Open the cage

Farm animals like pigs deserve the same humane treatment we afford to cats and dogs.
By
  • Paul Shapiro
September 28, 2011

Imagine: A man forces his dog to live permanently in a crate year after year — 24/7. The crate is barely larger than Fido’s body; he can’t even turn around. Unable to exercise his most basic natural behaviors, Fido stares through the same bars inches from his face hour after hour, year after year.

It would be hard to imagine a more torturous fate for an animal that thrives on exploring, running and playing with others. Under normal animal protection laws, this man would rightly be charged with a criminal offense.

Now imagine that the situation involved an equally intelligent and social animal, but instead of just one, there were millions of them locked individually in crates so small they could barely move an inch for nearly every moment of their lives. Unfortunately, the latter is a thriving practice that many of us unwittingly support with our consumer dollars. This is the reality for millions of pigs in the pork industry.

Of course, pigs are just as sensitive as dogs, and many researchers say pigs are even smarter than our canine friends. Yet on today’s factory farms, we often mistreat pigs — and other farm animals — in ways we’d never dream of treating the dogs and cats we welcome into our homes.

While most pigs used for pork production endure bleakly barren conditions, the sows who are used for breeding arguably suffer the worst. Most young pigs are sent to slaughter before they are six months of age, but millions of sows are kept for three to four years to produce litter after litter of pigs. Most of these sows spend the duration of their pregnancy confined in gestation crates only two feet wide, preventing these naturally social, intelligent and active animals from turning around, let alone walking, for months on end.

All states recognizes that animals such as dogs and cats deserve protection from cruel treatment, but when it comes to the millions of equally sensitive and intelligent animals on farms, most states offer nearly no protection. Farm animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin puts it bluntly: “Gestation crates for pigs are a real problem ... basically, you’re asking a sow to live in an airline seat ... I think it’s something that needs to be phased out.”

It’s not only common sense that says such confinement is wrong. There’s an abundance of scientific evidence pointing to the same conclusion. For example, the issue was extensively studied for two and a half years by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, an independent panel.

The commissioners reviewed the vast array of scientific literature on the topic and unanimously concluded that gestation crates and other extreme confinement practices — such as keeping veal calves locked in tiny crates — should be phased out.

Fortunately, there’s a surging wave of opposition to this abuse. Eight states have now enacted laws to phase out gestation crate confinement of pigs, as has the entire European Union. Numerous major food retailers have urged their pork suppliers to move away from such confinement. Agribusiness giant Cargill has already moved half of its entire sow herd out of gestation crates and into more humane group housing systems that allow pigs to socialize and move more freely.

Farm animals are completely at our mercy, yet too often we abuse them without the slightest modicum of mercy. It seems probable that as more standard agribusiness practices — like gestation crate confinement — are questioned and subsequently phased out, future generations may look back in disbelief at the ways in which we so routinely abused animals raised for food. As a society that exhibits so much compassion for some groups of animals, one wonders just how long it will take to build a more humane society that’s more respectful of all animals.

 

Paul Shapiro is the senior director of farm animal protection for The Humane Society of the United States. He will be giving a speech at 4 p.m. on Oct. 1 in the Mississippi Room of Coffman Union. Please send comments to letters@mndaily.com.

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