"In a Pig's Eye" - by
Penn State Agricultural Magazine, Fall/ Winter 1997
Can pigs think? And if so, what do they think
about? That is what Candace Croney, a doctoral student in animal
science, is trying to find out. She is involved in a novel study
of farm animal cognition with animal scientist Stanley Curtis.
"We want to answer this question: Do pigs that have wallowed in
the mud daydream about mud puddles?" she says. "In other words,
what is their level of cognition?"
Croney, a native of Trinidad who grew up in
New York City, is the first person in her family to attend
college in the United States. "I always wanted to work with
animals, even when I was very young," recalls Croney, who earned
a B.S. in animal science at Rutgers and an M.S. at Penn State.
"For my master's, I studied the effects of handling practices on
calf movement and behavior. I examined whether and when it was
appropriate to use electric cattle prods. ..We found that in
certain situations, other ways of controlling the animal work
better. It takes a lot of careful observation to learn how
animals perceive and respond to things."
As part of her doctoral study, Croney hopes to
quantify the cognitive level of pigs by encouraging them to do
something that many parents wish their children wouldn't do so
often–play video games. However, the pigs won't be playing
arcade favorites like Mario World or Mortal Kombat, at least not
at first. "We start with a very simple task," Croney says. "The
computer screen has a series of different icons, or shapes, on
one side and a single shape on the other. First, we try to get
the pig to move the single shape across the screen to touch the
one that matches it. Once the pig accomplishes that, we move on
to more complex tasks. Pigs are known to be smart animals, and
we expect them to do more than recognize symbols. Our tests are
similar to many used in child cognitive psychology. They'll give
us an idea of how advanced pigs are in mental development."
When it's time for a pig to play a game, the
researchers position the computer monitor so that the pig can
easily see it while it manipulates a joystick with its snout.
"As video game enthusiasts can tell you, some joysticks aren't
very durable," Croney says. "They couldn't withstand the
strength of a pig. That created an unusual challenge–just how do
you modify a joystick for a pig? We came up with a design that
encased the shaft of a standard joystick in a steel handle, then
added a device like a gearshift knob to the top of the joystick
to help the pig control it."
The research team, which includes several
undergraduates in animal bioscience, also had to design a
special food delivery system. "Food is used as a reward to
motivate the pigs to play the game," says Croney. "When the pigs
correctly move the object on the screen, a bell rings, telling
the pig that it's about to get a reward. Then a treat drops
through a tube right into the pig's cup." The researchers also
have installed a videotape system to record each experiment from
four angles, which can be played back on screen simultaneously.
"The videotapes help us carefully analyze the pigs' behavior
while they are using the joysticks," Croney says.
"Having pigs play video games may sound
frivolous at first, but we have a very serious goal. We have to
know what an animal's needs–including any behavioral needs–are
in order to meet those needs. We do know that pigs can be
trained to turn the lights off and on in their housing facility,
but what kind of lighting do they prefer? If we can better
understand how pigs see the world, maybe we can learn how they
think and feel. These experiments may help us start to get the
information we need to make better decisions and judgments about
how to care for animals."
Croney's thesis committee includes Karen
Quigley, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State, who
studies the physiological basis of behaviors such as
fight-or-flight responses. The other members of the research
team are William Hopkins, a cognitive psychologist with the
Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University;
Sara Boysen, a psychologist who works with primates at The Ohio
State University; and Julie Morrow-Tesch, a USDA animal
scientist specializing in animal behavior at Purdue University.
"We're adapting software that Dr. Hopkins and colleagues
developed to work with primates," Croney says. "He is trying to
establish where different monkeys and apes stand on the
cognitive scale. We want to do similar research with pigs.
Nobody's done this kind of work with farm animals before."
Eventually, Croney hopes to do comparative
cognitive studies of humans and animals, but for now her goal is
to help people better understand animal behavior. "For instance,
livestock producers really need to be more aware of the animals'
behavior," she says. "What humans do affects how animals
respond, and we need to identify and quantify what those
responses are. There's a lot of work that could be done to make
environments more comfortable and healthy for animals–not just
on farms, but also in zoos and even in homes."
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