Barnyard friendships

The latest in my Washington Post pig series.


Of all the ways to waste time on the Internet, the most compelling, for me, is the cross-species harmony video. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. If you come here often, you know I’m a particular fan of the dog playing with the otter, and the owl and the pussycat.

It doesn’t even have to be a video. I like the photos of the dog curled up with the cats, the hippo nestling with the tortoise, the horse nuzzling the goat. The idea that animals can have friends, and the friends can be of another species, appeals to me immensely.

It’s hard to know where the line is between appreciating the sensitivities of animals and all-out anthropomorphizing, but I do think that animals can feel something like fondness. Most of the time, I think we kid ourselves that they’re fond of us. They’re mighty fond of the food we bring them, and they’re probably glad to have some variety in their day, but most animals, most of the time, would be just as happy to see the mailman, as long as he brought dinner. (I’ll make an exception for dogs, but only some dogs.)

Animals’ bonds with other animals takes food out of the equation. I’ve never owned horses, or goats, but I’ve been told by reliable sources that a particular horse will bond with a particular goat, and will show signs of what seems to be loneliness when the goat is absent. It doesn’t seem unreasonable, or even sentimental, to say that the horse and the goat are friends.

Our one cross-species experience was when our Buff Orpington hen, Queenie, hatched a turkey. It warmed our hearts to watch as she took wonderful care of that little poult (although she let the other five eggs die while she did it). We know it was just hormones, but still.

Ever since we first got the pigs, I’ve wondered what our three species – pig, chicken, turkey – would make of one another. I haven’t tried to facilitate introductions, mostly because I’ve read that pigs will happily eat chickens or turkeys that make their way into the pen. I’ve also read that this generally doesn’t happen when the pigs have plenty of space, plenty of food, and other pigs to play with, but it still seems like a stupid chance to take.

The birds do follow us down when we bring the pigs treats, though, and they are clearly interested in what’s going on over on the other side of the fence. The pigs come over to investigate every time a chicken gets close to the wire. I keep waiting for a bird to fly in for a closer look, but they’re wary, and tend to back off.

I wish one of them would muster the courage and venture in. I want to know what one of our pigs would make of one of our birds. I’d bet on something less than a friend, but hope for something more than a meal.

13 people are having a conversation about “Barnyard friendships

  1. I wonder why we find it so appealing to watch cross-species playing and affection. Why is it cuter to see a cat and dog play, or a dog and otter, than to watch two dogs?
    I love that otter video. My favorite part is when the otter goes under the fence, in for a little dip and comes back and teases the dog.
    It is incredibly geeky to be talking about my favorite part of the dog-otter video. Geez.

  2. For anyone who’s interested in farm animal consciousness, I would strongly urge a visit to a place like Farm Sanctuary or Woodstock Farm Sanctuary (on the East Coast) where animals, absent constrictive husbandry practices, and in an environment of safety and love, have a chance to exercise their real inclinations and personalities. I really don’t see the point in avoiding attribution of those characteristics to nonhuman animals, except to assuage our own misgivings or how we treat them. They experience these states, they don’t “seem” to experience them. Even in science, the idea of avoiding discussions of animal consciousness is becoming an antiquated one. Note the recent Crick conference where scientists signed onto the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, supporting the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are (a list that includes mammals, birds, and octopi). Cows and goats mourn when their babies are removed from them cruelly in the dairy industry. Flock and herd animals experience states of extreme loneliness and stress when isolated from other animals. Those of us who’ve spent countless hours working with animals see this behavior in plain sight and only the most rigid definition of what constitutes emotional awareness could deny them the privilege of acknowledging that they have feelings and significant relationships … often very similar to ours.

    • In typical New England style, we pastured our goats, horses and cattle together. Occasionally the pigs noticed the lack of ticking on the fence charger and would wander in. None of the other animals liked the pigs (predators) but otherwise, everything got along just fine. A Dexter cow with a calf nursed goat kids. When she didn’t have a calf she’d adopt kids as her own.

      Seeing a lone herd animal makes me sad. I know they must be lonely. Every time the livestock trailer backed up to the barn our Dexter came running up. It didn’t matter if she was a quarter of a mile away browsing in the woods or at the back of the pasture 150′ away, she ran as fast as her little legs would take her. She enjoyed meeting new friends.

  3. We have a clever chicken who flies into the goat pen just so she can lay an egg in their shed, every day. I’ve never seen her try anything like that with the pigs. I have a feeling she’s somehow aware of their different eating preferences.

  4. For the last few months, a lone hare has been living with my sheep. At first I thought they were all just sharing the same field but, over time, I’ve observed her prefering to stay with or near the sheep. In the mornings when I check the flock, they’re laying down eyes half shut chewing their cuds, and the hare is laid down among the flock. I keep trying to get a picture but she lopes away and all I manage to capture is a blurry dot in some long grass.

    Does she gain some protection from the sheep? Is she just a bit lost or confused? Probably the former if I had to guess, but who knows? I even catch her laid up inside my sheep rollover crate, but mostly she sticks by the flock.

  5. Amanda — I’m just hoping they’ll all love one another …

    Marge — We should all be embarrassed about the time we spend on this. Imagine the problems we could solve if we put those brain cells to better use!

    Christine and Jen — One of the things I think is most interesting about husbandry is seeing that animals are individuals. Sure, chickens are all similar, but some do things that others wouldn’t dream of. And a hare hanging out with the sheep? Where did it get the idea? Why does it like it? Why don’t other hares do it? It’s fascinating.

    Ingrid — I think there’s a vast difference between acknowledging that animals are conscious and feel things (and I think just about everyone does this now; Skinner is behind us), and trying to figure out just what those animals feel. That’s where we get into trouble. We see an animal behaving a certain way (as when its calf is taken away), and we assume that the animal is feeling what we would in that situation, if we were exhibiting some of the same signs. Is it mourning? Very hard to say.

    One doesn’t need to visit a sanctuary to see animals exhibit their natural inclinations. Responsible farmers, and lots of backyard livestock owners, keep their animals safe and happy. And I think it’s worth remembering that, if we didn’t eat farm animals, we wouldn’t have them to observe at all, and they would never know happiness.

  6. My husband was telling me last week about a conversation he’d had with a colleague who used to be a pig farmer.
    One of his pigs suddenly died, which apparently is unusual for pigs (unlike chickens), so he had a post mortem performed, presumably to rule out anything contagious. Inside the gut was a whole pheasant. Death was from peritonitis as the sharp pointy bits had perforated the intestinal wall.
    A few days later he was in the pig pen when a pheasant walked along the wall. A sow reached up and swallowed the bird in one mouthful. I’m not sure what the outcome was in this case, but I don’t think he let his chickens in the pigpen!
    And I know this colleague a bit, and I don’t believe he’d have poorly cared for or under fed animals. I think pheasant=dinner must be instinctive.

    • Hazel, somehow I missed this comment until just now. That’s a cautionary tale — we worry about hickory nut shells puncturing their intestines, but if they can eat whole pheasants and die only occasionally, they’re probably OK with a few nut shells.

      You’re right about the instinct, I’m sure.

  7. We had two Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs until they died of old age at 12 and 13. I think one of the barred rock hens made a deal with them. How’s this for anthropomorphizing?

    Hen: Look, I know you’d like to eat me but I’d prefer you don’t. So how’s this? I come in every day, lay an egg in your hay, and you don’t eat me.

    Penny Pig: That’s all you have? One egg a day? You’re a pretty big chicken. How about two eggs?

    Hen: One egg. That’s it. And only five or six days a week. And I get to pick the corn out of your feed.

    Mattie Pig: Deal. When Farmer Robin brings us a fresh bale of hay to sleep in you can scratch in it. And sleep with us.

    And that’s how it went for years. The hen laid an egg, Penny or Mattie nosed her out of the hay as soon as she started to cackle, and one of them got the egg. It’s fun to think of them conversing like this, but in seriousness, I do wonder if they had some sort of deal worked out. If I gave them a chicken I’d had to put down for injury they ate it quickly.

    • That’s anthropomorphizing of the very best kind. It’s so interesting to me, how individual animals do their own thing. *This* pig gets along with *that* chicken, and who knows what the next flock will bring?

      Thanks for the story.

  8. Thanks for the pig stories Tamar.

    Speaking of friends in the animal world, I was leaving our suburban home just outside Fairbanks one day last year and was stopped by an amazing sight. Standing by the road watching me go by were a red fox and a house cat of some sort. I rolled down my window to be sure of what I was seeing and they stopped and looked back at me for a few moments and then turned together and calmly walked away. I figure they must have fought to a draw at some point and decided to be friends.


    • A fox and a cat, friends. Alaska must do strange things to animals. If you see them again, will you try to get a picture?

      Thanks for the story.

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