NEW YORK — There's extensive evidence that pigs are as smart and sociable as dogs. Yet one species is afforded affection and respect; the other faces mass slaughter en route to becoming bacon, ham and pork chops.
Seeking to capitalize on that discrepancy, animal-welfare advocates are launching a campaign called The Someone Project that aims to highlight research depicting pigs, chickens, cows and other farm animals as more intelligent and emotionally complex than commonly believed. The hope is that more people might view these animals with the same empathy that they view dogs, cats, elephants, great apes and dolphins.
"When you ask people why they eat chickens but not cats, the only thing they can come up with is that they sense cats and dogs are more cognitively sophisticated that then species we eat — and we know this isn't true," said Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary, the animal-protection and vegan-advocacy organization that is coordinating the new project.
"What it boils down to is people don't know farm animals the way they know dogs or cats," Friedrich said. "We're a nation of animal lovers, and yet the animals we encounter most frequently are the animals we pay people to kill so we can eat them."
The lead scientist for the project is Lori Marino, a lecturer in psychology at Emory University who has conducted extensive research on the intelligence of whales, dolphins and primates. She plans to review existing scientific literature on farm animals' intelligence, identify areas warranting new research, and prepare reports on her findings that would be circulated worldwide via social media, videos and her personal attendance at scientific conferences.
"I want to make sure this is all taken seriously," Marino said in an interview. "The point is not to rank these animals but to re-educate people about who they are. They are very sophisticated animals."
For Marino and Friedrich, who are both vegans, the goals of the project are twofold — to build broader public support for humane treatment of farm animals and to boost the ranks of Americans who choose not to eat meat.
"This project is not a way to strong-arm people into going vegan overnight but giving them a fresh perspective and maybe making them a little uncomfortable," Marino said.
"Maybe they'll be thinking, 'Hmm, I didn't know cows and pigs could recognize each other and have special friends,'" she said. "That might make them squirm a little, but that's OK."
The major associations representing chicken and pork producers say the farmers they represent already have taken strides to minimize cruel treatment of farm animals.
"While animals raised for food do have a certain degree of intelligence, Farm Sanctuary is seeking to humanize them to advance its vegan agenda — an end to meat consumption," said David Warner of the National Pork Producers Council. "While vegans have a right to express their opinion — and we respect that right — they should not force their lifestyle on others."
Gwen Venable of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association said poultry provides a valuable, affordable source of protein.
"Consumers should be able choose their food based on their own dietary preferences and nutritional needs and without being unduly influenced by any one group's personal agenda," she wrote in an email. "We do not feel that Farm Sanctuary's campaign is reasonable, as the campaign's ultimate goal would be to eradicate poultry and pork from consumers' diets."
Thomas Super of the National Chicken Council said efforts to link farm animals with household pets was part of a strategy to create a "meat-free society." He also contended that the farmers and companies involved in raising chickens have a vested interest in ensuring they are healthy and well-treated.
While The Someone Project will encompass several species of farm animals, pigs are likely to be one of the prime subjects, given the breadth of past studies of their intelligence and behavior. Some researchers say pigs' cognitive abilities are superior to 3-year-old children, as well as to dogs and cats.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a section on its website entitled "The Hidden Lives of Pigs" which depicts them as social, playful and protective animals with a vocabulary of more than 20 different oinks, grunts and squeaks.
"Pigs are known to dream, recognize their own names, learn tricks like sitting for a treat, and lead social lives of a complexity previously observed only in primates," the website says. "Like humans, pigs enjoy listening to music, playing with soccer balls, and getting massages."
The website recounts news stories of pigs saving the lives of imperiled humans and saving themselves by jumping off trucks bound for slaughterhouses.