How this little piggy got to market
Imagine being trapped in an elevator that was so crowded that turning around or moving more than a few inches in any direction was impossible?
There would be no calling for help. You are to be confined to that tiny space for...112 days.
Such is the life of a pregnant pig housed in a steel gestation crate measuring 2.3 feet wide by 6.9 feet long, or barely larger than the animal itself. Despite progress in phasing out gestation crates, an estimated 60% to 80% of the 5.8 million gestating sows in the United States might still be confined in this manner.
"These animals have committed no crime, yet they're treated worse than even the most violent criminals would be treated," wrote Martha Stewart in an open letter to the New Jersey legislature. "No prisoner in our state — or country, for that matter — is kept in a cage so small he can't turn around for months on end. This is torture, and we shouldn't permit it to be inflicted on anyone, especially animals who have done nothing to deserve such cruel treatment."
Pregnant pigs spend about 80% of their short lives in gestation crates. The crates — or stalls, as they are euphemistically called — are aligned alongside one other in long rows, with hundreds or even thousands of pigs housed in a single shed.
One study found that in a natural environment, pigs turn around up to 200 times a day. But when unable to move or socialize, some pigs bite or slam their heads into the metal crate bars, others develop painful sores, still others broken limbs.
"In my opinion, the practice of keeping sows in gestation crates for most of their pregnancy is one of the cruelest forms of confinement devised by humandkind," wrote Ian Duncan, emeritus chair in animal welfare at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
Donald M. Broom, professor of animal welfare in the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, agrees with Duncan. "...the close confinement of sows in stalls or tethers is one of the most extreme examples of cruelty to an animal," he wrote. "It continues throughout much of life and is much worse than severely beating an animal or most laboratory experiments."
Sows in gestation crates“live” above their manure, which drop through slats in the concrete floor, emitting fetid odors and poisonous gases (ammonia and hydrogen sulfite) that require large fans to prevent asphyxiation. If those fans fail, pigs can suffocate from breathing their own feces.
In the mid-1980s, a strong thunderstorm tore through a Midwest pig farm, knocking out power. Two hundred pigs were asphyxiated. "Raising pigs like that was the worst mistake I ever made," said the farmer.
It's not only the animals that are at risk.
In July 2015, the Des Moines Register reported that "a father and his son who were so close that they were 'like glue' were killed...by noxious fumes from a northwest Iowa hog manure pit — the second father and son in the Midwest to die of poisonous manure pit gases this month."
Author and columnist Barry Estabrook spent several years studying pig farming for his book "Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat." In an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air," Estabrook recalled walking into a barn where thousands of pigs were severely confined.
"It's like being physically slapped in the face, and at the same time, being smothered," he said. "It hits you with a force. You have trouble breathing. Your stomach turns. It's the odor of all that excrement, it's the odor of the dead pigs, and it's the odor of...this confined space. It's like nothing I've ever smelled. It gives new meaning to putrid..."
In his essay “The End of Animal Husbandry,” Bernard E. Rollin, a veterinary ethicist at Colorado State University, recalled receiving the following letter from a veterinarian who had the unenviable job of inspecting swine operations at an industrial mega-farm:
"You [as a veterinarian] are called to a 5,000-sow farrow-to-finish swine operation to examine a problem with vaginal discharge in sows. There are three full-time employees and one manager overseeing approximately 5,000 animals. As you examine several sows in the crated gestation unit, you notice one with a hind leg at an unusual angle and inquire about her status. You are told ‘She broke her leg yesterday and she’s due to farrow next week. We’ll let her farrow in here and them we’ll shoot her and foster her pigs.’ Is it ethically correct to leave the sow with a broken leg for one week while you await her farrowing?"
- The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories." The Foundation for Deep Ecology, 2010.
Pigs are among the most intelligent and social of all animals; some studies suggest they are more intelligent and pack-oriented than dogs, and as smart as a three-year old child. This video from Farm Sanctuary is evidence of that intelligence...
According to Estabrook, pigs can be taught to play computer games, recognize themselves in a mirror, and anticipate how other pigs will react. "I knew pigs were smart," Estabrook told Dave Davies on NPR, "but I had no idea how smart they were until I got [into] the research."
That made something else Estabrook found especially heart-breaking.
"Of all the things I saw, the thing that hit me the hardest, twisted my guts the hardest, was when I walked into a low, dark barn in Iowa and in that barn there were 1,500 sows, pregnant female pigs, and they were all in individual cages that were too small to hold them," he told Davies. "...You take these intelligent, inquisitive, emotional creatures and confine them to a lifetime — it would be like being confined to a coffin for a lifetime or worse than your dog being confined to its travel case for a lifetime. But that's the way 80 percent of the sows in this country live their entire life."
Estabrook called such treatment "torture."
View this 60-second video, produced by Mercy for Animals, and see if you agree: