What is it like to be a pig?

Most people know little about the characters and habits of the farm animals that live around us, often hidden away from view in large industrial sheds. What are they like, how do they live? Through careful observation we can learn more.

Take, for example pigs. Pigs are quite like dogs – friendly, playful, tactile, really curious. They learn about the world by reaching out with their noses, sensing and smelling things before they see them. But their noses are also super strong, built to dig up earth and look for roots, seeds, and insects to eat. To greet you, pigs will utter some low friendly grunts, and look at you curiously through their dark round eyes. They communicate and are in touch with each other all the time, and, like dogs, are very playful. They run around together when they are small, wriggling their little bodies playfully, and shaking branches and other objects around with their mouth. And all this activity is not just based on instinct – pigs are smart. Being so curious, they have a keen intelligence, and, as research has shown, they learn fast and can solve complex problems just as well as chimpanzees.

If pigs get the chance, they are very clean, competent, and caring animals.

In western culture most people are brought up to assume that humans are ‘on top’ of the evolutionary ladder of emotion and intelligence, and animals on a rung somewhere ‘below’ us. Pigs can get bad press as dirty, clumsy, aggressive (‘stupid’) animals, prone to bite their mates and kill their young. And indeed these things can happen, but by far most frequently they happen in the small, cramped, barren pens imposed on pigs by industrial farming systems. Yet if pigs get the chance, they are very clean, competent, and caring animals – they like to build enormous nests for their piglets, for example. So we have to be careful – our view of pigs may reflect our human treatment of them rather than what they are really like.

Scientists have in recent years become interested in how animals experience the world, and a concept that has helped them think about this is ‘animal sentience’. This term means that animals are not just functional machines driven by the need to survive and reproduce, but are sensitive living beings capable of emotion and thought. Of course, not all animals are the same; they belong to different species which all have their unique ways of living, and their unique needs and skills. But different does not equal inferior. The fact that pigs do not live as humans do does not mean they are in principle less smart or less capable of feeling happy or sad. They just exercise these capacities in different ways – smelling the world, they are likely to think and be happy about different things than ourselves.

So if we are to keep pigs properly, we need to try and understand how they want to live – with earth to dig, space to run, straw to build nests with, mud to lie in when it gets hot, and crucially, with buddies to play with in family groups. Pigs don’t just grow without feeling anything; they have a need to be active and enjoy life, and if their lives are deprived and boring, they will become sad and depressed. Saying this is not to ‘humanize’ or ‘anthropomorphize’ pigs – that pigs can feel all these things is supported by a growing body of scientific research. The more we investigate and pay attention, the more we find how intelligent animals are, in richly ecologically divergent ways. Pigs need, and should be given, the opportunity to build a good ‘pig-life’.


This is part of CARNEVALE, a collaborative art-science project that explores animal welfare questions and the enthusiasm of pigs for investigative play. Click to see the rest.


Carnevale header


The Learned Pig


Francoise Wemelsfelder

Françoise Wemelsfelder is a Professor of Animal Welfare and Qualitative Science at Scotland's Rural College, and has developed Qualitative Behaviour Assessment, a method for evaluating emotional expressivity in animals through judgment of their dynamic body language. She collaborates with scientists across the world to incorporate this method in their animal welfare research, and also with farmers, zoo keepers, and veterinarians to apply it practically to enhance human-animal relationships and animal quality of life.