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Published August 05, 2013, 11:20 AM

Pigs smart as dogs?

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.

By: David Crary, Associated Press

NEW YORK — 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 thought. 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 species we eat — and we know this isn’t true,” says 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 says. “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 says. “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 says.

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

Industries have taken measures

The major associations representing chicken and pork producers say the farmers they represent already have taken strides to minimize cruel treatment of farm animals.

“While animals raised for food do have a certain degree of intelligence, Farm Sanctuary is seeking to humanize them to advance its vegan agenda — and end to meat consumption,” says 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.”

Gwen Venable of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association says poultry provides a valuable, affordable source of protein.

“Consumers should be able to choose their food based on their own dietary preferences and nutritional needs and without being unduly influenced by any one group’s personal agenda,” she wrote in an email. “We do not feel that Farm Sanctuary’s campaign is reasonable, as the campaign’s ultimate goal would be to eradicate poultry and pork from consumers’ diets.”

Thomas Super of the National Chicken Council says efforts to link farm animals with household pets were part of a strategy to create a “meat-free society.” He also contends that the farmers and companies involved in raising chickens have a vested interest in ensuring they are healthy and well-treated.

While The Someone Project will encompass several species of farm animals, pigs are likely to be one of the prime subjects, given the breadth of past studies of their intelligence and behavior. Some researchers say pigs’ cognitive abilities are superior to 3-year-old children, as well as to dogs and cats.

Treatment of pigs has been a political issue in several states because of efforts to pass laws banning the confinement of breeding pigs in gestation crates.

Bob Martin, a food systems expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, says 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 says. “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.”

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