Pigs Can Play Video Games
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


"In a Pig's Eye" - by Eston Martz 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."

See Also: Pigs: Intelligent Animals Suffering in Factory Farms and Slaughterhouses

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