would be done by, will at last be awakened
with regard to animals by the voices of pigs.
At the very least, pigs may take seriously our
inquiries about what they want, and give disturbing response.
Some experts already seem uncomfortable with
Curtis’ work. Ken Esbenshade, for example, head of the animal
sciences department at North Carolina State University,
reportedly thinks attentive farmers already know enough about
animals to understand how they feel about changes.
“I have real concerns sometimes that we try to give
human qualities to animals,” Esbenshade told Vigoda.
But if Esbenshade explained why, Vigoda didn’t
quote the explanation. This left unclear whether Esbenshade
might, for instance, have secret nightmares about pigs of the
world uniting in an Animal Farm-like rebellion against humans,
whose atrocities against pigs and other livestock have only multiplied
since 1946, when George Orwell published his fictional
account of pigs leading the overthrow of Farmer Jones.
Curtis isn’t the only researcher working along similar
lines. Iowa State University assistant professor Hongwei Xin is
also trying to develop a computerized system of determining
whether pigs are comfortable. But his approach echoes a different
Orwellian notion: “Big Brother is watching you.”
In the Hongwei Xin system, video cameras monitor
pig behavior. A computer then adjusts temperature controls
according to human-perceived notions of what the pigs want.
The pigs are never directly asked for their opinions, nor do
they have any way to know that they have any input.
The Hongwei Xin project is funded by the Iowa Pork
Producers Association. Curtis’ support is reportedly from a
patchwork of sources, mosty also within agribusiness.
Since factory-farmed pigs are kept in an environment
with minimal stimulus, and are rarely allowed to live even 10%
of their natural lifespan, their behavior isn’t necessarily indicative
of the porcine capacity for learning.
There is reason to suspect, though, that porcine
intelligence may be far higher than pork-eaters tend to imagine.
The street pigs of India, rarely killed and eaten by
humans, hold their own in food competition against dogs,
macaques, and languors. Perhaps this is mainly because while
monkeys are more dextrous, and dogs are better hunters, pigs
have the advantage of digesting a wider range of plant fiber.
But more than just guts are involved in survival. Pigs
also have the street smarts to dodge the notoriously brisk and
reckless Indian traffic as successfully as dogs and monkeys.
The Hindu creation myth suggests pigs are masters of
coping with chaos. Recounts Nanditha C. Krishna, honorary
director of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Chennai:
“Vishnu is one of the Hindu trinity, the preserver of
the universe, and the embodiment of truth, goodness, and
mercy. Vishnu is believed to have taken several incarnations
on earth, whenever Dharma or Absolute Righteousness was in
danger. The popular belief is that there are ten who appeared in
evolutionary order, thereby sanctifying all forms of creation.
The first was Matsya, the fish, in which form Vishnu saved all
life from the terrible flood. As all life arose from the water, the
fish is symbolic of the beginning of life on earth.”
The second incarnation, Krishna continues, was
Kurma, the tortoise. “The tortoise represents the amphibious
stage of evolution,” she explains, “when organisms first came
out of the waters, and lived both on land and in water.”
But after a phase of drought came “terrible floods,
which drowned the earth, which was captured by the evil
demon Hiranyaksha,” Krishna explains on. “Vishnu appeared
as a boar, or a one-horned hog, destroyed the demon, and
saved the earth from the depths of the ocean. This is the third
stage in the evolution of life, the evolution of mammals.”
Paleontologists agree pigs appear to have had longer
to evolve survival skills, including intelligence, than any other
mammal. Proto-pigs apparently preceded even rodents by tens
of millions of years. They might even have been the first placental
Time alone does not guarantee development of intelligence.
Slugs and sand dollars have survived almost
unchanged for more than twice as long as any mammals have
existed. Among proto-pig progeny, however, evolution has
been relatively rapid and diverse. Rodents seem to have split
from the proto-pigs in one of the earliest forks of the mammalian
line. Whether dogs split from pigs or from rodents, in
either case much later, remains in debate. Our own ancestry
seems to have evolved from proto-pigs through rodents, bats,
lemurs, monkeys, and the proto-apes.
Our intelligence thus traces to porcine origins––and
so does that of all the other most intelligent mammals, either
directly or indirectly.
The pig line proper didn’t change much until human
manipulation of genetic lines began in the 19th century. Pigs,
pretty much as they are in the wild today, were already eminently
successful even before the major splits of lineage. Of all
the living mammals, only some rodents, bats, platypuses, and
spiny anteaters might have been as recognizable as modern
wild pigs would have been at the demise of the dinosaurs.
Bats, as an airborne order, had already developed
light, compact, hyper-efficient brains, of functional capabilities
comparable to the brains of whales, who have the biggest
brains on earth. Using their uniquely specialized intelligence to
fill niches mostly inaccessible to other mammals, bats now
constitute half of all known mammal species.
Isolated from competition by plate tectonics and other
accidents of geography, platypuses and spiny anteaters have
persisted, mostly in the same narrow niches, since their earliest
appearance in the fossil record. Neither has ever been successful
enough to take over other habitats. Yet––though both
are highly endangered––neither has ever been quite vulnerable
enough to go extinct.
Pigs, over the same time, have distinguished themselves
as perhaps the hardiest and most adaptable land-dwelling
order larger than rats. Like rats and cats, pigs have gone
wherever humans have, and have often remained behind,
thriving, long after humans have left.
As Associated Press recently summarized pig history
in Florida, “Hernando DeSoto came in 1539, bringing with
him several hundred men, about 20 women, and a few pigs.
Three years later, DeSoto, most of his men, and all the
women were dead. But there were hundreds of pigs. Now
there are between 500,000 and a million wild pigs in Florida,
Wild or feral pigs persist not only in Florida but
throughout the U.S. south and midwest, coastal California,
parts of Oregon, in Hawaii, and on every other continent as
well as most large islands.
Feral pig eradication programs, popular with
government agencies and hunter/conservationists, are conspicuous
failures from Australia to France, where feral pig numbers
have reportedly multiplied tenfold since the government
instituted pig-hunting seasons in 1970.
Hunters and trappers have killed 10,000 feral pigs
perhaps descended from DeSoto’s herd over the past 10 years at
Myakka State Park, near Sarasota, Florida, without making a
recognizable dent in the population.
Attempted feral pig eradication has been underway in
Hawaii for more than 20 years, likewise with little success.
Hunters introduced European boars, a nominally
more specialized line, to land now within the Nantahala
National Forest of North Carolina in 1912. The boars spread
into the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park,
along the Tennessee/North Carolina border, by 1940. The
National Park Service has tried unsuccessfully ever since to
roust them. USDA Wildlife Services trappers killed 300 boars
within the park in 1997, leaving an estimated 600, capable of
quadrupling in a year if the habitat permits.
Even if all were killed, they would soon be back,
reinfiltrating the habitat from surrounding regions.
Hunters continue helping European boars to capture
habitat. A since-disbanded pig hunting club based in Louisiana
is suspected of having dumped feral European boars throughout
Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Arkansas during the 1980s.
Though most feral pigs do best below the snowbelt,
some feral European boar colonies apparently persist as far
north as Michigan.
Wildlife officials claim occasional free-roaming
European boars found in Quebec, New York, Vermont, and
New Hampshire are escapees from canned hunts. One private
hunt in New Hampshire has featured European boars since
1893, without escapees seeming to form a permanent feral
population––at least so far.
But the number of private boar hunts in the northeast
has rapidly grown in recent years, raising the likelihood that
ineradicable feral herds will get started, or are started, keeping
a charactistically low profile.
The Channel Islands, off southern California, are
among the few locales where feral pigs have been extirpated
from viable habitat. Currently, the authorities of Ecuador and
Costa Rica hope to emulate the Channel Islands success with
pig eradication programs in the Galapagos Islands and on
Cocos Island, halfway between Costa Rica and the Galapagos.
But former American SPCA attorney Eugene
Underwood, who recently retired to Costa Rica, has warned
the Costa Rican government that killing all the pigs in the
Channel Islands not only involved appalling cruelty, but cost
vastly more money than has ever been reckoned, among the
contributions of the various public agencies involved plus the
Nature Conservancy and other private organizations.
Further, even in the largely treeless and otherwise
limited Channel Islands environment, full pig extermination
took 20 years of gunnery, trapping, poisoning, fire-setting,
burrow-gassing, and introductions of pig diseases.
Feral pigs survive most purge attempts partly for the
same reasons that pig-rearing is a staple of animal agriculture:
• They reproduce and reach maturity faster than any
other large mammal––almost as quickly as rats, with gestation
as rapid as that of cats, having litters averaging more than
twice as large as those of cats.
• They eat anything and everything.
Pigs also survive because of behavioral traits that
specifically reduce their species’ vulnerability to humans:
• The major feral pig predators, worldwide, are
boars who cannibalize piglets. But boars, because they challenge
invaders of their habitat, are also the easiest to shoot. In
effect, gunnery tends to wipe out the pig predators first.
• Gunners miss pigs who are underground. In hot
climates, pigs typically spend most of each day either underground
or deep in mud or shade.
The ultimate key to porcine survival, though, may
be that pigs who live long enough to exercise their intelligence
are more than a match for most hunters and trappers. Only with
advanced technology do humans gain an edge.
If pigs ever get to study options before giving their
views on factory farm technology, they may prove more cynical
than any animal protection advocate about so-called agricultural
advances. They may become especially cynical about
claims that other nations are making faster progress toward the
humane reform of factory farming than the U.S., where there is
little pretense to making any.
One world-renowned pig-rearing expert, for instance,
is Roger Campbell, Ph.D., technical manager of Bunge Meat
Industries Ltd. Bunge operates piggeries in four nations, producing
about 700,000 pigs per year.
Taking note that Bunge methods are the industry
standard, the Pork Industry Board of New Zealand brought
Campbell from Australia last November to tell New Zealand
pig farmers how to make more money.
The methods Campbell described were essentially
those used in the U.S. and Canada. He called them “normal.”
But at least 32 U.S. states and all Canadian provinces
exempt “normal” agricultural practices from anti-cruelty laws.
It isn’t much easier to prosecute farmers for cruelty in
New South Wales state, Australia, where Bunge runs reputedly
the largest pig factory in the southern hemiphere near the
town of Corowa. However, Animal Liberation NSW president
Mark Pearson in November 1994 videotaped serious alleged
animal abuse at Parkville Piggery, in Scone, NSW, took several
piglets out to give them veterinary treatment, and in June
1995 escaped prosecution for purported breaking-and-entering
and theft, by unanimous recommendation of the Scone Shire
Council, after they saw Pearson’s documentation.
That encouraged Pearson and about 50 other activists,
including NSW member of Parliament Richard Jones, to raid
the Bunge farm at Corowa in November 1996. Thirty-six
activists occupied the site to demand police action against
alleged abuses, some of which had been recorded since 1990.
They didn’t succeed, even after follow-up raids by
activists and police two weeks later found “very ill sows with
bleeding prolapses seething with maggots,” in Pearson’s
words, affirmed by Hans Kriek of the Wellington SPCA.
Instead, as Pearson recounted in the Summer 1997
edition of Animal Liberation Action, police “declined to
humanely euthanize the sows because they were already scheduled
to go to the abattoir” two days later.
“We’re angry that Campbell is being held out as a
role model,” Kriek told the New Zealand Press Association.
“He has 230,000 pigs in total [at Bunge], and they are all incarcerated.
The sows are on bare concrete in metal crates so narrow
that for most of their lives they can’t even turn around.”
Pig pen politics
Sweden banned pig-crating in 1988, along with
many other factory farming practices, and a British ban on pigcrating
is to come into effect on January 1, 1999. Both bans,
however, are resisted by strong factions within the European
Union, who maintain that Sweden and Britain under EU rules
and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs cannot ban the
import of pork raised by conventional methods.
Inability to ban competing imports, Swedish and
British pig farmers contend, will put them at a disadvantage.
Despite growing opposition to the existing legislation,
including an unimplemented 1994 ban on routinely taildocking
pigs, British Member-of-Parliament Chris Mullin, of
the majority Labour Party, in November 1997 introduced a bill