Pigs in crates

In my previous column, I discussed the change from husbandry-based animal agriculture, which stresses the proper care of animals as a way of life for farmers, to modern industrial agriculture, which instead values efficiency and productivity, and how this change has negatively affected farm animal welfare. In my opinion, perhaps the worst example of abuse that has arisen out of the industrialization of animal agriculture is the sow stall, or gestation crate, in which a breeding sow, or female pig, is confined for her entire productive life. In other words, this thinking, breathing, living animal is treated by modern production farming practices as if she were nothing more than a can of soup.

Suffering: Is This a Viable Menu Option?

According to standards set by the National Pork Producers, the recommended dimensions of these steel cages are 3 feet high by 2 feet wide by 7 feet long. These crates are used to house a mother pig who may weigh more than 600 pounds. The pig may in some cases be forced by her length to always lie in a constantly arched posture. I have been in dozens of these barns and am always horrified by the sight of these animals. The pigs cannot turn around, shift position or, in some cases, even stand up without hitting the top bars of the cage. As a result, these animals show deviant and heartbreaking behavior. A few years ago, I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which was a group of experts who were charged with researching and writing a critical report about intensive, industrial farm animal production. When this group toured such a facility, half of us left the sow barn moved to tears.

What Would Pigs Tell Us?

Recently, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians commented on animal welfare activists' successes in persuading chain restaurants and groceries not to buy pork from such operations by asking a rhetorical question: "How do we know the sows want to turn around; do they tell us?" In fact, both science and common sense tell us they do. Sows released from crates are extremely reluctant to return, and years of research on sow behavior conducted in an open-space "pig park" at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have shown that sows under natural conditions will cover more than a mile a day free foraging. They will also trade off piglet care with other sows while doing so and will meticulously build a nest on a hillside where waste material runs off. In other words, they do not like to lie immobile all day in filth. But in current production farming practices, they are forced to lie in small sow stalls on slatted concrete floors in their own excrement above a waste lagoon that emits noxious gases. I don’t think anyone could imagine a more distressing life for a living creature. And whether you are a pet owner or a farmer, what animal do you know who likes to spend his entire life crated in a claustrophobic space in which he can’t stand, back up or move?

Compassion: It Trumps Science

In 2008, the American Veterinary Medical Association, in the face of ever-increasing societal concern about gestation crates, convened a committee to examine sow housing and concluded that "there is no scientific basis" for preferring any form of sow housing to any other. What the committee and the industry in general failed to understand is that society is not operating from a scientific basis, but rather an ethical one. If people were asking how to raise sows in cages, science would be highly relevant in order to determine optimal temperature, diet, etc. But that is not what society was asking the veterinary medical establishment. What society was asking is should we raise sows in highly restrictive, impoverished environments? That is a question to which science has no response.

While the rest of the world — Europe, Australia, New Zealand — moves to eliminate gestation crates, our country’s veterinary medical establishment — through the AVMA — steadfastly defends them. Not only is their position ill-considered, it makes a mockery of a veterinary role in animal welfare.