When pigs cry: a tool decodes the emotional life of pigs

At any one time, there are up to 12,500 Duroc hogs sniffing around the backyards of Imani Farms, a hog farm in southwestern Ontario. Th...


At any one time, there are up to 12,500 Duroc hogs sniffing around the backyards of Imani Farms, a hog farm in southwestern Ontario.

The farmyard enclosures are a cacophony of squeals, screams, barks and growls, each sound telegraphing a different feeling or need. Pigs are expressive animals with a wide range of vocalizations, according to Stewart Skinner, 38, co-owner of the farm. The interpretation of their calls can sometimes confuse even experienced farmers.

“I’ve often joked that this job would be a lot easier if we could talk dirty,” Mr. Skinner said.

Decoding the emotions behind these oinks may soon become a little easier. European researchers have created an algorithm that assesses the emotional state of pigs based on the sound emitted by the animals.

“It is now widely accepted that animal welfare is based not only on the physical health of animals, but also on their mental health,” said Elodie Briefer, associate professor of biology at the University of Copenhagen and author of the study. published this week in the journal Scientific Reports. The sooner a breeder can discern whether an animal is happy or distressed, the sooner any problems in the animal’s environment that may affect its health can be resolved.

Pigs are among the most vocal domestic animals, producing a wider range of sounds more frequently than relatively taciturn goats, sheep, and cows. To crack the pigs’ communication code, scientists from five research labs across Europe used handheld microphones to collect around 7,400 separate calls from 411 individual pigs. Calls have been recorded in all types of situations in a pig’s life, from birth to slaughter.

The researchers then assigned each sound a positive or negative emotional value based on what the article calls “intuitive inference.” In other words, the researchers made an educated guess about how the pig was likely feeling about the event in which the sound was recorded (i.e. feeding, good; castration, Wrong).

On first listen, most people tend to do a little better than chance guessing a pig’s feelings based on sound alone. Listen carefully to enough pig calls, however, and patterns emerge.

Growls associated with positive emotions—the sounds pigs make when feeding, running, or reuniting with their mothers or littermates after separation—tend to be shorter and have a one-note pitch.

Unsurprisingly, an unhappy pig looks horrible. Situations that produced distress calls included being inadvertently run over by a mother sow (a common peril for piglets), awaiting slaughter, hunger, fights, and the unwelcome surprise of strange people or objects in their enclosures. Screams, screams, and barks recorded from animals experiencing fear or pain are both longer and more variable in pitch than sounds of contentment.

When taught to listen to these simple distinctions, humans are more successful at accurately interpreting an animal’s emotional state, Dr. Briefer said. But artificial intelligence was the best of all. The researchers’ algorithm, designed by co-author Ciara Sypherd, correctly identified the animal’s emotion as positive or negative 92% of the time.

The study is the result of SoundWel, 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 feed their data into an app or other tool that farmers could use to interpret their animals’ calls and emotional state in real time, said Dr. Brief.

Understanding animal emotions has practical and legal implications. Animal Sensibility Laws like the one currently before the British parliament argue that animals are capable of thinking and feeling, and that the government must take their welfare into account when developing policies that may affect them. The European Union recognized animal sensitivity in 2009.

A cost-effective, user-friendly tool for decoding pig grunts could be a valuable asset on a farm, Skinner said.

“The ability to recognize problems early is the single most important determinant of treatment success,” Skinner said. “Any tool adaptable to barn settings that increases understanding of how individual animals are feeling would be valuable.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: When pigs cry: a tool decodes the emotional life of pigs
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