When Pigs Cry: Tool Decodes the Emotional Lives of Swine
At any given time, 12,500 Duroc hogs sniff around the barnyard of Imani Farms, a pig farm in southwestern Ontario.
The farm pen is a hoarseness of screams, screams, barks and grunts, with each sound telegraphing a different feeling or need. According to the farm’s co-owner, 38-year-old Stewart Skinner, pigs are expressive animals with a wide range of vocalizations. Interpreting their calls can sometimes stun even seasoned farmers.
“I have often joked that it would be much easier if we could speak pigs,” said Mr. Skinner.
Decoding the feelings behind those oinks may soon get a little easier. Researchers in Europe have created an algorithm that assesses the emotional state of pigs based on animal sounds.
“Animal welfare nowadays is widely believed to be based not only on the physical health of animals, but also on their mental health,” said Elodie Briefer, an associate professor of biology at the University of Copenhagen and author of the study published this week. Journal Scientific Reports. The sooner a farmer can know whether an animal is happy or distressed, the faster any problems in the animal’s environment that may affect its health can be addressed.
Pigs are more playful among domestic animals, producing a wider range of sounds more often than relatively quiet goats, sheep and cows. To crack the code of pig communication, scientists in five research laboratories across Europe used hand-held microphones to collect about 7,400 separate calls from 411 different pigs. Calls were recorded during all kinds of situations throughout the pig’s life span, from birth to the slaughterhouse.
The researchers then assigned a positive or negative emotional value to each sound, which the paper calls a “spontaneous guess.” In other words, the researchers made an educated guess about how the pig felt about the event at which the sound was recorded (ie feeding, good; gelding, bad).
Upon first hearing, most people do a little better than chance at guessing their feelings based on the sound of a pig alone. However, listen closely enough pig calls, and patterns emerge.
Grunts associated with positive emotions – Pigs have a short voice when feeding, running, or reuniting with their mother or litter after separation, and have a one-note consistency in tone.
Unsurprisingly, a sad pig feels terrible. Situations that generate distress cries include being inadvertently crushed by a mother sow (a common risk to piglets), awaiting slaughter, hunger, fighting, and the unwanted surprise of strange people or objects. The screams, squeaks and barks of animals experiencing fear or pain are both of longer duration and more variable in tone than sounds of contentment.
When taught to listen for these simple distinctions, humans do a better job of correctly interpreting an animal’s emotional state, Dr. Briefer said. But artificial intelligence fared the best. The researchers’ algorithm, designed by co-author Ciara Cypherd, correctly identified the animal’s emotion as positive or negative 92 percent of the time.
The study is the product of Soundwell, a project sponsored by the European Union to improve animal health and welfare. Project researchers are now looking to partner with an engineer who can incorporate their data into an app or other tool that farmers can use to interpret their animals’ calls and emotional states, in real time , Dr. Briefer said.
Understanding animal emotions has practical and legal consequences. Animal sensitization laws currently before the UK Parliament emphasize that animals are capable of thinking and feeling, and that the government must take into account their welfare by creating policies that can affect them. The European Union recognized animal spirit in 2009.
A cost-effective and user-friendly tool for decoding pig grunts can be a valuable asset on a farm, Mr Skinner said.
“The ability to recognize problems early is the biggest determining factor in treatment success,” said Mr. Skinner. “Any equipment that is adapted to the setting of the barn, which will increase the understanding of what individual animals are feeling, will be of value.”
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