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Pigs are intelligent, inquisitive beings who lead complex social lives, bond and communicate with one another, are known to dream, and learn through trial and error. They have unique personalities and experience a wide range of emotions. They recognize their own names and will come when called - if they like you. They're also one of the most abused animals on the planet.

As people around the world prepare to ring in the Year of the Pig, let's take a moment to appreciate these often misunderstood animals and consider one easy way to help make their lives better.

When they're in their natural homes - not confined to prisonlike warehouses before being turned into bacon everything - pigs make nests, bask in the sun, bathe in water or mud to keep cool, and often sleep in "pig piles," like dogs.

They show the ability to empathize with other pigs, whether they're happy or distressed.

They can recognize themselves in the mirror and can also use mirrors to find food that has been hidden.

Like humans, they have temperature preferences and, if given the opportunity, can learn to turn on the heat in a cold barn and turn it off again when they get too warm.

Pigs are also loyal, and there are many stories about them saving lives. A pig named Priscilla - known for her "prissy, very independent attitude" - saved a young boy from drowning, while Spammy led firefighters to a burning shed in order to save her calf friend Spot. LuLu squeezed through a small doggie door, pushed open a gate and found help for her human companion, who had collapsed from a heart attack. (Bear, the family's dog, just barked.)

Yet many people still think of pigs as little more than bacon bits and pork chops - if they think of them at all - and turn a blind eye to the cruelty and unmitigated suffering that occur in the meat industry. If you eat pigs , the following is just a taste of what you're supporting:

Most mother pigs are squeezed into metal stalls so small that they can't even turn around, and many develop painful ulcers on their shoulders from the constant pressure of lying, nearly immobile, on the hard slatted floor. Their piglets are castrated without any anesthetics or other pain relief.

A PETA investigation into a leading pig breeding facility found lame and injured pigs left to languish without any apparent veterinary care. 

Another investigation, at a self-described "humane" pig farm, revealed that obviously sick and injured pigs languished for days or even weeks. One pig ran a fever intermittently for about a month before finally being killed. 

Pigs who survive the filthy conditions and intensive confinement of today's farms are sent to slaughter - usually when they're about 6 months old.

Most of us can't stomach the idea of treating dogs so horrifically. Abusing smart, sensitive pigs in this manner should be just as unacceptable. There's a whole world of vegan foods to choose from, so showing kindness to pigs by leaving them off our plates is easier than ever. The Year of the Pig would be a great time to start.

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Paula Moore is a senior writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.

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