Easter's coming up -- have you bought your honey-baked ham yet? I hope not because I'd like to try to talk you out of it. Not just because it's bad for you (a recent Harvard University study found that eating processed meats such as ham, bacon, and sausage daily increases your mortality risk by 20 percent) but also because it's bad for pigs (it increases their mortality risk by 100 percent).
On today's factory farms, mother pigs spend most of their lives confined to cramped "gestation" crates that are so small, the animals can't even turn around or take a step in any direction. Piglets are castrated and have their tails chopped off and their teeth clipped without any painkillers whatsoever. All of this is done to animals whom scientists have determined are smarter than the family dog.
Need proof that pigs are brainy? Here's just a sample of their amazing feats of mental prowess:
Pigs can use tools. A study conducted by Professor Donald Broom at Cambridge University found that pigs used a mirror placed in their enclosure to locate food reflected in it but otherwise not directly visible. Only a handful of other species, including dolphins, elephants, and chimpanzees, have passed the "mirror test" or have been documented to understand that mirrors are reflections, not windows.
Pigs just wanna have fun. While at Pennsylvania State University, the late Dr. Stanley Curtis found that pigs can play joystick-controlled video games and are "capable of abstract representation." Dr. Curtis believed that "there is much more going on in terms of thinking and observing by these pigs than we would ever have guessed." Pigs' love of video games has even been turned into an iPhone app, Pig Chase, that gamers can use to play remotely with pigs on Dutch farms.
Pigs can fetch your slippers. Dr. Curtis was able to teach pigs to sit and jump as well as fetch a ball, a Frisbee, and a dumbbell on command. Even after years had gone by, the pigs were still able to identify the objects.
A pig never forgets. Suzanne Held, who studies the cognitive abilities of farmed animals at the University of Bristol, has found that pigs are brilliant at remembering where food is stored and are also able to distinguish between different-size stashes of treats. Held says pigs are "really good at remembering where food is located, because in their natural environment food is patchily distributed and it pays to revisit profitable food patches."
Pigs are sneaky. They learn to follow other pigs to find food and will even use evasive tactics to try to throw a pursuing pig off the trail so that they can keep their trove to themselves.
Some pigs like it hot. While at the University of Illinois, Dr. Curtis learned that not only do pigs have temperature preferences, they can also learn how to turn on the heat in a cold barn and turn it off again when they get too warm.
Pigs clean up. Contrary to that popular expression, pigs can't sweat, so they like to bathe in water or mud to keep cool. One pig guardian developed a shower for her companions, and the animals learned to turn it on and off by themselves.
Pigs can be real lifesavers. A pet pig named Pru rescued her guardian by dragging her out of a bog. Other heroic pigs include Priscilla, who saved a young boy from drowning; Spammy, whose squeals led firefighters to rescue her calf friend Spot from a burning shed; LuLu, who flagged down a passing car to help her human companion, who had collapsed from a heart attack; Tunia, who chased away an intruder; and Mona, who held a fleeing suspect's leg until the police arrived.
Pigs are cockeyed optimists. In his book The Whole Hog, naturalist Lyall Watson writes, "I know of no other animals that are more consistently curious, more willing to explore new experiences, more ready to meet the world with open mouthed enthusiasm. Pigs, I have discovered, are incurable optimists and get a big kick out of just being."
Maybe I'm an incurable optimist, too, because I like to think that once people find out how smart, sociable, brave, and even silly pigs are, they won't want to eat them.
All photos courtesy of EstherTheWonderPig.com. Find out what Esther's been up to lately by visiting her Facebook page.