Pigs Suffer On Small Farms, Too

» March 29th, 2014

*A version of this piece was written for the Dodo which, if you’re not reading, I hope you will start doing do. 

In October 2013, the animal protection organization Mercy for Animals released hidden-camera footage taken on a big Minnesota pig farm that supplies cheap pork to Walmart. The video captured piglets being whacked to the ground headfirst, workers castrating pigs and docking their tails without anesthesia, and sows crammed into gestation crates so small they couldn’t turn around, among other atrocities. For consumers concerned about how animals are treated in contemporary agriculture, these macabre scenes offer further proof that it’s impossible to care about animal welfare and eat conventionally produced meat.

Revolting as these scenes were, the underground footage dished up old news. Exposes of animal abuse on factory farms have been invading the public’s comfort zone since the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975. But, for all the rhetorical outrage that ensues, the collective response among conscientious consumers has not been a significant transition to veganism. Instead, consumers have generally chosen to continue eating animals.

The only difference is that, having rightly demonized factory farming, they now source their meat from small, non-industrial farms—operations promoted as more welfare oriented and ecologically viable. This imperative has become a motivating tenet of the emerging “foodie” movement, generating considerable enthusiasm among leading food writers while even enjoying an added dose of hipster cred.

The underlying motivation (or at least one underlying motivation) to make this switch is certainly a noble one—namely, an interest in improving living conditions for farm animals. But the decision to support nonindustrial alternatives is, for all its popularity, rooted in an unexamined assumption. That is, there’s an untested belief that if an operation is not a factory farm then, by virtue of that nonindustrial status, it offers a meaningful alternative to the industrialized status quo. But what if this basic assumption is wrong? What if small animal farms hide large problems? What if animal agriculture, by its nature, cannot be “humane” in a way that would honor the meaning of the word?

Before exploring these questions, it’s necessary to consider the moral implications involved when discussing the human-pig relationship. A sentient animal is a sentient animal. of course. Farm-dwelling critters experience and understand suffering and, as a result, are deserving of moral consideration. But I have a thing for pigs.

Porcine sentience is rooted in an exceptional level of nonhuman intelligence. This intelligence is reflected in pigs’ everyday behavior. “They get scared and then have trouble getting over it,” said the University of Bristol’s Susan Held, who studies the emotional lives of swine. “They can learn something on the first try and then it’s difficult for them to unlearn it,” she added. Her findings have bubbled into the mainstream media. “They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known,” NBC news recently said of pigs. All farm animals are somewhat cognizant of harm being done to them. But there’s a case to be made that pigs are especially sensitive to the emotional suffering they endure on the rough road to becoming bacon.

So, for those committed to knowing where their food comes from, for those who want an authentic “farm to fork” experience, it’s critical to understand exactly how the reality of life on a small pig farm can quickly run counter to the virtuous qualities we’ve naively entrusted it to embody.

It’s often noted that pigs raised on pasture don’t have their tails docked. This cruel practice pricked the conscience of Michael Pollan when he was researching “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Visiting a free-range farm where pigs were comfortably cavorting as pigs, Pollan admitted that he “couldn’t look at their tails (which were intact) . . . without thinking about the fate of pigtails in industrial hog production.” Nice sentiment. But Pollan failed to note something critical: on the free-range farms he so admired, a more consequential form of mutilation is commonplace. Pigs are affixed with septum rings.

The reason for ringing a pig’s nose is simple enough. Left to their own devices, pigs will shred the landscape. In Animal Husbandry Regained (2013), John F. Webster explained that “There is no doubt that sows . . . will reduce any pasture to the status of a badly ploughed field.” As a result, farmers who talk a big game about allowing pigs to be pigs interrupt the free-range fantasy with septum rings.

The welfare implications of this procedure shouldn’t be downplayed. Not only does nose ringing cause temporary pain; it condemns the pig to a lifetime of severe discomfort. Whenever she roots, which is constantly, her nose gets hit with a sharp sting. One farmer, writing on the Free Range Pork Farmer’s Association website, explained that, “a farmer will put (pierce) their snout with a copper ring . . . right in the tender end of their nose, so when they are tempted to root, they bump that ring- causing shooting pain.” Webster notes how “denial of foraging behavior is profoundly frustrating” for pigs. At least tail docking on factory farms only causes temporary pain.

If the idea of mutilating a pig’s snout creates a sense of discomfort, imagine castration without anesthesia. Joni Ernst has. Ernst, a Republican senatorial candidate from Iowa, currently appears on a television advertisement bragging about castrating hogs on the farm where she grew up. This prerequisite for political success, she claims, will enable her to “cut” budgets in DC. Never have the genitals of a farm animal been so politically persuasive.

Whatever the politics of Beau Ramsburg, owner of Rettland Farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he shares Ernst’s enthusiasm for hog emasculation. He explains, “castration is an absolute necessity for all male pigs, regardless of production system or philosophy.” The reason is due to “the overpowering muskiness” in boar meat—also known as “boar taint”—that results if boars remain intact. As for the option of using anesthesia, the American Veterinary Medical Association (which opposes un-anesthetized castration) explains, “On-farm use of anesthesia is rare due to a range of economic, logistical and safety issues, both for the pig and the herdsperson.” In other words, like nose ringing, castration without anesthesia is another business-as-usual practice that small, pasture-based pig farms almost never reveal to consumers paying a premium for “humanely raised” pork.

When forced to discuss the matter, pig farmers will downplay the traumatic impact of this procedure. Jennifer Small, co-owner of Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York, insists that slicing open the piglet’s scrotum and yanking out his testicles doesn’t hurt all that much. She told the foodie blog Grub Street, “My husband castrates them and I have to admit I was very surprised that as soon as you put them down they’re running around like nothing happened.”

The AVMA, for its part, doesn’t quite see it that way. It writes, “Surgical castration involves cutting and manipulating innervated tissues and if anesthesia is not provided it will be painful as reflected by elevated blood cortisol concentrations,high-pitched squealing,and pain-indicative behaviors, such as trembling and lying alone. Some behavioral indicators of pain may persist for up to five days.” Farmers speaking off the record are inclined to agree with the AVMA. In a forum for pig farmers, one owner, discussing castration, advised: “make sure Mama Pig is secured in her stall while you’re castrating the piglets and wear ear defendors [sic].”

A final way that nonindustrial pig farming reflects rather than contradicts the hard reality of factory farming involves slaughter. Small-scale pig farmers who want to retail cuts of pork must join their factory farmer counterparts in slaughtering their pigs in one of the nation’s 616 USDA inspected hog slaughterhouses. Many of these slaughterhouses are industrial. Some are not. The ones that are not are much more attentive to pig welfare. Large slaughterhouses, though, can slaughter as many as 1,400 pigs an hour. The deathblow begins with an electrical stun gun (or “stunning wand,” which knocks the pig unconscious), followed by throat slitting, bleeding out, and scalding. Humane slaughter violations are routine, as the speed of slaughter makes consistently effective stunning-wand application and throat slitting especially difficult to achieve. Pigs are often bled out while regaining consciousness or even while fully conscious.

An extremely small percentage of pig farmers can avoid the horrors of the big slaughterhouse by slaughtering their animals on the premises. In the case of on-site slaughter, they sell the whole carcass—or a large section of it—to locavores with deep freezes. Under these circumstances, the most common way to render the pig unconscious for bleed out is a .22 rifle. Needless to say, precision in this situation can be equally, if not more, inconsistent than with the slaughterhouse’s stunning wand.

Interestingly, though, it’s the aftermath of these off-the-industrial-grid events that say the most about them. On CNN’s “Eatocracy” blog, managing editor Kat Kinsman recounted her experience witnessing an “ethical slaughter” of two pigs, Porky and Bess. Observing the two farmers right after the slaughter, Kinsman was moved by the fact that both men were crying. When one of them calmed down enough to speak about the kill, he was “still wiping them [the tears] away and was slightly choked in tone.” This was no anomaly. Farmers cry a lot over killing their pigs when, as one farmer put it, “you’ve kind of made pets of them.”

Considerable evidence thus suggests that pigs—and humans—experience undeniable suffering on nonindustrial farms, so much so that, should concerned consumers take this suffering seriously, it would surely influence their dietary choices. From the perspective of transparency, such suffering can be hard for even the most vigilant consumer to identify and appreciate. The visual trope of bucolic agrarian bliss has become a convincing mainstay of small-scale pork promotion. Strip it away, though, treat small farms with the same sober skepticism we apply to factory farms, and you might find yourself in agreement with the forthright nonindustrial pig farmer, Bob Comis, who runs Stony Brook farm in Schoharie, New York. “What I do is wrong,” he writes. “I know it in my bones, even if I can’t act on it.”

“Someday,” he concludes, “it must stop.”

24 Responses to Pigs Suffer On Small Farms, Too

  1. Karen Harris says:

    Another important blog – so much information – thanks!!!
    The dilemma is how to convince the growing “foodie movement” that local and small does not mean humane.
    Obviously, this notion has gained so much traction because it has allowed people to eat animals while maintaining the moral high ground at the same time – no “inconvenient truths” need to be confronted. I fear that it presents a real setback. I wish I knew how to turn it around.
    As an aside, I don’t take issue with your right to have special feelings towards pigs, but obviously a slippery slope when you begin to single out one farm animal over another based on “intelligence.”

  2. Rhys Southan says:

    As much as many vegans would hate this approach, I wonder if it would make sense for those making the ethical argument to initially focus on pigs in particular. They seem to be the most intelligent and thus suffering-prone and relatable of the farm animals. Maybe meat eaters could be steered away from pork the way people were turned against veal. Meanwhile, those making the environmental argument would direct their ire toward the farming of cows.

    • Laura says:

      I have a neighbor I talk to often and he says he likes pigs, doesn’t eat them. Then the next time he’ll tell me he ate some ham, bacon, etc. When asked “what?” he says he avoids pork chops and such, that cured pig is okay with him. Go figure.
      Intelligence doesn’t make suffering more or less intense, just more relatable to the people, which is very arrogant and cruel. Less intelligent may suffer even more depending on their sensory abilities, helplessness, etc.
      Best approach to me is honesty and frankness without being unjustly cruel, insulting or angry about it. That’s what mainly helped get me on the right track.

      • Rhys says:

        Do you believe that chickens have the capacity to suffer as much as whales have the capacity to suffer?

        It seems to me that by increasing awareness, intelligence can create a longer list of concerns that have potential to cause suffering. So for instance, if I haven’t seen a friend for a long time, I might miss her but not be too upset about it, especially if I had other friends nearby. But if I found out that my friend had died, I would be devastated. So if I lacked the intelligence that allowed me to receive the information that she had died and to understand what this meant, her death wouldn’t be able to cause me suffering beyond my occasionally missing her.

        If variations in intelligence alter the ability to become deeply attached to specific individuals, that too would influence capacity to suffer.

        This would be a reason for saying that killing an elephant, a pig or a whale might be more harmful than killing a chicken. Because of their intelligence, remaining elephants, pigs or whales would seem to be more likely to mourn the loss of a member of their group than a chicken is.

        • Laura says:

          Funny, my pig loving, non-pig-eating, but cured-bacon-ham-eating friend also enjoys talking about how it’s okay to confine and slaughter chickens because they’re “dumb silly” creatures. But they’re not… people who think like my friend are the ones lacking something: the ability to see beyond your own sensibilities, to avoid comparing everyone to yourself as the Gold Standard for worthiness. Thinking “like a human” has very little if anything to do with capacity for suffering. Chickens have their own ways of cleverness, are special and worthwhile on their own: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25RcDO2RdZQ

          • Rhys says:

            “Funny, my pig loving, non-pig-eating, but cured-bacon-ham-eating friend also enjoys talking about how it’s okay to confine and slaughter chickens because they’re ‘dumb silly’ creatures. But they’re not…”

            This video and your last comment don’t contradict the idea that the intelligence of animals ties into their capacity to suffer — instead, they confirm it. The video’s point is that chickens are more intelligent than people realize, and this could make raising them for food more harmful than it seems. So if intelligence *does* tie into the harmfulness of killing — as this video and your comment suggests that it does — then it could still be the case that more intelligence would lead to more harm. Therefore, if intelligence of animals does matter, farmed pigs might suffer more than farmed chickens and farmed cows after all.

            On the other hand, you made the opposite point in your earlier comment:

            “Less intelligent may suffer even more depending on their sensory abilities, helplessness, etc.”

            If that’s right, then the more intelligent chickens are, the *less* harmful it is to farm them. Perhaps, then, for those who care about animal suffering but don’t want to give up all animal products, it might be better for them to eat elephants, pigs and whales than to eat chickens and fishes, since the lesser intelligence of chickens and fishes increases their suffering.

            Either way, it does still seem that intelligence plays some part in the harmfulness of raising certain animals for food.

          • Laura says:

            No, Rhys, you misconstrued and mangled my points into oblivion, but so be it.

          • Mountain says:

            Or, more accurately, Rhys took your arguments to reach logical conclusions that you don’t like.

          • Laura says:

            Wrong, Mountain, take another look, unbiased this time.

          • Mountain says:

            Citation needed.

  3. Mountain says:

    Broadly speaking, James, I agree with you that pigs suffer on small farms, too.b

    As you said in your post on Darwin and meat, humans and non-humans exist on a continuum. Likewise, farms exist on a continuum– from factory farms to non-factory farms (like Polyface Farms) to non-slaughter farms that are better for animals than animal sanctuaries run by vegans. As you move along this continuum, I think it’s fair to say: the less a small farm has in common with a factory farm, the less animals will suffer on that farm. Even if suffering still occurs, is it not a “meaningful alternative” to choose an option that results in less suffering?

  4. Mountain says:

    About pigs and nose rings:

    1. Michael Pollan failed to note the use of nose rings for a good reason: the farm he was writing about doesn’t use them. Whatever Joel Salatin’s shortcomings with regard to animals, he gets that a pig is a living plow, and animal who lives to root. So rather than keeping a pig on a pasture that he (Salatin) doesn’t want torn up, he keeps pigs in places that he wants them to tear up.

    2. Considering how influential Polyface is within the alternative farming community, it’s safe to say that there are many small farms that, like Polyface, do not use nose rings. I imagine it’s a minority, but it’s substantial.

    3. Small farms that use nose rings are doing it wrong. Period. Not just because it’s cruel, but because it indicates that they are raising pigs in the wrong environment. Pigs are woodland creatures, not pasture-based creatures. Pastures are better for pigs than concrete structures, but they’re still the wrong environment– it’s bad for the pig and bad for the farm.

    4. Your statement that nose rings cause a lifetime of discomfort conflicts with your quote of Susan Held earlier: “They can learn something on the first try and then it’s difficult for them to unlearn it[.]” If they learn after 1 or 2 tries that attempting to root causes a sharp sting, then they will not continue to be stung throughout their lifetime. I don’t know which one is true, but these two claims are at odds with each other. Regardless, nose rings are unjustifiable whether they cause a lifetime of discomfort or just a lifetime of frustration and annoyance.

  5. Mountain says:

    Finally, the use of USDA slaughterhouses reflects not the hard reality of factory farming, but the hard reality of the nanny state (or government bureaucracy, if your prefer). Any farm that wishes to opt-out of the USDA-industrial complex (to borrow a phrase) should be able to, as long as they clearly label the meat so that a customer knows that it did not go through a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. If a customer knows that, and wishes to take that risk, that should be their right.

    I don’t know how to solve the problem of castration, but the solution to being forced to use industrial slaughterhouses is pretty obvious: stop mandating it.

    • Rhys Southan says:

      In some countries, they kill boars before sexual maturity as an alternative to castration. In other countries, they mandate anesthesia for castration.

      I emailed a pig farmer about the septum rings. He told me, “In my experience, nose rings, which are monstrously cruel, even the so-called ‘humane’ nose rings (they really are called that by the industry), are not that prevalent on really small farms like mine. I actually don’t know anyone, personally, that uses them.”

      • Mountain says:

        Good to hear that many small farmers understand the problem with nose rings, and don’t use them. I’d love to add pigs to our farm, since they’re great for turning over compost, but I’ll have to think through how to incorporate them without resorting to slaughter.

  6. Maire says:

    There seems to be an insatiable appetite for meat in this country. The so called “factory farms” exist to supply that “demand”. The animals consumed are given drugs such as antibiotics and beta agonists, to name two, in order to promote growth and increase lean body mass and that, of course, is to increases the almighty $ profit.
    The meat industry is a sorry sick cruel industry and an unhealthy, too.
    I’m sure most have heard about the deadly virus currently causing death in the piglet population ? Investigators are now focusing on the feed which contains a blood product from pork slaughter houses.

    Well, I would ask the fundamental question : Did anyone learn anything from the BSE, better known as mad cow disease ? Most animals did not evolve as cannibals !!!

    • Mountain says:

      “There seems to be an insatiable appetite for meat in this country.”

      Then why is per-capita meat consumption no higher than it was 30-40 years ago? Sugar, grain, and dairy consumption have all gone up substantially over the same time period. If there is an insatiable appetite for meat in this country, why is there no evidence of it?

      • Maire says:

        Thank you for your comment/question. However, Americans eat a lot of meat. There was an article in the WSJ not long ago that covered the issue of meat consumption in this country. The piece clearly said too much meat is consumed in terms of health. Also, I did not say consumption was increasing although I have not researched it.

        • Maire says:

          PS Perhaps the word “insatiable ” was a poor choice. However, the numbers of animals slaughtered may have shifted in terms of species because chicken and even pork has been promoted in terms as a more healthy alternative to beef.

        • Mountain says:

          It’s true that Americans eat a lot of meat. The only nation that eats more per-capita is Luxembourg. Of course, they eat more pork and less chicken than we do, so they actually kill fewer animals per person than we do, even though they eat more meat per person.

          They also have lower rates of heart disease. That makes sense when you realize that the most recent, most conclusive study on the matter found that saturated fat does not raise the risk of heart disease:


          • Maire says:

            It is not just about heart disease. Too much animal protein also effects renal function because of build up of toxic ketones and can also cause depletion of bone calcium to name 2 negative effects. But the discussion concerns how pigs are raised and and how they are treated prior to being slaughtered.
            I apologize for getting side tracked.

        • Mountain says:

          You’re right about the shift to chicken causing the number of animals slaughtered to skyrocket. Of the roughly 10 billion farm animals slaughtered every year, about 9 billion are chickens. Add in turkeys, ducks, and other poultry, and it’s 97% of all animals slaughtered.

          If Americans continued to eat just as much meat as they do now, but only ate beef & pork, the number of animals slaughtered would drop from 10 billion to less than 1 billion. It would still be hundreds of millions slaughtered, so it would hardly be a good thing, but it would be a massive improvement.

  7. Mountain says:

    Every cow slaughtered produces 300-500 pounds of meat, while a slaughtered chicken only produces about 2 pounds. So, on a per calorie basis, chicken kills 150-250 times as many farm animals as beef does.

    Doesn’t the same calculation apply to other forms of suffering? More than 100 chickens die to provide the same amount of meat that one pig provides. Even with a pig’s high intelligence, is it reasonable to think it suffers more than 100 times as much as a chicken?

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