UC Davis graduate, Spring 2022
Major: Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology
“Did he have a bad experience with people in the past?” The man asked with concern as he watched Romeo jumping around, squealing, and trying to wriggle out of his harness. The man must have thought that was the only reasonable explanation for such a dramatic reaction to being pet. I explained that pigs just have an instinctive fear of being touched by humans, although it can be overcome with extensive socialization. I recalled that, when I was a child, people used to ask my parents almost the exact same question that the man had asked me. I didn’t squeal, but I did jump away in alarm if someone touched me. Some of us are born perceiving more danger in the world than others, but I have learned that even seemingly immutable fear instincts can often change in a positive environment.
Although I sometimes laugh when the piglets jump away from harmless objects or scream like they’re being murdered before feeding time, their reactions are probably quite reasonable from their perspective. I don’t know what a scared piglet feels when he’s touched by a human, but I do know that what I experienced when I had social anxieties was very different from what most people would experience in a similar situation. A gentle touch on the shoulder seemed to stimulate every nerve in my body, pulsing through me with an intensity that forced my muscles to move against my will. Maintaining eye contact was blindingly intimate, like staring straight into someone’s soul. At the time, I assumed that most people had a greater capacity for intimacy, but I later learned that they just experience a watered-down version of social interactions – the one I experience now. As I watch the piglets explore the ranch and meet new people, I am reminded once again that we all live in different realities. If we want to change the piglets’ behavior, we must try to understand their reality as best we can while accepting that there are some things only a piglet can comprehend.
Since the time that Romeo freaked out about being pet a couple weeks ago, he has had several positive experiences socializing and is getting more comfortable with strangers. As Nora and I introduce the piglets to more people, they are also becoming increasingly comfortable with us. Recently, we gradually desensitized the piglets to being picked up, which they naturally find threatening. We first placed treats on a low brick and gently lifted their back ends, and then placed the treats on progressively higher surfaces until we were scooping up the piglets and holding them. As they became less resistant to being held, I was reminded of how I essentially trained myself to accept (and eventually enjoy) human touch as a teenager. I had become enthralled in Dog Agility, which allowed me to focus more on training and running my dog than on my fear of talking and experiencing human contact. When I first tried to control my urge to jump when touched, my muscles contracted anyway, like a reflex. But over time, the sensation became less overwhelming, and I learned to interact normally. Human touch is probably becoming less intense for the piglets as well, as they experience more positive interactions. For me, the biggest motivator was working with my dog. For the piglets, all the best things in life are edible.
Helping the piglets learn to trust their surroundings feels mutually beneficial, since it’s rewarding to be part of their journey as their confidence grows. It also reminds me of how my dog was therapeutic to me years ago, and I hope the piglets will someday help someone like my younger self.
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!