The Smartest Pig
An Animal Rights Article from


This lighthearted documentary series profiles a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. This instalment focuses on Nellie, a particularly intelligent pig who has become something of a star owing to her remarkable abilities.

In September 1992, a pig was born on an Ohio farm that stood out from the rest of its brood. Nellie, as she was named, was energetic and inquisitive, constantly on the run, and would eagerly gravitate towards people who entered the farrowing room. At eight weeks of age, Nellie boarded a jet and was flown across to Washington State to live with her new owners – Priscilla and Steve Valentine.

Right away, it was clear that Nellie was a different sort of pig. She did not sleep as much as other pigs, and got bored easily. She was temperamental, sensitive and liked to stay clean. Nellie seemed at her happiest when she was learning or performing simple tasks – and spent much of her time looking at her owners, as if to say, “What can we do next?”

When the Valentines began to teach Nellie tricks, she caught on so quickly that it was a challenge to keep her stimulated. While spending time in her own – pink-walled – bedroom, she often played her miniature grand piano without supervision, or whiled away the time pushing a golf ball into a putting cup. Recognising Nellie’s star potential, Priscilla and Steve launched her performing career.

After Nellie’s first appearance in front of an audience, there was no going back. The pint-sized pig raced across the stage chasing footballs, leaping through hoops and playing to the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

Some years later, little has changed. The piggy prima donna still has her own suburban bedroom, but it is decorated with porcine publicity stills. The forty-pound Nellie now has personal credit cards, and even receives fan mail.

This week’s Extraordinary Animals catches up with Nellie at her Washington State home, before following her to Fort Lewis army base where she is due to perform for soldiers and their families. The film also explores the science behind Nellie’s tricks. Is it possible that Nellie knows what she is doing? Does she understand the tasks she performs? Could Nellie really be the world’s smartest pig?

Among the scientists involved in the documentary is Dr Candace Croney of Oregon State University’s Animal Sciences Department. A specialist in bioethics and animal behaviour research, Dr Croney worked with Professor Stanley Curtis on the famous ‘joy stick experiment’, which proved that pigs were capable of high levels of cognitive thought.

But porcine intelligence will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time around these social, playful animals. “Pigs have the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly [more so than] three-yearolds,” says Dr Donald Broom of Cambridge University. Dr Broom has created a ‘pig mirror test’, in which pigs are shown a mirror, before being encouraged to retrieve objects reflected in the mirror. The results of these tests suggest that pigs appreciate the difference between reality and the reflected image, thus demonstrating a high level of cognitive awareness – similar to that achieved by young children when they first become aware of themselves.

To compare the intelligence of pigs and young children in a far less scientific way, Extraordinary Animals invites three kids to try some of the tasks Nellie can perform. How will the children fare against the porcine prodigy?

See Also:  
Pigs Can Play Video Games  
Pigs: Intelligent Animals Suffering in Factory Farms and Slaughterhouses

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