Pigs are one of the smartest animals on the planet – and one of the most abused
Juliet Gellatley, founder & director of Viva! and zoologist, delves into their origins and discovers that factory-farmed pigs are essentially wild boar
Moritz shakes his head while holding a jigsaw piece in his mouth. He then plonks it into position and is rewarded with popcorn. He has the mental age of a five-year-old child. But Moritz is a pig.
Anyone who has contact with pigs knows how wonderfully bright and emotional these fascinating animals are. The trouble is, most people never do meet pigs, except as slabs of dead flesh.
It is an immense tragedy that they are eaten at all, let alone that half of the 1.3 billion pigs killed annually worldwide are intensively reared. The toll in the UK is 10 million and almost all are factory farmed. What an indictment of our species!
To dismiss animals as stupid or dirty is a way of devaluing them and pigs are neither. The more we discover about them, the more we realise how little we know about their incredible complexities.
Pigs are fun loving, sociable animals full of joie de vivre. They belong to the non-ruminant section of the Artiodactyls (eventoed ungulates) along with about 200 other species, including hippopotamuses. They are called suids (swine).
There are up to 16 living species and the domestic pig (Sus scrofa domesticus) is a sub-species of the wild boar (Sus scrofa). They originally occurred in Europe, Asia and North Africa and a number of islands, including Japan, Sri Lanka and the woodlands of Britain. Hunted to extinction here in the seventeenth century, small populations have re-established themselves against all the odds.
Domestication began in the Near East about 9,000 years ago and they have since been selectively bred for growth and reproduction but retaining their natural instincts so they still think similarly to boar.
Wild pigs are nature’s explorers, most active at dawn and dusk and travelling up to eight hours a day as they forage. They like to hang out together when eating and radio telemetry has revealed that family groups can, over a six month period, cover 10,000 hectares!
David Wood-Gush and Alex Stolba, scientists at the University of Edinburgh, observed domestic pigs in a semi-natural enclosure over several years and concluded:
“They used their rooting pads to flatten and push items; the snout for grubbing out thick roots. Morsels on the bark and wood were licked while old tussocks of grass were overturned so that their roots could be eaten. Young grass, on the other hand, was carefully grazed. In boggy areas they dug more deeply to get at the roots of sedge grasses and these, together with the roots of the trees, appeared to be prized”.
The adult pigs in this study had been kept in factory farms and yet they adapted to being semi-wild very quickly.
Captive pigs have longer bodies, shorter legs and floppier ears than wild boar but given half a chance, they will live just like them.
The eyes of a pig are the gateway to their soul. I looked into the eyes of a mother pig just last week, incarcerated in a metal crate, a piglet lying dead by her side. No need for words. Here was an animal in pain, both mental and physical.
Wild pigs are gregarious, forming herds or 'sounders' of between six to 20 individuals, made up of one or more females and their last litters, led by an old matriarch. Male boars leave at the age of eight to 15 months. Females remain with their mums or stay nearby. In the wild, teenage males live in loosely knit groups but may mix with young females and form friendships. Adult males are mostly solitary outside the breeding season.
Sex – hard won
Farrowing is often synchronized amongst females in the same social groups so they feel sexy at the same time and give birth together. Prior to mating, males develop their subcutaneous armour in preparation for confronting rivals while their testicles double in size. They travel long distances in search of a sounder of sows, driving off any young animals while persistently showing off. They fiercely fight any potential rivals and will mate with up to 10 sows. Interested females respond to a male’s advances by urinating to release pheromones but if they don’t, he may give up after several minutes. Males do not partake in parenting.
Sows about to give birth isolate themselves from the main group and build a nest from twigs, grasses and leaves, being extraordinarily active. Imagine the frustration of farmed sows being crated on concrete. Wild sows have between four to seven piglets while for farmed sows it is double that, one fifth dying before they’re weaned. Wild mothers work collectively to protect all offspring within their group and if a mother dies, her piglets will be adopted by other sows in the sounder. They may live from eight to 25 years while captive boars live 20 to 27 years. Farmed pigs kept for meat are killed at six months old.