If you knew that farm animals were as intelligent as your children or pets, would you stop eating meat? If you answered “yes,” then it might be time to do so.
From pigs to cows, sheep to chickens, farm animals are all much smarter than we’ve ever given them credit for. Pigs learn their names and can do tricks like a dog. Cows, goats, and chickens all have incredibly complex social constructs, and they have best friends just like we do.
These are all amazing, sentient beings, yet, because we think of them as commodities, they are never afforded the respect or care that they deserve. Thinking that farm animals are in some way different than our cats and dogs is a cultural construction that allows us to rationalize mass-producing and slaughtering these animals for food. However, when we take a step back and learn how intelligent these creatures really are, suddenly we can begin to break down our preconceptions and see farm animals as someones, not somethings.
More and more, people are waking up to the fact that pigs are highly intelligent. These lovable animals are one of only a few species that can recognize themselves in a mirror. The mirror recognition test measures how self-aware an animal can be. Typically, this test is done by letting an animal look at the mirror. You then put a red dot or some other marker on the animal’s face that was not there before. If they try to remove the dot after looking in the mirror, you can be sure they know it is them looking back from that devilishly handsome reflection. Human children don’t pass this test until around age two! Dogs and cats have yet to pass the test.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge found that not only do pigs recognize themselves, but they also show an understanding of how mirrors work, and can use the reflections to find food.
As if that wasn’t enough to convince you that pigs are incredibly intelligent, they are also known to play games (in exchange for a delicious treat). Pigs like to play with toys, such as balls, and are prone to getting bored if they aren’t provided with enough stimulation.
Giang Hồ Thị Hoàng/Flickr
Cows have extremely good memories. It has been found that they not only recognize faces, but they will remember faces even after a long period of time. Cows also remember where to find the best grazing spots and directions to their favorite watering hole.
Perhaps it is this great memory that makes them the ideal best friend. Cows form strong bonds and friendships with other cows and will even select a “cow clique,” and hang out with only their best friends.
And as if the cow cliques weren’t enough, cows even have a social hierarchy among the members of their herd. There is typically one cow who is the “boss” and dictates the behavior of her followers. If a cow doesn’t want to listen to this head cow, they are isolated from the herd (just like high school). And when a new cow is introduced to the herd, she has to network and build relationships with other members of the herd before she is fully accepted.
Chickens have proven that they aren’t necessarily “bird-brained.” Like pigs, chickens can learn to do puzzles and play games.
While we might not think of chickens as being especially affectionate animals, this is far from true. Chickens are amazing mothers and take care of their babies long before they have hatched. It has been found that they “talk” and “purr” to the eggs during incubation. When the chicks hatch, hens are even more loving. They defend their babies from predators, show empathy for their chicks, and teach their young everything they need to know.
All the clucking and purring mom did to the eggs was actually the beginning of her lessons. When chicks are hatched, moms continue to teach them all the ways of the chicken. They teach them what is safe to eat and what to avoid. They also teach them about the social hierarchy, or pecking order.
Baby chicks are pretty brilliant right from the beginning. They are known to show object permanence, the ability to understand an object exists, even when they can’t see it. Chicks develop this ability when they are around two days old, while it takes human babies six months to learn this skill.
Sheep have gained the reputation of being followers who don’t ask questions. They are considered one of the less intelligent species in the farm world. This, however, is just not true!
One example of their amazing intelligence is that sheep are capable of recognizing all kinds of faces. They recognize sheep in their flock and are aware when these sheep are missing. They can recognize “bully” sheep, and get distressed when they come around. These sheep can even recognize the person who cares for them and the sheepdog that herds them! If the appearance of another individual is altered, the sheep have no problem still identifying who it is, and they can keep track of over 50 different sheep faces!
If you make a sheep mad, chances are they are going to remember you and that event for over two years! Talk about a grudge.
Finally, we have our goats. Goats never cease to make us smile with their sheer enthusiasm for life. It turns out that goats aren’t only adorable, but they are incredibly good at problem-solving. Researchers from Queen Mary University of London and the Institute of Agricultural Science in Switzerland always suspected that there was more to goats than meets the eye and found that goats are excellent at puzzles.
These researchers presented goats with a puzzle, originally intended for primates, and placed food inside a box that can only be reached by solving the puzzle. The goats had to use their teeth to pull on a rope to activate a lever, and then lift the lever up with their muzzle. If they were able to do this correctly, out came a glorious snack. When the goats were given the challenge again ten months later, they did even better!
Their determination plus aptitude for challenges allows them to apply these problem solving skills to help them get to food other animals wouldn’t be able to reach. Goats in Morocco, for example, are known to climb trees to reach the tastiest branches.
Reconsidering How We Think About Farm Animals
People love their dogs and cats, most want to treat their pets with the kindness and respect the truly deserve. Farm animals, unfortunately, rarely get treated in this manner. Though they have proven to be just as smart, adorable and loving as their dog and cat counterparts, they are still categorized as a “commodity.” The more we learn about these farm animals and how similar they are to the animals we bring into our homes, the more we want to change the situation we place them in.
Once we acknowledge how amazing these animals truly are, it becomes harder to justify the ways we abuse them. While it might be uncomfortable to challenge the idea that farm animals are food, when we know what we do about their intelligence and abilities, don’t we owe it to them to share the truth?
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