Notes on...

Pigs have a long history of performing remarkable feats

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

If you scratch his tummy, Ivory the clever pig will take you on at a computer game. He wields the joystick with his snout which makes it difficult for him to see the screen. Floppy ears don’t help when he’s tracking the cursor. Even so, Ivory has proved a dab trotter at gaming, outperforming his porcine friends, Ebony, Omelette and Hamlet. Researchers at Purdue University, Indiana are delighted with all four, claiming last week that they’ve revealed cognitive skills never before recorded in swine.

​Anyone who’s ever kept pigs will tell you how much they like to play. My two big black pigs enjoy hide-and-seek and football. They grunt with excitement at any game involving water and a hosepipe. But more than anything, they love a round of pear chase with a bucket of grainy windfall pears. I chuck a couple of pears down the slope and off they go at a gallop, gleefully slipping and sliding, barging and wrangling, snuffling after the scent of fruit. Then they haul back up and stand with their snouts high, demanding more. Again. Play again.

Pigs thrive on interaction, respond to their names, show distinct characters. One of mine is a scaredy cat and something of an exhibitionist, a drama queen. The other is calmer. He has a steadier gaze; he’s brave. They make lively, inquisitive companions. It’s no accident that the cottage pig has long held a special place in families.

​Anyone who’s ever kept pigs will also tell you how bright and capable they are and how eager to learn. There’s a long tradition of ‘sapient’ pigs performing remarkable feats. In August 1783, a black pig took Dublin society by storm, spelling the names of members of the audience with alphabet cards, adding up sums and telling the time. He apparently had the knack of distinguishing the married from the unmarried and could read minds. By 1785, the pig had moved to London and was top of the bill at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Crowds would queue for hours to catch a glimpse of him.

​Such a money-spinning success was this pig that when he retired there was a rush to fill the gap in the market. New incarnations of the Learned Pig became quite a common sight across Europe and America, imitators and imposters taking to the stage with a set of alphabet cards and a well-turned trotter. In its new incarnations, the pig was given a name. In fact, all the pigs were given a name — the same name. The Learned Pig became Toby. ‘To be, or not to be’: Toby.

With a new branding borrowed from Hamlet’s existential soliloquy, these snuffling Tobys grew into recognisable stars. ‘The learned pig was in his day a far greater object of admiration to the English nation than ever was Sir Isaac Newton,’ noted Robert Southey, the poet laureate. In 1817, in a literary flourish, Toby published his autobio-graphy for an adoring public.

So Ivory’s feats with a joystick do not surprise me. He’s just carrying on where other pigs left off, updating the game, playing on a computer rather than with alphabet cards. And in the process, reminding us that pigs are more than slabs of meat on legs. Samuel Johnson was full of admiration for the Learned Pig. ‘Pigs,’ he concluded, ‘are a race unjustly calumniated.’ They may not all be superstars, like Ivory or Toby, but perhaps that’s because we don’t give them the chance to shine. With space, company, respect and play, who knows how far pigs could go.

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