Pigs may not be as cuddly as kittens or puppies, but they suffer just as much. - James Cromwell, Babe
There are some 5.3 million pigs kept for meat in Australia, around 350,000 of whom are breeding sows. Since the 1970s, the number of Australian pig producers has declined by 94%, yet at the same time, pig meat output has grown by 130%. In large part this is due to the movement from smaller “family-type” farms, to giant intensive-confinement systems where each producer keeps large numbers of pigs in a restricted space.
95% of these animals will live out their short and miserable lives on one of Australia’s 2,000 plus intensive pig farms, glimpsing the sun only on their trip to the slaughterhouse. They are treated as machines whose only purpose is to produce ever greater quantities of pork, ham and bacon. To suggest that they may have a welfare and interests independent of this purpose is as laughable to their “owners” as the suggestion that a tractor, wheat thresher or any other piece of farm machinery may have such interests.
Nature of Pigs
"[Pigs] have the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly three-year-olds." - Professor Donald Broom of Cambridge University Veterinary School
Pigs get a bad press in our society. Think of the phrases “sweat like a pig”, “pig ignorant”, “making a pig of yourself”, living in a pigsty”, etc. Pigs are not furry or cuddly, we find it hard to understand their language, the popular media often depicts them as aggressive or scary. If we think of them at all, it’s as smelly, dirty, greedy and stupid creatures. The following facts may surprise you:
- Pigs are highly intelligent, thought by many researchers to be smarter than dogs. They can learn to respond to simple commands and are easily toilet trained
- Pigs are highly vocal and communicate constantly with each other. Over 20 separate vocalisations have been identified
- Pigs are affectionate and sociable animals who form strong bonds with family and other group members
- Pigs are naturally clean animals. They do not “sweat like pigs” and are in fact unable to perspire at all. They wallow in mud to keep themselves cool, deter flies, and prevent sunburn
- Pigs are extremely active by nature, and when allowed will spend up to 75% of the day rooting, foraging and exploring
- Pigs are not greedy and do not overeat, even when given access to unlimited food
- A pig’s snout contains as many tactile receptors as a human hand
- When offered the choice, pigs are able to indicate environmental temperature preferences
- The bond between a sow and her piglets is very strong. Sows will go to considerable effort to prepare a comfortable next for their young, and mother and piglets continue to live together in a close family group after weaning. Sows have been known to “sing” to their offspring.
- Pigs have an elaborate courtship ritual, including a song between males and females.
- Young pigs are extremely playful, enjoying playfighting, chasing, and throwing and catching objects
So, how do humans treat these sensitive, intelligent animals in the process of turning them into meat?
Around 75% of the breeding sows in Australia are live in single stalls for some part of their 16 week pregnancy, and 26% for their entire pregnancy. Sow stalls are made of metal bars and may measure as little as 60cm wide by 2 metres long. Literally, just large enough to squeeze the pregnant sow inside. She cannot turn around, stretch, take more than one step forward or backwards. Larger sows may be unable to lie down without their legs and teats protruding into the next stall. The floors of the stall are hard concrete or metal slats. No bedding is used, so as to reduce costs to the producer.
Think this sounds nasty? It gets worse. Shortly before giving birth, the sow is moved to a device euphemistically known as a “farrowing crate”, where she will live until the piglets are 3-4 weeks old. To anyone with an ounce of feeling it might be more realistically thought of as a torture chamber. The farrowing crate is a pitiful 50cm wide, allowing almost no movement by the sow, and is designed so that she must suckle her piglets through metal bars encircling her body. She gives birth on the bare floor, unable to nurture or interact with her young because of the restrictive bars. Her deeply rooted instincts to build a nest, give birth in privacy, watch over, protect and bond with her piglets, are ignored just as surely as is every other aspect of her welfare. Young pigs wean naturally at the age of three months, but on the factory farm they are abruptly removed at 3-4 weeks. The sow is returned to the sow stall and impregnated again, to begin the whole miserable cycle once more.
Sows confined to stalls and farrowing crates may spend up to 50% of their time in stereotypic behaviour such as bar biting and head weaving. Up to 90% exhibit behaviours which in a human could be diagnosed as signs of clinical depression, including severe listlessness, apathy, glazed eyes and lack of responsiveness. Physical health fares no better. Confined sows suffer from foot and joint injuries due to the hard floors, weakened bones and muscles from lack of exercise, painful pressure sores from being forced to stand or lie in one position for long periods, and long-term pain from infected cuts and abrasions. Urinary infections are common, both because of the lack of constant access to fresh water and the resulting buildup of bacteria in the urinary tract, and because sows often have no choice but to sit or lie in their own faeces. Sows are usually fed a highly concentrated, grain based diet once or twice a day. This provides no bulk roughage, and is estimated to be around 60% of what these animals would eat in a natural environment. It leaves them constantly hungry and frequently suffering from ulcers and digestive disorders.
Pig producers claim that sows must be kept closely confined because they become aggressive towards one another during pregnancy, leading to injuries, miscarriages and deaths. In truth, confinement is the cause of aggression, not the solution to it. Pigs signal submission by withdrawing from a potentially aggressive situation. When they are unable to withdraw, fights are more likely to break out, just as they do when humans are forced to live in overly crowded conditions. Like most other animals, the sow prefers to give birth in a secluded place where she can protect her piglets. It’s hardly surprising that, when prevented from doing so, she will react aggressively to perceived threats to her babies. Close confinement reduces building and staffing costs for producers, and that is the real reason why they defend it so stridently.
A breeding sow is a piglet producing machine. Her value lies in the number of young she can produce and how quickly she can be re-impregnated following the removal of each litter. Her lifespan, for what it’s worth, depends on how long her body can stand up to the rigours of constant pregnancy, confinement and deprivation. It is unsurprising that approximately 61% of sows must be “replaced” each year, after an average of just 2 years and 4 litters in the intensive breeding system. Many more die from disease or injury, or are “culled” as a result of failure to become pregnant. In their natural environment, pigs can live 10-12 years in good health.
In the first few days of their lives, piglets undergo a series of mutilations without anaesthetic, which would be called torture and count as a case for prosecution if done to a cat or dog. Their tails are cut off, a procedure so painful that it commonly results in screaming, vomiting and extreme trembling, and may lead to the formation of neuromas which can result in long-term, chronic pain. Their teeth are clipped close to the gum. If you’ve ever had a bad toothache or even a filling without anaesthetic, then you have some idea of the agonising pain caused by exposed dental nerves. An industry website advises holding a finger across the animal’s trachea to suppress screaming while this procedure is being carried out yet oddly enough, the same website says that the procedure is “well tolerated” by piglets. Anyone with an ounce of common sense can judge for themselves. On top of this, piglets have their ears notched and the males may be castrated all without any pain relief.
After their premature and traumatic separation from their mother, and still well below natural weaning age, piglets are removed to barren wire cages where they will live out the rest of their short lives being fattened for the table. Several rapidly growing young animals will be crammed into each cage, and cages may be stacked in two or three tiers. From here on, piglets lose even their species identity for the next few weeks they will be known as “growers”, and from thereafter until their deaths, as “finishers’. They will often be raised in semi-darkness, with little opportunity for movement and none at all for normal play or social interaction.
After 24-27 weeks of this life, which is barely worthy of being called a life, these babies are sent to slaughter. They have never run, played, wallowed, felt the sun on their backs, or engaged their active and intelligent minds in anything more strenuous than chewing on the bars of their cages. At the slaughterhouse, amidst the stench of blood and fear, they will be hung upside down by one leg, and be “bled out” via a chest incision. Pigs are commonly stunned before slaughter through the use of electrified tongs or carbon dioxide gas, both of which may cause pain and terror in their own right (see http://www.alv.org.au/issues/slaughterhouses.php) and may be ineffective in keeping the animal unconscious for the necessary length of time. Numerous undercover investigations have recorded video footage of fully conscious pigs screaming and writhing in agony as they are butchered alive.
Think about it. A whole new life, going through all the amazing stages of conception and growth, finally emerging into the world as a unique individual only to languish in a darkened cage, be electrocuted, butchered and dismembered, and end up as our breakfast bacon, without ever getting past babyhood. Then multiply this by several million and consider what it says about our society.
“Before they reach their end, the pigs get a shower. Water sprays from every angle to wash the farm off them. Then they begin to feel crowded. The pen narrows like a funnel' the drivers behind urge the pigs forward, until one at a time they climb onto the moving ramp... Now they scream, never having been on such a ramp, smelling the smells they smell ahead. It was a frightening experience, seeing their fear, seeing so many of them go by, it had to remind me of things no one wants to be reminded of anymore, all mobs, all death marches, all mass murders and executions ..." - Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer prize winning author”
The legal situation
Several European Union countries have already banned sow stalls on welfare grounds. Bans have been in place in Sweden since 1994 and the UK since 1999, and are coming into force in a number of other countries. Australia has yet to follow suit. The intensive farming of pigs, including the use of sow stalls and farrowing crates, remains legal in all Australian states and territories.
The industry will argue that pig welfare is adequately addressed by the Australian Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals Pigs, and by the various Prevention of Cruelty to Animals acts. Common sense suggests that any code which allows the various practices described above, is not defining “welfare” in the way that most of us would think of it. In fact, the code simply outlines the most efficient way of exploiting pigs so as to maximise profits by getting the largest possible number of live animals to market. The pig’s interests are considered only insofar as they coincide with the producer’s; it does not make economic sense to allow too many animals to die. Confinement, boredom, frustration, social isolation, hunger and mutilations usually do not kill, so they are allowable under the code. In most Australian states the code is a guide only and is not legally enforceable.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Acts are enforceable and if you keep a dog or cat in a small cage where she can’t turn around then you might reasonably expect a slap on the wrist. If however you are a pig producer and keep hundreds or thousands of sows in cages, then you are exempt from the provisions of the Acts. In a stunning example of Orwellian doublespeak, cruelty is not cruelty if it is “necessary” for the profitable conduct of business.
A Roy Morgan poll in 2000 revealed that 54% of Australians disagreed with keeping pigs confined in cages. It is likely that the number is even greater now, given the high profile campaigns undertaken by a number of animal welfare groups over the past seven years. Yet the practice continues because there is a disparity between what people say and what they do. For most of us, convenience and low prices win out over the occasional twinge of guilt.
Yet even if pigs were removed from their cages, would it then be ok to eat them? Some producers in Australia and elsewhere keep pigs in group housing or outdoor straw yards or paddocks. These pigs are certainly spared the torment of close confinement and are allowed to exercise some natural behaviours, but it is important to keep a few facts in mind:
- “Free-range” pigs will still undergo many or all of the mutilations without anaesthesia as described above
- They will still suffer the terror and pain of the slaughterhouse and will live only a small fraction of their natural lifespan
- The increased space required to meet humanity’s insatiable demand for pig products through free-range farming, will almost inevitably be gained at the expense of the natural environment and the habitats of free-living animals
The only way to stop the horrific abuse of pigs and other animals is to stop eating their flesh. Contact ALV to learn more about how you can have a delicious and healthy diet without animal products.
"My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt." - Anna Sewell (Author of "Black Beauty"; 1820-1878