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You'll Have Questions About Pigs When You Watch "Okja," And Here Are The Answers

I'm out here calling scientists and reading government reports so you won't have to! (Some spoilers for Okja.)

Posted on July 13, 2017, at 4:24 p.m. ET

If you saw the Netflix movie Okja, you know it’s the sweet and very upsetting story of a young girl who goes on an intercontinental quest to save her beloved “super pig” from the corporation that owns her.


The movie explores the difference between ~images~ that are presented to the world and ~reality~.


For one thing, the corporation sent Okja to live an idyllic life playing in the mountains with Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) purely as a publicity stunt! They wanted to obscure her origins as a genetically modified creature and distract from the sad living conditions of her fellow super pigs back on the US farm!

So when the movie really pulls back the curtain and reveals THE TRUTH about super pigs, I had to ask: Is this pig even realistic?

And then, for my sake and yours, I called a scientist.

Discovery #1: Okja moves her face too much for a pig.


This super pig had way more facial expressions than a real pig would. Humans and other primates communicate a lot of emotions through our faces, which is probably why Okja has this wide facial repertoire: "Because we're primates, that’s what we need to see," said Kristina M. Horback, an assistant professor of animal behavior at the University of California at Davis. Horback is affiliated with the Center for Animal Welfare, and she studies personality traits and emotions in animals — and at the moment, she studies pigs, so she would know!

In fact, Horback was jealous of Mija's ability to communicate with her pig friend. "That’s what my research is: to understand the state of the animal. Are they in a positive state?" In Okja, Mija and her porcine friend are so close they can practically have a conversation. "If we could talk to them, it’d be really great! But it’s a lot harder than that."

Discovery #2: Pigs really are very social animals, kind of like Okja!


It follows some real-life pig logic that Okja is so bonded to Mija. Left to their own devices, pigs live in a matrilineal society. Groups of a few sows — adult female pigs who have had piglets — generally have one or two leader sows who decide things like when they should all start foraging for food and when they should all nurse their piglets. (Adult male pigs aren't really part of this mom group, which is called a "sounder.")

It also makes sense that Okja knew her name and responded to Mija's voice. You could train a pig to recognize its name, Horback said. "That’s the same properties as what happens with dogs, or cats, or dolphins. Humans, even. When I hear 'Kristina,' I look," she said.

What about that scary farm? This led me to discovery #3: In reality, the slaughterhouse pigs — including the piglet Okja rescues — probably wouldn’t have been outside at all.


The researcher Jeremy N. Marchant-Forde wrote in The Welfare of Pigs that the majority of US pigs are reared indoors. He explained, “The goal of the producer is to grow the pig from weaning to slaughter in as short a time possible and using as little feed as possible. This is best achieved indoors,” in part because it’s easier to control the temperature and it’s easier to prevent food waste.

Discovery #4: The pig mating scene is also unrealistic, because most commercial pig reproduction happens through artificial insemination.

But apparently female pigs are often placed near male pigs because this prompts fertility. Nature!

Discovery #5: Pigs really do scream under stress.


An article in the Iowa State University Animal Industry Report says, “pig vocalization, especially high frequency vocalizations, are directly associated with how dangerous a situation is perceived, and these vocalizations act as warning signals” to fellow pigs.

And the screams could spread! Horback studies pigs' "emotional contagion" — how pigs are affected by the emotional states of other pigs. She says that in a lab setting, pigs will mirror "the same happy body posture and tail-wagging" of a pig who's had a positive experience they have not had. The same goes with negative body posture. From a survival perspective, being empathetic would be an advantage, Horback said: "It makes sense for an animal to pick up on, why are you scared?"

Discovery #6: The bolt gun thing that the pigs get shot in the head with is real, but it probably wouldn't be used on a pig in the US.


“For pigs, stunning is done by electrocution or [carbon dioxide] — never captive bolt, as it is not a good method for stunning pigs due to skull configuration and brain placement within the skull,” said the aforementioned Jeremy N. Marchant-Forde, a scientist with the Livestock Behavior Research Unit at the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

In a chapter of The Welfare of Pigs, Marchant-Forde and his co-author, Ruth M. Marchant-Forde, explained that after the pigs are rendered unconscious, they are bled out. Ideally that starts within 15 seconds, before the pig starts regaining consciousness.

And now we all know more about pigs and how we kill them. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.