We visit Breakfast and Nubby, two pigs who live on the far end of Corbin’s farm, Rainbow Roots, at 7 PM when they’re beginning to wake. On hot days, they sleep beneath a tarp, and in the winter, they move to a heated tent-like structure that Corbin and her father built. It’s mid-August—the farm is only a ten-minute drive out of what I’d consider town, and by address, is technically still within the limits of Iowa City. I’ve brought my roommate, Erin, to come with me to see the pigs. Erin hasn’t spent the past week in her bedroom watching YouTube videos of pigs pushing golf balls with their snouts or an Austrian professor breaking down a PowerPoint on pig cognition studies, but she’s along for the ride. I have only recently moved to Iowa, a state I’d never visited when I signed my lease. The farm is unbelievable: golden fields, a sweet red barn, sky as wide and magical as a childhood memory you can’t entirely believe.
When I was a child, I badly wanted to become a pig farmer, by which I mean that I wanted to have pet pigs as a job. I knew that pig cheese wasn’t a viable market, and I didn’t want to think about death, so I thought I would farm pigs who I would take to the forest. Together, we would hunt for truffles. Then I would sell the truffles. They would earn their keep and I would earn mine.
I mostly wanted to farm pigs more than I wanted to farm cows or chickens because I heard they were especially smart. Once, I read an article that asked why people want their dogs to be smart. Dogs don’t go to college. They don’t send emails or plan highways. Their job is to lick our legs when we’re trying to put on sunscreen, and bark enthusiastically when we come home, and tug on the leash when they see a sparrow, and twitch in their sleep. Sometimes a dog’s job is also to smell things, or hunt, or protect, or guide, but it’s always generally to excel at being dogs, and it’s never anything involving math. Smart dogs are often unhappy and destructive. Their curiosity manifests as boredom: chewed up sneakers and torn up pillows all over the house.
My guess is this: when people want a dog to be smart, they’re making a bet about what type of cognition an animal needs to love in a way that’s recognizable to us. Is enjoying us enough? Do they need to imagine that we have minds of our own, with our own likes and dislikes, and if they don’t, do they love us only like a cat loves to stretch its body under sunlight?
We can throw around these questions all day, questions that have been thrown around since people have had the spare time to ask them—although research on animal cognition has picked up within the past sixty years. One lovely and quantitative piece of information emerged from a researcher’s visit to an animal sanctuary in Arkansas where different species interact. The researcher drew blood from a pair of animal “friends”—a dog and a goat—before and after they played together. He then analyzed the samples for oxytocin, a chemical central to bonding, nicknamed the “cuddle hormone.”
The dog’s oxytocin levels increased 48% after seeing the goat, which is similar to what happens to a human who has spent time with a friend. Tragically, the goat’s oxytocin increased 210%, which is similar to what happens to a human who is deeply in love.
I think of lying with my old roommate’s cat on my chest, his eyes mostly closed. He would purr, sometimes so vigorously that it seemed strained. I imagined we were experiencing a moment of intersection, briefly feeling the same thing in worlds that rarely overlapped.
I ask Corbin if the pigs love each other. I then feel embarrassed. I think: she is the older sister and I am the younger one who has not quite learned how to read and I will smear mud on my body if she dares me. Still, she seems like the only person in the world I trust to know the answer. She says: definitely. They’ve been together since birth. I ask if the pigs love her, and she says they probably like her.
Corbin met Breakfast and Nubby when they were six weeks old and she was twenty-three. She was attending a program in Washington, learning to be a vegetable farmer. The school offered courses for farmers who wanted to raise livestock, too. She played with the pigs, and Nubby used to roll over and let Corbin rub her piglet belly. Corbin fell in love. She crowdfunded a campaign to purchase two piglets, although the rest of their litter was slaughtered. Suddenly, there she was: a twenty-three-year-old brand new farmer who now owned two pigs and had to alter almost every aspect of her daily life in order to care for these creatures.
The pigs are enormous. Corbin says that every time a vet comes to the farm they say, wow, big pigs! Because Breakfast and Nubby received anesthesia when they were spayed, their bodies are no longer FDA-approved. They are not the small, pink pigs of the internet, who wear oversized rain boots in a bathtub and wiggle their butts in a gif. They are magnificent. They are full-grown woman pigs, by which I mean they are two and a half years old. Although the natural lifespan of Duroc/Berkshire pigs is around twelve years, they’re usually six months upon slaughter. This is the most efficient time for the farmer based on the relationship between food and growth.
We’re allowed to scratch their backs, covered in bristly hair, but we’re supposed to leave the mud on—pigs are easily sunburned, and they don’t sweat. Caking themselves in dirt cools and protects them. “See, they’re so smart,” Corbin says, which is what people say about pigs. They’re like three-year-old children. Dogs, in contrast, are thought to be cognitive equivalents to two-and-a-half-year-old children. First we are dogs, and then we are pigs, and then we are ourselves.
Corbin says pigs are maybe the most misunderstood animal in the world. She says it’s a misconception that pigs are dirty. They choose different places in the field to sleep, eat, and defecate, respectively. They love when she hoses them down with water. They love when she feeds them avocado. They don’t like when she cuts their nails, which she didn’t even know she had to until their feet started to develop painful cuts last winter. It was a hard mystery to solve, because most online information is about potbelly pigs. Now, she trims their nails while they sleep and brings bananas, so they won’t think it’s so bad.
We stand in the field and they grunt eagerly, making noises that Corbin translates. They breathe heavily on her hand, which Corbin tells us is how they say, I love you, as well as, Hello. In Irish, the greeting Dia duit means God be with you, to which the common response is Dia is Muire duit, which means, God and Mary be with you. The reply sounds nearly competitive: I see your blessing and raise you one. Humans are so smart. I am so smart. I bathe and write and pay my own taxes. I once minored in biology and bring it up all the time. I can paint, too. I can almost do the splits. I want the pigs to breathe heavily on my hand.
Corbin rotates the pigs around the farm, so they can till the soil with their noses to reduce tractor use. The rotation is a method of regenerative agriculture—a form of farming that aims to use land responsibly. This is so exciting to the version still inside of me that wants to go truffle hunting with pigs. I love an employed pig.
Erin and I wear masks and stand far apart from Corbin as she guides us. She’s worried that someone will bring Coronavirus to the farm—she barely leaves herself. She lives in an apartment in the sweet red farmhouse and spends her days tending to the land, primarily alone. She admits that it’s hard. In the growing season between mid-March and mid-November, she works nearly sixteen hours each day. Most of her socialization happens in winter, or when she sees customers. I think about asking if she listens to podcasts but decide this is dumb.
Somehow, miraculously, Corbin and I are the same age—twenty-six. She’s blond with strong, tan legs—confident in a way that commands a room. Confident in a way that studies for the MCAT and then, at twenty-three, changes her mind, and starts an organic vegetable farm by herself instead.
I also studied for the MCAT once but didn’t get far into it, and now I’m a student again—this time living in the Midwest, studying writing. I emailed Corbin after finding her online during my first days in Iowa. The pandemic was in full swing, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I asked if I could get to know her pigs. She agreed.
As we cross the farm, she talks about nitrates and soil and pollinators and I have nothing good to contribute to the conversation. I’m uncomfortably quiet during the walk. I regret wearing shorts, and wonder what types of tics might hide in the grass.
Erin and I will later laugh about how embarrassingly timid we are with Corbin, who seems unbearably wise and brave and impossible for us quasi-teenagers to understand. When we get in the car we say, Corbin thinks we’re undergrads. We say, Corbin thinks we’re dumb as rocks. I wish I had some great nitrogen facts to bring up to Corbin. I wish I found some way to tell her that, like her, I had studied biology and changed my mind. I take forever to back out of the farm driveway. In exchange for the ability to almost do the splits, I was not blessed as a great or confident driver. Erin makes fun of me for that too, how my car reverses in excruciating slow motion.
There are lots of questions researchers ask when they ask if an animal is smart: do they have object permanence? Do they have theory of mind? It’s easier to test younger pigs, but that complicates the results because their cognitive abilities haven’t fully developed. Pigs are thought to be capable of deceit. They mislead other pigs so their companions won’t steal their food. Smart and morally ambiguous—go pigs! Pigs can use mirrors, which we know because researchers have set up obstacles in which a pig uses a mirror to find hidden food. Pigs who are “mirror naive” will run towards the glass, pigs who have been exposed to mirrors before will know to look the opposite way.
Interestingly, pigs don’t pass the “mark test,” where a researcher marks a part of an animal’s body and then shows them their reflection. To pass the mark test, the animal should see the ink on their body in the mirror, and then look for it on their own body and pay special attention to this spot: this reflects an awareness of self. When researchers measure animal cognition, they generally look for human-like attributes. Are you obsessed with yourself? Smart! Do you look for yourself on every surface?
When Corbin asked why I wanted to write about pigs, I wasn’t sure how to answer. I said they spark something in me and I’m not sure why. I thought about Kacey Musgraves’ song, Oh, What a World, where she sings about natural wonders around us. I always resented that, after listing glowing plants and mysteries of the universe, Kacey transitioned into a romantic love song with the line, “And then there was you,” as if to say—you, and the love between us, is the greatest wonder of all. I wanted it to just be a love song about algae and fungi; I wanted that to be enough. After I first meet the pigs, I listen to the song and attribute the “you” to Breakfast and Nubby, glorious and pink and coated in mud, in the setting Iowa sun.
Octopuses are another animal praised as smart. In aquariums, they can climb out of their tank, eat a crab, and climb back in. They’re thought to have a basic theory of mind, which is the ability to understand that another’s mind exists and is different from your own. Octopuses, of course, evolved through a different lineage than humans and pigs and mammals of all types. They have three brains and can detect light through their skin. How to compete with that? Still, their theory of mind has a different origin and purpose to ours. Octopus intelligence is very predator/prey motivated, predicting the reactions of who they want to eat, or who might want to eat them.
Humans think a lot about food too, but our survival is largely built on our ability to cooperate with each other. We need to be able to empathize; we need to make friends. Octopuses are usually solitary animals. Most eat their mates. Octopuses might conceptualize another’s mind, but they don’t exhibit prosocial behavior—actions meant to benefit others or society as a whole.
After reading about octopuses, I couldn’t stop thinking about the word prosocial. If I made a friend cookies I would think, this is prosocial behavior. If I pay extra for pollinator-friendly radishes, this is because I am from a species that loves prosocial behavior, and also loves creating the perception of prosocial behavior and loves praise, and loves looking for myself, and loves all of these things so much that they blur together and I can’t tell the difference.
Pigs are also social. I love this even though it’s an adaptation that benefits survival and not exactly a moral choice. Pigs experience emotional contagion: if a pig enters a situation where another one seems worried, the first pig will start worrying, too. If a pig enters a situation where another one seems excited and happy, that rubs off as well.
In the wild, pigs like to live in groups of two or three females. Male pigs generally live alone, unless breeding, although younger ones may form a social unit sometimes called a bachelor group. Researchers have proposed that densely populated settings are major stressors. Because the pigs’ social-cognitive apparatus is adapted to work in small groups, when they’re in large agricultural environments, they don’t have the memory to recognize each other and where they fall in the hierarchy. The pigs continuously meet and forget each other. They act to establish dominance, often through aggression, and repeat this cycle over and over. Most farmers crop their tails so the pigs won’t bite each other’s. This is how Nubby got her name—the little nub sitting above her pig butt, anticipating a fight.
Breakfast’s name is not a dark joke. When she was a piglet, the farm students learned that if you yelled “Breakfast!” all the young pigs would come running, even if there was no food. The trick was misused too often, and the litter figured out it didn’t necessarily indicate a meal—except for one piglet who ran over every time. Perhaps Breakfast is not such a smart pig after all. It doesn’t matter. When I yell “Breakfast!” she doesn’t run to me. Her tail is long and wags when she’s happy. Once, I saw her wagging it while rummaging around in the grass and I thought of the feeling of being happily engaged in a task.
At home, I watch a video where Suzanne Held opens a lecture on pig cognition by stating that research has historically focused on questions about whether pigs can do what primates can do. She would rather discuss what it is that a pig does. I think this is a good distinction. The problem with comparing pigs to three-year-olds is the expectation that all thinking is built along the same axis. That an animal brain is a little circle within a larger circle of our brains, like we know how to feel everything they feel and then some.
On the first visit, Corbin shows me how to operate the electric fence around the pigs and says I can come and go whenever. I’m thrilled. She says the pigs have never been aggressive, although they don’t know how big they are. When I ask if they dislike anyone, she says they don’t love men or deep noises—and that when pigs make deep noises to us, it’s a sound of discontent.
She says, “I trust them; I trust you.” I consider myself: a stranger standing in front of her in running shorts and converse, trying to spend my days with her pigs and think, that is so weird. She adds: “Just one thing—don’t get too comfortable. They’re still big animals.”
I don’t get too comfortable around the pigs, or even really comfortable at all. The first time I return, I bring Erin and we feel like we’re sneaking around the farm. I bring the pigs old bananas, and apples, and dog toys. Once I actually approach them, I’m too nervous to offer the toys. I cross the fence and the pigs seem suspicious. When I feed them treats, I drop the fruit on the ground because I worry that if I hand it over, they could bite.
Breakfast nudges Erin first—a big, firm snout-push against her. She yelps, and I insist it’s nothing, that Breakfast had only wanted to kiss her. When I pet Breakfast, she nudges me too, harder than I was expecting. Suddenly, I understand: it’s not nothing. The pigs have decided it’s time for us to leave. She nudges me hard enough to lose my balance for a moment. She sets an unmistakable boundary.
When we head out, I worry endlessly that I haven’t set the electric fence correctly, that the pigs will escape and it will be my fault. I worry that the pigs have sensed something bad in me, like a dog barking incessantly at a horrible man. I hold my fingers along the wire and let it shock me over and over to confirm it works. As I back my car out, I worry that I’ll hit Corbin’s pit bull. That wouldn’t be prosocial at all.
After the first visit, I decide the trick will be to keep coming back, to let the pigs see me week after week, to quietly bring food and not pet them if they seem uncomfortable. I bring them watermelon and enjoy their unbelievable slurping sounds. I bring them carrots and they are utterly uninterested. I bring them ice cubes and they think those are fine and worth eating if I’m out of fruit. I admire their silly pig butts which, if you squint, almost look like very flat human butts.
Pigs, generally, have many striking similarities to humans—in their skin, social systems, and hearts. Medical students used to practice surgeries on them. Before my grandpa died, he had a pig valve pumping blood around his body.
Breakfast is the dominant pig. At first, I didn’t see it when Corbin said this, but now it’s all I see. She’s the first one to grunt when a human approaches. If you try to feed Nubby a treat, Breakfast runs over and bumps her and they both squeal. When I visit with friends, I have someone feed Breakfast to distract her while I toss another treat to Nubby—sometimes Breakfast figures it out and runs frantically towards Nubby’s apple. Once, I arrive when only Nubby is awake and feed her all of my old produce. I imagine that maybe Nubby will be the one I bond with—a team of two non-commanding presences.
More often than not, I visit alone. Standing in the field with the pigs, I realize that I’m afraid of them. Breakfast approaches me, waiting for food, and keeps searching me for more when I run out. I Google “how to bond with pigs” and learn that my approach—quietly arriving, offering treats, and leaving—is not right. They’ll learn to see me as a vending machine. I should get on my hands and knees, make eye contact, and speak in a high-pitched voice. When I do this, even sweet, shy Nubby nudges me. I know it’s time to back off.
I think about myself, out here in Iowa, in the middle of a field, on my hands and knees trying and failing over and over to get two pigs to like me. Trying to get Corbin to like me. Trying to get everyone and everything in the whole world to like me, even entities with forms of consciousness I’ll never understand. It’s like passing a mirror I thought was a window, startled to find this as my body: covered in mud, electrocuted by choice. Sometimes I truly degrade myself.
I get up.
I visit them once or twice a week, usually for about twenty minutes. I feed them and coo at them and admire their sandy eyelashes, and then there isn’t much left to do. The thing about pigs is that they’re not dogs and they’re also not three-year-old children: I don’t know how to be around them. A halo of disappointment surrounds the pigs I had admired so much, who I can’t coax into friendship. Maybe it’s my lack of confidence, I think. They don’t have to love me, it’s not their job. I think, maybe this is a wake-up call. You are here to observe pigs, not befriend them. In the forest I see a tiny turtle, and congratulate myself for walking quickly onward, resisting the urge to crouch and scoop it onto my palm. I wish the turtle could appreciate this. I wish it knew.
Still, my roommates and I turn to the pigs. After breakups, after deaths of grandparents, funerals that aren’t safe to attend—the farm is where we go. We ask these disinterested ungulates to offer something we can’t find among each other. If we knew what it was, maybe we’d know another way to grasp for it.
I ask Corbin what the pigs offer her that nothing else can. She says that what she finds in them is hope. She looks at them and feels like she’s on the right path. She feels like waking up at Iowa dawn is worth it, like she can improve the land she works on and give two pigs a pretty good life. When she first decided to pursue farming instead of medical school, her parents were hesitant to accept the change—but now they see how happy she is. She made the type of choice I may never make, and when I ask if she ever doubts it, she says she never has.
After the pigs realize we’re out of treats, they walk away to stare beyond the field and chew clover. I call after them, “What are you thinking about, Mrs. Pig?” They continue looking out toward the forest, indifferent to me. I wonder what they would think if I could somehow communicate to them that I just want to get to know them, that I come here just for them, that I want to write and tell the world how smart they are. I imagine what they would think if they knew I thought they were the stars of the show. Communicating that idea to something with a mind as different as a pig’s is fundamentally a nonsense proposition. Still, I feel firmly that they would, without a doubt, decide that this all was unfathomably dumb.
I’d need to offer them something different, but I’m not sure what. I try to imagine what it’s like to be a pig outside the framework of humans. I try to imagine myself outside the framework of being liked—where I might be, what I might be doing. If I ever have a truffle-hunting pig, I’d name her Clementine.
Corbin’s farm was mostly okay when the storm hit Iowa in August, although Nubby escaped and ran toward the woods. Corbin came out after the wind stopped; she spotted Nubby in the distance. When she first saw Nubby’s body, she thought she was dead: that she had raised a pair of pigs, moved them across the country, and now here she was with an enormous dead hog on her hands. Nubby was fine. “Sometimes they try to escape,” Corbin says. She’s seen them use sticks to test the fence, planning their big run out of the pen.
“But what’s so great about the outside world?” she says, gesturing at the pigs wallowing in summer mud, two females living together like their ancestors, fed watermelons by their fans, pigs who will never be eaten, whose bodies are not even FDA-approved, who till the soil and sleep by each other and fulfill almost all of my pig dreams, except the dream where they breathe hard on my hand.