From Porky Pig to Wilbur to Freddy the Pig to Babe, cartoonists, writers and filmmakers have recognized and immortalized the unique charm of pigs. Pigs have been found to be smarter than dogs and three-year-old children. Most people would never consider dining on dogs or kids. So why eat pigs?
Pigs have many talents, including the ability to learn how to play joystick video games, turn on the heat or turn the tap on a faucet. They can focus intensely, form complex social units, and display sophisticated social behavior. Pigs can remember the location and identity of objects many years after the fact. They communicate with each other using a variety of sounds. Newborn piglets immediately learn their mother’s voice, and by three weeks of age they know their names and can respond to them. Their mother sings to them while nursing. Pigs have a great sense of direction and, like some dogs and cats, can find their way home. Despite the popular myth, pigs do not “pig out” on food. Humans are much more likely to do that. They also do not “sweat like a pig” because they lack sweat glands. Given adequate space, they are very clean animals and prefer water to mud. Just like dogs and cats, pigs have saved the lives of humans and nonhumans. Pigs have even displayed virtues like forgiveness.
Yet almost 100 million of these intelligent, sensitive animals are slaughtered in the U.S. every year. Today’s pigs are genetically engineered to grow fatter faster. Pig farmers castrate, dock tails, and tear out teeth without administering anesthesia or painkillers. Pigs spend their entire lives in tiny pens with concrete floors and iron bars. Mother pigs, who are treated like breeding and feeding machines, are literally immobilized in tiny gestation crates for virtually all their reproductive lives, which amounts to three years’ worth of four-month pregnancies plus nursing time. As if all that suffering weren’t bad enough, some sadistic pig farm employees have been caught on video by undercover investigators kicking, beating, bludgeoning to death, and even skinning and dismembering live pigs. Injured animals are routinely left to starve to death.
There is a small ray of hope for a few factory-farmed pigs. Of the approximately 67,000 pork producers in the U.S., the vast majority use individual gestation crates. But a recent study indicated that these inhumane crates for pregnant sows are no better and probably worse than “hoop barns” (group housing) when it comes to cost and production. The study concluded that sows in the hoop barns gave birth to more live pigs per litter at a lower cost than those confined in gestation crates, probably because of the higher comfort level produced by straw bedding and the ability to huddle together for warmth. A second study showed that the cost of constructing hoop barns is considerably less than individual crates. An increasing number of food processors, fast food chains and chefs will only purchase and serve crate-free pork. In Europe, a phase-out of gestation crates by 2013 has been ordered by the European Union. Thanks to ballot initiatives in Florida and Arizona, they will be banned in the next few years in those states.
But even if some pigs are being treated more humanely, the reality is that factory pig farming wreaks havoc on the environment and on the national purse. Pig agribusiness is wallowing in billions of dollars in federal and state subsidies, yet it is always begging for more. Pig farming is a major contributor to pollution in this country, creating thousands of tons of waste to foul the air and infiltrate the groundwater. The tap water in Iowa, the biggest pork-producing state, is often undrinkable because of pollution from its pig farms. One pig farm operation in Utah produces as much waste as the city of Los Angeles. Yet pig farmers are not held responsible for the damage they do. As is always the case with factory farming, the taxpayers end up footing the bill to clean up the mess. Another growing problem is that over the years, many factory-farmed pigs have escaped from transport trucks, becoming feral and forced to fend for themselves, just like stray dogs and cats.
Pigs are repackaged with names like “spare ribs”, “bacon”, “pork”, “liverwurst”, “sausage”, and “ham” so that consumers can separate the living animal from the dead meat. But as the pig on a bumper sticker on my car protests, “I don’t have any spare ribs.” Pig farming is cruel, disastrous for the environment, and bad for the health of consumers. Pig meat is loaded with fat and cholesterol. One of the smartest and most compassionate actions you can take is to eliminate pig products from your diet. If you like pigs, don’t eat them. Better yet, adopt a pig from a rescue group. They make great pets.