Voices: Pigs are more intelligent than we realise – why are we still experimenting on them?

·3-min read
The UK government formally recognises that pigs are sentient beings (AFP via Getty Images)
The UK government formally recognises that pigs are sentient beings (AFP via Getty Images)

Pigs are widely recognised to be highly intelligent, demonstrating behaviours long thought to be the preserve of humans and other great apes, including self-awareness and creativity.

So much so that the UK government formally recognises that pigs are sentient beings. The recently enacted Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act acknowledges that all vertebrate animals experience feelings including joy and pain. But cutting-edge behavioural science goes further, demonstrating that pigs possess the capacity even to perceive time, have perspective, and engage in social discrimination abilities.

And yet, ten million pigs are slaughtered for food each year in the UK. Many of these spend their lives on factory farms, unable to express natural behaviour, where piglets’ tails are commonly cut off without anaesthesia or pain relief to prevent stress-induced tail biting. The growing unease with the ethics of supporting this industry is one of the factors driving more people to consume less meat.

But there’s a population of pigs, suffering and dying behind closed doors too – those used in research and testing in British laboratories. Most commonly subjected to tests for medicines and other products, these sensitive animals may be force-fed or injected with a substance, sometimes daily for weeks or even months, before being killed and dissected.

In the EU, around 80,000 pigs are experimented on each year. Minimum legal housing standards are even lower in Europe than the UK – a fully grown, 300 kg pig is afforded an area of floor space smaller than a double bed. Cruelty Free International’s recentexpose of a contract testing facility in Spain found pigs housed in a dark room on a hard, slatted floor with no resting areas, bedding or enrichment.

Many of these tests are decades old and have never been validated to modern standards.

92 per cent of drugs fail in human trials even though they passed pre-clinical tests, including animal tests, according to the Biotechnology Innovation Organisation (BIO) – the world’s largest trade association representing biotechnology companies, academic institutions and state biotechnology centres.

This is contributing to the drug development crisis – characterised by high failure rates, long lead times and soaring research and development costs – which results in fewer safe, effective and affordable medicines for those who need them.

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Animal-free safety testing is evolving rapidly and, where implemented, is already outperforming animal testing. For example, a combination of computer, cell and chemistry-based methods is more predictive of human allergic skin reactions than the most widely-used mouse test.

An ingenious device the size of a USB stick, known as a “liver-chip”, can detect a drug’s potential to cause liver injury – one of the most common safety reasons for withdrawing a drug from clinical trials – with more accuracy than tests on animals.

As modern science reveals more about the complex lives of pigs, let’s not only keep these intelligent animals off our plates, but out of our laboratories too. But animal testing isn’t about consumer choice. As long as tests on animals are a legal requirement, boycotting medicines is both dangerous and futile.

But we can all make an effort to speak up for those whose grunts and squeals are so often conveniently ignored, by contacting our MPs, signing a petition or even just starting conversations with friends and family.

Dr Sam Saunders is the UK Science Programme Manager and Kerry Postlewhite is Director of Public Affairs at Cruelty Free International.

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