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In Context #10 (Fall, 2003, pp. 7-8); copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute

Assessing a Pig's Life

Heather Thoma


A friend recently showed me an article in the Ontario Farmer about a survey of American consumers. The survey found that "there has not been an increase in the number of consumers abandoning pork because of animal welfare concerns"—this despite the fact that most pigs are raised in extremely un-piglike, factory-style environments. The article went on to note that "quality and taste are more important to consumers than the process of meat production."

But perhaps this is because sausage is generally thought of as a food product, not as a breathing, scampering, nosy pig whose life led to the ultimate end of being packaged for our breakfast. Things might be different if consumers had a vivid a sense of the animal and the actual conditions of its "production and harvesting." But is there any reasonably objective way to assess the quality of the animal's life? Françoise Wemelsfelder thinks there is, and she has devoted several years to developing appropriate methods of assessment.

A student of wildlife biology in the 1980s, Wemelsfelder became interested in research practices using animals. But when she showed concern for experimental animals as "sentient living beings," she was told by her professors that "the capacity of animals to feel and suffer is an assumption that needs testing on objective grounds." Unfortunately, the belief by many scientists that feelings are subjective and non-physical does not leave much room for the idea of objective testing.

Nevertheless, Wemelsfelder wondered whether it was possible to develop a research method that reflected her (and many of her fellow students') way of seeing and relating to animals. This would entail engaging with animals as subjects in their own right, not merely as objects of research to be analyzed part by part. She envisioned a research method that relied on empirical observation in a systematic and scientific way while also allowing animals' feelings to become "formally visible" to human perception.

Learning to Observe

Now working in the animal Biology Division at Scottish Agricultural College, Penicuik, United Kingdom, Wemelsfelder premises her research upon the conviction that every observer (whether trained or novice) has an ability to offer a meaningful assessment of an animal's behavior. Knowing, however, that careful observation and assessment is an acquired skill that most of us don't practice often enough, her approach—which has resulted in what she calls the Free Choice Profiling method—allows observers to refine their native capacity through practice.

Focusing her work on pigs, she puts a group of observers to work carefully watching a series of pigs interacting one at a time with a person, in a sheltered pen. As the observers watch each pig for seven minutes at a time, they write down the terms which arise as the best descriptors for that pig's behavior. While original versions of the research had observers watching the animals in person, and also watching video recordings of the pigs, the research observations are now simplified by including only observations of video recordings of pigs, since the results were found to be comparable between video and "live" sessions.

The interaction of a naturally inquisitive pig with a human allows the pig to display a range of behaviors that are both individual and relational with the human. The goal of the observer's description is not to describe what the animal does (as would be the intent in conventional behavioral research: "it slept for one hour", or "it walked twenty-five feet") but how it does what it does. When the pig stands up to burrow into the straw bedding, does it move forcefully? When it pushes on the arm of the human, does it push gently or roughly? And so on.

By observing a range of behaviors from each pig, observers attempt to get an overall sense of the pig's "behavioral style" and each observer freely chooses as many descriptive terms as necessary to give a full picture of each animal. Is a certain pig's action timid, aggressive, nervous, calm?

After observing ten pigs, observers take their lists of descriptors and observe the same pigs on the video again, practicing assessment using the terms they have chosen. This time a line is placed underneath each descriptive term on the recording sheet, and observers make a hash mark to indicate the strength of that quality in the pig under observation. If "aggressive" and "playful" are two terms chosen, then how aggressive and how playful is each pig? A hash mark to the right indicates extreme playfulness, and to the left indicates a slight presence of this quality.

Part of the value of Wemelsfelder's research is that it requires observers to become more aware of their ways of seeing and describing behavior. At the conclusion of each study, after having created and used their own terms to assess pig behavior, the observers are asked to define their chosen terms. They must describe the criteria guiding them in their use of terms during the assessment. "A bold pig is a pig that...."


Having participated in a mock round of Wemelsfelder's research myself, I found that the reliance upon the observer's creative role in developing an adequate descriptive vocabulary encouraged a strengthening of my own inner activity while carrying out the work. In conventional research, by contrast, the experimenter chooses the evaluative terms ahead of time. This forces me to move between pre-defined boxes just as the pigs are put into pens and made to move between pre-defined locations. Wemelsfelder's approach is a skill-building approach for the observers and allows for a more authentic, "whole-animal" assessment of the pigs themselves.

Wemelsfelder has found significant agreement between observers' assessments of animal behavior. The work becomes more valid in the eyes of the conventional scientific community because this agreement is confirmed through statistical analysis (using what is called the Generalized Procrustes Method), rather than solely through the experimenter's interpretation of a similarity between the vocabularies chosen by observers to describe the pigs.

My own sense is that by viewing many different pigs and by consciously or unconsciously seeing the different pigs in relation to each other, the observer begins to appreciate the species character running through all the diverse observations. While this appreciation grows out of interaction, it can at the same time be a fulfillment of what Goethe calls "the desire to view nature's objects in their own right." It seems to me that Wemelsfelder's method allows observers to develop a capacity for a more objective yet humanly engaged practice of observation.

The development of this research method is an extremely welcome step along the path toward a science where human critical thinking and sensitive observation can be engaged in all aspects of the research, with direct relationship between experimenter, observer, and animal. As we develop more skill in qualitative research such as Wemelsfelder is practicing, we can hope to arrive at a point where statistical results of whatever kind won't be seen as more trustworthy than a researcher's own careful perspective and findings about the animals she studies. In the meantime, it is encouraging to see research such as Wemelsfelder's which builds a sturdy bridge between conventional scientific animal research and newer, rigorous, qualitative methods.

Dr. Wemelsfelder's email address is


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1995). Scientific Studies (vol. 12 of Goethe: The Collected Works). Edited and translated by Douglas Miller. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ontario Farmer (2003). "Survey Shows Consumers Put Meat Quality Ahead of Animal Welfare" (January 14), p. 5.

Wemelsfelder, Françoise (2003). "Seeing Animals Whole." Resurgence (January/Februrary), p. 20-21.

Wemelsfelder, F., T. Hunter, M. Mendl, A. Lawrence (2001). "Assessing the 'Whole Animal': A Free Choice Profiling Approach," Animal Behaviour, vol. 62, pp. 209-220.

Wemelsfelder, Françoise (2001). "The Inside and Outside Aspects of Consciousness: Complementary Approaches to the Study of Animal Emotion." Animal Welfare vol. 10, pp. 129-139.

Original source: In Context #10 (Fall, 2003, pp. 7-8); copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute

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