At any given time, up to 12,500 Duroc pigs are snorting around the barns of Imani Farms, a pig farm in southwestern Ontario.
The farmhouse barn is a symphony of cries, screams, barks and grunts, with each sound conveying a different feeling or need. According to Stewart Skinner, 38, a co-owner of the farm, pigs are expressive animals with a variety of sounds. Interpreting their calls can sometimes be difficult even for experienced farmers.
“I often joke that the job would be much easier if we could speak pig language,” Mr. Skinner said.
Deciphering the emotions behind those associations may soon become a little easier. Researchers in Europe have created an algorithm that assesses the emotional state of pigs based on the sounds they make.
“Today’s widely accepted animal welfare is not based solely on the physical health of animals,” said Elodie Briefer, an associate professor of biology at the University of Copenhagen and an author of the study published this week. animals but also their mental health. Journal of Scientific Reports. The sooner a farmer can tell if an animal is happy or sad, the quicker any problems in the animal’s environment that could affect its health can be resolved.
Pigs are among the more volatile livestock species, producing a wider range of sounds more often than relatively quiet goats, sheep and cows. To crack the pig’s communication code, scientists at five research laboratories across Europe used handheld microphones to collect about 7,400 individual calls from 411 pigs. Calls are recorded in all kinds of situations in a pig’s life cycle, from birth until it is sent to the slaughterhouse.
The researchers then assigned each sound a positive or negative emotional value based on what the paper calls “visual inference.” In other words, the researchers made an educated guess about how the pig might feel about the event for which the sound was recorded (i.e. feeding, good; castration, bad).
When first heard, most people tend to guess a little better than guessing a pig’s emotions based solely on its sound. However, listen carefully enough to the pig’s calls and the patterns that appear.
The growls associated with positive emotions – the sounds pigs make when feeding, running, or reuniting with their mother or littermates after separation – tend to be shorter and more consistent in duration. a music note.
It’s not surprising that an unhappy pig sounds horrible. Situations that produce distress calls include being accidentally crushed by the mother sow (a common danger to piglets), awaiting slaughter, hunger, fighting, and unexpected surprise by the sow. strange people or objects in their cage. The recorded screams, cries, and barks from animals experiencing fear or pain were both longer and more melodious than the sounds of gratification.
When taught to listen for these simple distinctions, humans do better at accurately interpreting the emotional states of animals, says Dr Briefer. But artificial intelligence works best. The researchers’ algorithm, designed by co-author Ciara Sypherd, correctly identified an animal’s emotions as positive or negative 92% of the time.
This research is the product of SoundWel, a European Union-funded project to improve animal health and welfare. The project’s researchers are now looking to partner with an engineer who can incorporate their data into an app or other tool that farmers can use to interpret calls and sensory states animals, in real time, Dr. Briefer said.
Understanding the emotions of animals has practical and legal consequences. Animal protection laws such as the one in force before the UK parliament affirm that animals have the ability to think and feel, and that governments must take their welfare into account when making policies that may affect them . The European Union recognized animal concerns in 2009.
A cost-effective and user-friendly tool for decoding pig calls could be a valuable asset on a farm, says Mr. Skinner.
“The ability to recognize problems early is the single biggest determinant of treatment success,” says Mr. Skinner. “Any tool that can adapt to barn settings to increase understanding of individual animals’ sensations would be valuable.”