UC Davis graduate, Spring 2022
Major: Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology
Romeo’s large mouth closed around my hand, and although he didn’t break the skin, I was bleeding a stream of worries and doubts. Romeo had stopped biting over food weeks ago when we stopped hand-feeding him, but recently he had started biting Nora and I for no obvious reason. It didn’t seem aggressive – more like he just found it satisfying to bite hands. Since there was no obvious trigger for the biting, I worried about whether we could ever really trust the piglets as therapy animals. What if the biting got worse? What if we started an experiment and the piglets developed some new problematic behavior partway through? In addition to these concerns, I was starting to feel a bit burned out, because even playing with piglets can feel like a job sometimes.
Over the last several weeks, I had been busy with various interesting projects. I was learning about website design, thinking of creative ideas for photography and blog posts, and training the piglets new behaviors. The piglets were discovering more about the world and themselves as they explored the ranch, made new friends, and became increasingly comfortable with human touch. But more recently, Nora and I had been focusing our office work on reviewing scientific literature, which is a necessary but tedious task. The website was almost finished, and it was hard to think of enough fresh ideas to keep the weekly blog posts engaging. We had also fallen into a routine with the piglets, walking them early each morning and then training the same behaviors each afternoon. I no longer felt excited to see them progress with their training because we didn’t have any specific goals, and I was worried about Romeo’s new biting habit. But then I realized that he was trying to communicate something important: Nora and I had become boring.
Like humans, pigs have very active brains that need to be kept stimulated, so Nora and I began finding enrichment for them. Based on a suggestion I saw online, we froze water and fruit into a large bowl with a cup placed in the middle to make a hole. We then hung the frozen ring in the stall and watched the piglets fervently bite and the suck the ice, trying to extract the fruit. Later, we lugged a new straw bale into the stall to replace the one they had decimated weeks earlier, and they immediately got to work rooting into it. We also ordered a pack of assorted dog toys, and the piglets were eager to explore all the new textures with their mouths. One day, Becca brought the piglets a large mirror, and we were surprised at how fascinated they were by their reflections. In addition to providing new enrichment items, Nora and I have started training a new behavior with a specific and useful goal: we’ve been desensitizing the piglets to having their hooves handled because, like horses, piglets need their hoofs trimmed periodically.
It's been over a week now since the last time Romeo bit me, and as I watched him admire his handsome face in the mirror, I saw my experience reflected in his. We had both become stuck in monotonous routines, but his strong teeth had pulled me out. It’s a good thing the piglets and I have each other to enrich our lives.
Green Care Blog
Here you can find blog posts from each Green Care Lab intern. We'll be talking about our research process, the benefits of Green Care therapy, and sharing pictures of our work. Follow along with us!