A Life Contained
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Brenda Shoss, KinshipCircle
July 2010

This pig was no inert mechanism of production. He was a unique individual, with a sense of humor.

pig gestation crates
Photo from: Farm Sanctuary

An automated hum defines daybreak inside a sunless barn. Grunts and squeals gradually emerge from narrow stalls arranged in corridors. Each row contains over 100 pigs. All snouts and hooves are aligned symmetrically in a scene of unpiglike uniformity.

One 600-pounder wobbles insecurely upon grated flooring that cuts into her sensitive hooves. Another, marked with shoulder sores and eye abrasions, rubs against metallic bars in a vain effort to turn around. With barely enough room to rise or recline, the sows spend unremitting 4-month pregnancy cycles in fixed positions.

Several pigs ready to give birth are transferred to farrowing crates, where they'll nurse piglets through metal slats for 3 weeks. Piglets are then moved to other cages to be fattened. At least 15% of the babies won't survive early separation. Sows return to gestation crates for re-impregnation. Each will yield 20 or more piglets a year.

In the U.S. roughly 100 million pigs are annually raised and slaughtered in factory farms. They are deprived of space, sunlight, straw, mudbaths or any feature pertinent to pigs. The National Pork Producer's Council recommends that crates be 2 feet wide, 7 feet long, and 3.3 feet high. "This extreme confinement allows a great many sows to be housed in an environmentally controlled situation, fed and cared for by a minimal and unskilled labor force, and maintained with minimal feed. Such a system allows maximal production efficiency," says Bernard Rollin, Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at Colorado State University. "Plainly, many of the needs of the animals are not met in austere confinement systems."

Pigs are gregarious individuals who thrive in the company of other pigs. In Rollin's study "Farm Animal Welfare: Social, Bioethical, and Research Issues," pigs in their natural habitat constructed shared nests and forged complex social bonds. Boxed and bored pigs cannot express these instinctive behaviors. Researchers M. Mendl, A.J. Zanella, and D.M. Broom revealed that pigs with no hope for release may deteriorate into a state of swine depression. Many resort to neurotic coping mechanisms known as stereotypies.

They "vacuum" chew the air, bob their heads, bite and lick pen bars, and nose-jab objects. In the study, "Farming beyond the ability for pigs to adapt," G. Van Putten suggested that such activities produce comfort chemicals (endorphins) to help an animal deal with a bleak environment. Unlike the pigs observed in sanctuaries, crated pigs display significant levels of aberration. By a sow's fourth pregnancy, she is the pig version of psychotic.

A lot of money is invested in studies to tell us that pigs simply want to be pigs. Rather than emulate the European Union's proposed ban on sow stalls, American agri-experts seek ways to suppress the unwanted behaviors they engender. To inhibit stress-related tail biting, each pig's tail is lopped off with no anesthesia. To identify piglets, notches are clipped out of the animals' ears. Males suffer mutilations and overcrowding until they're slaughtered at 6-months-old. Sows endure impregnation for 3 to 5 years, followed by nameless death.

Hogs and humans inside swine confinement buildings inhale dust, dander and noxious gases from the animals' feces and urine. Among surveyed workers, 60% were found to have respiratory difficulties. For pigs, physical distress is severe. One industry report speculates that 60% of U.S. herds have Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome. Grated floors, artificially induced growth rates and inactivity contribute to malformed muscle and bone. Arthritic pigs teeter on weak or crippled legs. The majority also suffer chronic urinary tract infections.

Some estimate that one-third to half of U.S. swine plants harbor salmonellosis. Forty to 70% of stall-housed hogs are contaminated with bratislava and up to 85% are exposed to parvovirus. Transmissible gastroenteritis (TGE) claims most newborns who are infected with this disease.

Amid this ambience of suffering and death, many employees view the animals as inanimate objects. Last August the director of a Seaboard, Inc. hog farm in Oklahoma incurred cruelty charges after a PETA undercover video showed workers bludgeoning pigs with a hammer and smashing piglets' heads against a cement floor. Earlier last year, PETA's investigative endeavors led to the conviction of 3 employees at a North Carolina farm. Among other atrocities, these workers had skinned and dismembered a fully conscious sow.

For the first time in U.S. history, a single state has launched a ballot initiative to ban inhumane hog confinement systems. If Floridian volunteers can gather the required signatures to qualify for the November 2002 ballot, voters will have a chance to outlaw gestation crates. Florida's unprecedented initiative could instigate state-by-state reforms for farmed animals.

Every summer I travel to Upstate New York to visit Farm Sanctuary, a non-profit haven for rescued victims of the food industry. On my last trip I stopped by the pig barn to bid farewell to a cluster of critters snuggled hide to hide on a bed of satiny hay. A few curious snouts scrutinized the ground in a trait called rooting. As I gazed over the canopy of pink backs and bellies, one pig raised his enormous head, looked into my eyes--and grinned.

I carry that goofy smile in my thoughts. This pig was no inert mechanism of production. He was a unique individual, with a sense of humor.

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