We call them “The Masters.” The articles trace their paths from childhood to their current careers. Childhood memories are sometimes hazy, often selective. Peer and parental support are motivating, often leaving just enough room for mistakes required to gain knowledge. High school and college memories are fond and sprinkled with risk-taking and goal-setting. Hard work and dedication are common denominators.
I have enjoyed doing numerous Masters interviews over the years — and having read and edited them all — I can say they're my favorite stories.
The first week of May I received the sad news that 98-year-old Willard Waldo had passed away. I had the privilege of interviewing Willard for a Master's article when he was the ripe young age of 96, and I can tell you it was filled with wit and wisdom.
One of the true pioneers of performance testing, Willard led the charge for leaner hogs by inviting the area Extension agent to probe the backfat on the entire herd — the first purebred breeder to do so — to help guide his performance-based selection program.
Willard served in the Nebraska Senate for three terms and counted a “Hogs Are Beautiful” poster, signed by many of his colleagues, as a prized possession.
Less than a week earlier, the global pork industry lost another true friend, Stan Curtis. Stan was recognized as a Master in 2006.
I have known Stan Curtis for about 35 years, and I'm pretty sure I have not met anyone with greater passion for pigs or the people who work with them.
Stan was an animal ethologist. His passion was the scientific study of animal behavior. He wrote dozens of scientific papers, gave hundreds of speeches, wrote a book, and mentored many graduate students who will carry on his work.
In the '80s and '90s, Stan and his students at the University of Illinois did yeoman's work, studying nursery, grow-finish and farrowing crate feeder designs. And, he was particularly passionate about a modified gestation stall design that would give sows the option to turnaround whenever they wanted to. A couple of years ago, he felt the time was right to revisit the turnaround design and suggested that it might be the answer to sow gestation housing challenges being raised today (See “Turnaround Stall Worth a Second Look,” National Hog Farmer, March 15, 2009).
My Favorite Stan Story
I interviewed Stan Curtis several times over the years. Sometimes we would just sit and talk about pig behavior, what he was learning, about his students and their work.
My favorite story with Stan dates back to 1997. While attending the American Society of Animal Science annual meeting, I spotted Stan at the top of an escalator. I waved. He waved. Then, he shouted down: “Dale, stay there, I have to tell you what we've done.”
He arrived with sparkling eyes and his generous grin, proclaiming: “Our pigs have learned to play video games!”
Coming from anyone else, my response probably would have been: “yea, right!”
But Stan was an innovator. He went on to explain a project he and his students at Penn State were doing to test pigs' mental capabilities. This, I had to see for myself, so on my next trip out east, I dropped in for a firsthand look.
They were conducting cognitive studies on pigs using a specially-designed work station equipped with a computer screen, a modified joystick, and a treat chute that delivered crumpets into a stainless steel bowl.
The subjects of the trial — Hamlet and Omelet — had learned to move a small ball to a specific spot on the screen using the joystick. When done successfully, a treat dropped into the stainless steel bowl.
Clearly, Hamlet and Omelet were engaged. They played with enthusiasm, but eventually got bored (or exhausted) after 30-40 minutes, when they'd take a quick drink of water, then crash back in their home pen. It was pretty remarkable.
The more Stan studied pigs, the more he was convinced that pig welfare, which he preferred to call “state of being,” could be measured by growth rate or reproductive performance. This he called the “performance axiom,” and he coined the term that he believed was the best indicator of a pig's state of being.
For more than 40 years, my friend Stan worked hard and persistently to formulate science-based responses to the orchestrated criticism of farm animal welfare. If there was a meeting, conference, seminar or workshop pertaining to animal well-being, it was a pretty good bet that Stan was in the mix. I will miss my friend.