Research Article: Does picture background matter? Peopleʼs evaluation of pigs in different farm settings

Date Published: February 12, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Gesa Busch, Sarah Gauly, Marie von Meyer-Höfer, Achim Spiller, Carolyn J. Walsh.


Pictures of farm animals and their husbandry systems are frequently presented in the media and are mostly connected to discussions surrounding farm animal welfare. How such pictures are perceived by the broader public is not fully understood thus far. It is presumable that the animalsʼ expressions and body languages as well as their depicted environment or husbandry systems affect public perception. Therefore, the aim of this study is to test how the evaluation of a picture showing a farmed pig is influenced by portrayed attributes, as well as participants’ perceptions of pigs’ abilities in general, and if connection to agriculture has an influence. In an online survey, 1,019 German residents were shown four modified pictures of a pig in a pen. The pictures varied with regards to facial expression and body language of the pig (ʽhappyʼ versus ʽunhappyʼ pig) and the barn setting (straw versus slatted floor pen). Respondents were asked to evaluate both the pen and the welfare of the pig. Two Linear Mixed Models were calculated to analyze effects on pig and pen evaluation. For the pictures, the pen had the largest influence on both pig and pen evaluation, followed by the pigʼs appearance and participants’ beliefs in pigs’ mental and emotional abilities, as well as their connection to agriculture. The welfare of both the ʽhappyʼ and the ʽunhappyʼ pig was assessed to be higher in the straw setting compared to the slatted floor setting in our study, and even the ʽunhappy pigʼ on straw was perceived more positively than the ʽhappy pigʼ on slatted floor. The straw pen was evaluated as being better than the slatted floor pen on the pictures we presented but the pens also differed in level of dirt on the walls (more dirt in the slatted floor pen), which might have influenced the results. Nevertheless, the results suggest that enduring aspects of pictures such as the husbandry system influence perceptions more than a momentary body expression of the pig, at least in the settings tested herein.

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The environment in which an animal is presented has a clear effect on the characteristics that people ascribe to the animal [1, 2, 3]. Rhoads and Goldsworthy [2] analyzed the perception of pictures of zoo animals in different settings (in the wild vs. in a zoo) and found that the setting has a clear effect on peoples’ perceptions of the animal [2]. Finlay et al. [3] confirmed this finding, indicating that the same animal was associated with different attributes if set in a zoo environment compared to a natural habitat, with more positive attributions being ascribed in the wilderness setting. To our best knowledge, there are no comparable studies which focus on peoples’ perceptions of pictures showing farm animals in different settings, such as various husbandry systems. Nevertheless, for farm animals, especially pigs, it is known that the husbandry system can influence the qualitative assessment of a pig’s behavior; e.g., pigs shown in an outdoor environment were rated as being more playful/active and less bored/lethargic by veterinary students [4].

Confirming the results of the pretest, the evaluation of the ʽhappyʼ and the ʽunhappy’ pig revealed more positive values for the perceived welfare of the ʽhappyʼ pig. Considering the body language of the pig, it is not surprising that a more upright position of the ‘happy’ pig’s head, with the ears standing up is likely to be more positively assessed than a downward facing pig with hanging ears. Indeed, researchers relate ear postures of farm animals to their emotional states (for example for sheep: [24]). Nevertheless, indicators for the reliable identification of emotional states in farm animals are not existent yet [24] and the real affective state of the pig at the point of picture-taking remains uncertain. Further, for the purpose of this study, we concentrated on the question in which way a more positive or negative perception of the pig’s facial expression influenced picture evaluation, rather than evaluation if people can correctly interpret pig emotions.

Regarding the perception of farmed pigs in pictures, the context in which an animal is presented seems to influence the public perception of the scene. Husbandry systems for farm animals play a dominant role in the context of perceived animal welfare in modern communication processes pertaining to agriculture. Thereby, positive or negative (pre-existing) attitudes towards husbandry systems might alter the overall evaluation of animal welfare. Contrastingly, the pig’s influence on the evaluation of the barn is comparably small, suggesting that a more positively perceived animal does not have the power to overcome negative expectations towards contentious husbandry systems, or that more negatively perceived animals cannot overcome positive expectations, at least in our study design. This needs to be taken into consideration for the discussion surrounding farm animal welfare and the perception of pictures showing animals in their environment in the media.




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