If you thought monkeys were clever, wait until you hear about these barnyard brainiacs.
When Prudence couldn’t reach the gate to open it, she moved bales of hay, climbed on them, released the latch, then opened the gate—with her snout. Prudence, better known as “Pru,” was a pig who lived on a farm in western Wales with her owner Dee Jones. Before Pru opened the gate, Dee had already figured out that Pru was smart—she was able to quickly learn commands such as “Sit,” “Lie down,” “Come Here,” and “Go Home.” Pru also had demonstrated that she was capable of helping out on the farm, bringing in the cattle and sheep as if she were one of the herding dogs. But it was Pru’s self-taught gate trick that convinced Dee that she had an especially clever pig, so she decided to save Pru from the slaughterhouse and keep her as a pet.
Prudence was all of four months old when she convinced Dee of something else: just how lucky she was to have such a well-trained pig. Twenty years ago, Dee was enjoying a walk in the country with Pru and her sheepdog when she took a wrong turn and fell into a bog. When Dee suddenly found herself waist-deep into a thick, muddy morass she panicked. Then she had an idea. She still had the dog leash in her hand, so she called her loyal pig close enough to loop the leash around her ample girth and commanded Pru, “Go Home! Go Home!” Pru immediately cooperated, started walking toward home, and pulled Dee onto solid ground. When later interviewed by the BBC, Dee emphatically opined, “Without Pru I wouldn’t have been able to get out of the mire.” Pru more than pulled her weight that day, and Dee was forever grateful to her smart pig.
Intelligent as Pru was, she’s not all that unique. Charles Darwin once said, “I have observed great sagacity in swine.” Tina Widowski, an animal welfare scientist who studies pig behavior, agrees with Darwin’s assessment of pig intelligence. To make her point about porcine IQ, Widowski likes to tell people that when she was working with monkeys—known for their cleverness—she would look at them and say in frustration, “If you were a pig, you would have this figured out by now!”
Once you learn even just a little bit about pigs, you can see why Darwin, Widowski and many other scientists feel this way. Pigs are remarkably intelligent, sensitive and self-aware animals. They also appear to understand that others have minds of their own, which in comparative psychology is called having a “theory of mind.” Like dogs, pigs respond to their names and can learn the names of other animals and objects. Pigs can be taught tricks, such as “fetch the ball” or “ jump over the dumbbell.” As for their own communication system, pigs have more than 20 different sounds for different situations, ranging from vocalizations piglets use to call for their mothers to those that alert other pigs to danger.
Scientists recently learned that pigs are tool users. One team of researchers taught pigs how to use a mirror to find the location of a hidden object. Another taught pigs how to use a joystick (with their snout) to move an image on a computer screen onto a target in exchange for a treat. Pigs excelled at both tasks. These barnyard brainiacs are even capable of learning to adjust a thermostat in a barn. After scientists demonstrated the purpose of the thermostat, the pigs would turn it up when they were cold and down when they were too warm. And, as Pru’s gate trick demonstrates, pigs also are consummate escape artists. There are countless stories of pigs figuring out how to unlock and untie nearly every kind of gate closure.
The pig’s emotional life is no less impressive than his intellect. One study showed that pigs, like people, can feel optimism or pessimism based on how they are treated. Another study demonstrated that pigs are empathetic and respond to the emotional states of other pigs. Farmers and others who share their lives with pigs will tell you that pig empathy extends to people, too. For example, in Sy Montgomery’s book The Good Good Pig, she described her pig Christopher’s voice growing softer and lower whenever he interacted with people who were feeling sad. Finally, pigs develop close bonds with one another and appear to grieve the loss of mates, family members and companions.
Adapted in part from Belinda Recio’s forthcoming book, When Animals Rescue: Amazing Stories about Whales, Lions, Elephants, and More Who Save, Protect, and Comfort, to be published by Skyhorse Publishing in July 2020.
BELINDA RECIO, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.