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Sophie Brajon, ethologist, working on enhancing pig farming systems

- Published on 27/09/21

Sophie Brajon is a French ethologist who is beginning in October the PIGORAMA project at Agrocampus Ouest, in the PEGASE lab. She will be under the supervision of Céline Tallet (INRAe) and Vanessa Lollivier (Agrocampus Ouest).

[BIENVENÜE team] Hello Sophie, could you tell us more about you and your career?

Sophie Brajon: I have a background in ethology because I was first interested in the animal behaviour as the whole. Then, I focused my interest for animal well-being, which involved a shift to agricultural studies. I am working now on cognition and emotions of farm animals. My thesis, which I realized in Canada, was dedicated to the perception of humans by piglets and the human-piglet relation.

How was born the PIGORAMA project?

After achieving my thesis, I worked on the issue of enhancing production systems, on different subjects, but always centered around the animal, its well-being, its expectations and its needs. Now, I am wondering about the situation of the farmer: how can we develop a system that fits the needs of the animals but also the ones of the farmers? This question is the beginning of the PIGORAMA project.

This project will be conducted with a participatory approach, which will allow exchanges with the industrial sector up to the consumer. I will conduct interviews with French farmers using farming systems with outdoor access for the animals. My project is also linked to LIT Ouesterel (an association of the West of France bringing together various actors around the improvement of the health and well-being of farm animals). I am a member of this association. I might share my results in this context.

The PIGORAMA project is part of a larger collaboration…

It is part of a larger research project – the PANORAMA project – working on alternative farming systems for the future. I am focusing on the animal well-being and farmers’ expectations, but there are project on nutrition, physiology or economics. This is a fruitful working environment, with researchers, technical staff, farmers…. Where we are all sharing the same objective: develop an alternative farming system with outdoor access for animals.

Our ambition is not to develop the perfect, idealised system, but a common one that is adapted for the many. Compromise will be necessary: we need to accommodate animal well-being, farmer well-being, feasibility, consumers’ expectations. We want to reach the wider population, with affordable prices and for the farmers pleasant working conditions.

What does motivate you in your research?

I appreciate being able to do basic research, on very important notions such as emotions or animal adaptation to different situations. Farming is a challenge for the animal who need to adapt constantly. It is essential to understand its way of perceiving things, its expectations and its needs to give to the animal the means of living pleasantly its life in this environment.

I also like to do applied research. What do we do of new knowledge? I seek to give tools to farmers.

To conduct your research on farmers’ expectations and perceptions, you will collaborate with Véronique van Tilbeurgh, professor of sociology at Université de Rennes 2…

The first part of my project is based on  interviews with farmers using farming systems with outdoor access for the animals (from the basic courtyard to the open air). Véronique van Tilbeurgh will help me to to this, as it is a new methodology for me. I need to learn how to do surveys, exchange and build a climate of confidence.

Why did you choose Brittany?

After ten years abroad, I was looking to come back to France for many personal and professional reasons. Research on animal well-being is ahead of time in Europe and in France. Of course, there is still a long way to go, but it is motivating to work in a society conscious of this issue. Brittany being an important region for pig farming, it is a good research field.

Moreover, the lab I am joining, UMR PEGASE, is a leading lab in the development of sustainable agricultural systems. I am totally aligned with its approach of “making small steps for the wider number of production systems”, in order to develop mainstream production systems towards sustainable systems in collaboration with the industrial actors and citizens.

In a pragmatic way, there is also the question of having the opportunity. My previous successful collaboration with Céline Tallet, who I met during my thesis, was a facilitator and convinced me to work again with her and her team. Developing my network is a important aspect in my career, which, beyond its necessity to make science progress, allows me to be informed of work opportunities.

Do you wish to share a resource or a work related to your research thematics to everyone?

For every curious mind, child or adult, I strongly recommend the (French only) comics “Les cerveaux de la ferme : au coeur des émotions et perceptions animales” by the scientific reported Sébastien Moro and the illustrator Layla Benabid. This very comprehensive, very accurate book, based on a meticulous bibliographical work, will radicaly change your perception of farm animals. I made my parents read this book and they were very enthusiastic about it. Since then, they are paying more attention to animals around them (farm animals or not) and don’t stop talking about this question with me! The YouTube channel of Sébastien Moro, “Cervelle d’oiseau”, is really great for everyone interested in animal intelligence and cognition.

Applied ethology gained popularity in the wider audience thanks to the works of Temple Grandin. Her findings about animal perception have increased knowledge about animal well-being and have led to substantial changes in farming, transport and industrial slaughter methods. Diagnosed with autism, she also contributed to a better understanding of this handicap to the wider public.  I recommend to everyone her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, where she makes parallels between perception of the animals with the ones of autistic people, such as on environment sensibility.

For young children, I recommend online quizzes (in French) created by INRAe on pigs and chicken lives. The first step to protect the other is to know the other.

You can follow Sophie on twitter.

photo: courtesy of Sophie Brajon

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