Hog Heaven. (Preaching to Swine Farmers)

Article excerpt

AS WE HURTLED toward Shakespeare, Ontario, I felt a familiar cold visceral tightness and fear. "Shakespeare," I brooded. "I hope the name isn't an omen. `Shakespeare' suggests tragedy. Or worse, comedy."

I was scheduled to give a keynote speech on ethics and animal welfare to the swine producers of Ontario. Tim Blackwell, the chief swine veterinarian for Ontario, had asked me to speak, and I could not say no to him. Not only was he the editor of my ethics column in the Canadian Veterinary Journal, a magazine that he had built into a stunning success. He was a tireless fighter for animal well-being. Fifteen years earlier he had led a large campaign to produce "humane" pork. He was also a cherished friend and, at six-foot-six, a charismatic and benign Cuchulain.

While I had given over 300 lectures to all kinds of audiences, I had never spoken to pig producers. I had known similar fear the first time I spoke to western cattle ranchers, but that fear vanished when I realized that virtually all of them were solid believers in the ethic of animal husbandry and care. To them, ranching was more a way of life than a way of making a living. Consequently, they cared deeply about how they managed an animal, even if it meant losing money or sleep treating a sick creature. "If I had to raise animals the way the pig people do, I'd get the hell out of the business," the president of the Colorado Cattleman's Association told an agriculture audience.

But the group I was about to address were the pig people, those converted to high-confinement, highly intensive, highly capitalized, highly industrialized production methods that replaced husbandry with industry, and traditional agricultural values with an emphasis on efficiency and productivity. This had occurred in the '70s, so it seemed that a whole generation of swine farmers had failed to absorb the ancient biblical agricultural values of animal care and stewardship.

Most small pig producers had been relentlessly eliminated by competition from large corporate entities (up to 60,000 sows per operation) that were run by accountants and executives who viewed their primary obligation as being to investors, not to animals. The few small producers who remained, including those I was going to address, had converted to confinement. If an animal got sick it was killed, often with a blow to the head, because it was not worth treating just one animal. The confinement system destroyed small rural communities of independent farmers, polluted land and water, ignored individual animal welfare for the sake of the operations as a whole. These small Ontario producers were also hanging by a thread economically, and had limited money to pay off loans on expensive, high-confinement buildings.

The worst thing about confinement production is that the animals never see the light of day until they are shipped to slaughter at roughly six months of age. The sows are breeding machines. From the time they are bred to a boar until they give birth (at three months, three weeks, three days), these 600-pound animals are totally confined in pens or "gestation crates" with recommended dimensions of seven feet long by two-and-a-half feet wide by three feet high. (Sometimes the producers make the crates narrower, to squeeze more of them into a building.) The animals stand on slotted concrete, through which their waste drops to catch pens. The concrete creates foot and leg problems in animals whose feet have evolved for soft pasture. When the sows are ready to farrow (give birth), they are moved to a farrowing crate, which differs from the gestation crate only in having "creep rails" for the piglets to crawl under to escape being crushed by the sow.

In many cases, the crates are too small for the sow to lie fully stretched, so she lies at an angle. She cannot turn around or groom herself. Although she is a social animal, she cannot interact. She is by nature a clean animal, but she cannot build her nest on a hillside so that excrement rolls away. …