A glowing red and white spinning wheel is projected on a theatre-sized screen. The game is on. An inquisitive, sniffling pink nose taps lightly against it and… zoom! The wheel twirls playfully, emitting a few green and white sparks. Another wheel appears elsewhere on the screen. This time, the nose presses against the wheel and drags it to a triangle located in the middle of the screen. The wheel erupts in a magnificent display of colorful fireworks.
Yet, this isn’t a video game played by children. It is not humans who deliberately move spinning circles to a triangular target and shriek for joy at the magnificent, animated display of fireworks. The creature that joyfully partakes in this video game won’t progress to more advanced games and educational opportunities. No. The player in this video game might one day find themselves on a dinner plate.
The pig, pig farming and video games aren’t common bedfellows. Yet, sensing the rising tide of animal welfare concerns, some pig farmers are utilizing interactive virtual games to encourage and foster pigs’ curious, resourceful, and playful personas. In an idealized future free from crates, many pig farmers are taking the next step; they are designing barns filled with natural materials, toys, and sometimes yes, even video games.
Babe, Napoleon, Wilbur - all strong willed, intelligent, sentient and emotional characters in some of the most beloved and acclaimed literary prose. The fact that these characters are embodied as pigs is no coincidence. Their intelligence has long been recognized by authors and now scientific evidence of their mental and emotional capabilities is growing. Pigs can tell each other apart, engaging in vicious battles with their foe and comforting their friends; they can use a mirror to hunt out food concealed behind a barrier and they can quickly learn where food is hidden and then use that knowledge to cunningly deceive other pigs. Pigs have been classed as curious, confident, agitated and playful.
Demonstrating that pigs play has been a powerful discovery. Play, from a scientific perspective, can encompass exploration, being rough and tumbling, leaping or scampering. Though the actions are enjoyable in themselves, play also has many useful functions for a pig. Play can be the classroom that teaches young piglets to forage, the outlet for frustration, the dance that lures an attractive partner and the glue that binds young siblings together. Play is also requires a certain level of mental acuity. It means having the ability to read sometimes subtle cues, the arch of a back, the look in an eye, which separate play behavior from aggression or threat. Play means that it’s near impossible, for even just one moment, to feel hurt, boredom, stress or anger and that makes play is the marker flag of a good life and of good welfare.
According to leading animal welfare scientists, giving animals a sense of agency increases quality of life. Choice encourages curiosity, forward planning, and takes individual preferences into account. Agency takes many forms. The simple act of giving pigs straw can turn a barren barn into an adventure playground. Straw nourishes a pig’s desire to dig, seek, construct and destroy and, as the sun fades, a pigs’ playground becomes its sanctuary as exhausted bodies can nuzzle into the hay.
Other farmers are taking the next step through offering pigs toys. Some barns dangle a rainbow of toys from their ceilings and pen walls, ranging from yellow balls, tough black tires and bright plastic pipes to shiny chains or an intricately braided rope. Novelty is the key. As any parent knows, even the child who is supremely excited about their latest toy will grow bored of it after too long. Yet, a truth also universally acknowledged by parents, novelty is also the challenge. Giving the pigs the variety they crave to fulfill their curiosity takes a certain sense of creativity and dedication; choosing an object they’ll like takes trial and error; and making it practical means recognizing that a barn with many pigs can get quite messy.
However, the most futuristic of the toys is the video game mentioned in the introduction: Pig Chase. The video game for pigs and people, designed by a team at the Utrecht School of the Arts and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is perhaps the most ambitious attempt to recognize and reward pigs’ brain power. On the one end you have a human player with a tablet device and on the other you have a pig opponent playing on a projector screen in their barn. The goal is for both of you to jointly steer coloured balls of light towards triangular targets that pop up. Achieve that and a firework display erupts on the barn screen, delighting the pigs and resulting in a high score for the human player. While the game is just a concept at this stage, it is already making human game-testers question their relationship with pigs and how we house them.
One of the most interesting reactions to the game was parental in nature; “These pigs should be outside, not glued to a screen inside” lamented one of the game’s human participants. This poses an interesting prospect: Could the best way to encourage play be to simply put the pigs in charge of their own outdoor space? Instead of refurbishing a prison cell, should we just let the prisoners out instead? Instead of bringing the straw inside, let them uproot grass outside; instead of providing a plastic tube to push around, give them a log; instead of having them roll around on the bare concrete, give them a mud puddle. Answering that question is no easy feat. It means addressing the financial, consumer economics, climate, environmental, practical, and ethical factors that brought us to housing hundreds of pigs indoors in the first place.
Yet, in addition to pushing the envelope when it comes to housing and entertaining pigs, giving pig’s toys and watching their intellect manifest itself, also forces us to confront an uncomfortable truth: people are not so different from animals.
Finding ways of putting play into pig barns is indicative of wider trends in animal welfare science, away from simply attempting to reduce negative emotions and towards promoting positive ones instead. While making animal’s environment changeable and challenging is straightforward, if those caring for pigs while they are animals and not meat make a concerted effort to do so, it begs a not-so-straightforward conundrum. The further down the animal wellness path we walk, the more we, as consumers, must recognize the cognitive dissidence that forms the foundation of our shaky logic.
Some consumers have taken to vegetarianism or veganism to resolve their moral qualms. While good in easing the pressure to cram more pigs into a single barn, trying to create a world where farming does not exist at all is both unrealistic. Instead, we need to be actively seeking out products in the supermarket produced in ways that promote positive lives for the animals. We need to put pressure on governing bodies, like the Canada Pork Council, to provide scientists with money to research new and out-of-the-box solutions and not just find new ways to make pigs fatter. We need to let go of gold standards, they will only dissociate us further from the farmer and the animal, and push for small, incremental changes in how we care for the sentient beings that become our bacon.