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From The St. Petersburg Times, September 29, 2002:

Don't tolerate the cruelty on hog farms

By MATTHEW SCULLY

Livestock production is by definition a harsh business, but with the spread of industrial methods all the little mercies of the farm are passing away, and at a certain point you have to ask if it is right or fair. When do efficiency and economy on our farms become thoughtless and inexcusable cruelty?

This question will soon be put to Florida voters in the form of Amendment 10, an initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot prohibiting one of the more severe practices employed on our industrial hog farms. With majority approval, an animal-cruelty provision will be added to the state Constitution declaring: "It shall be unlawful for any person to confine a pig during pregnancy in an enclosure, or to tether a pig during pregnancy, in such a way that she is prevented from turning around freely."

One's first reaction is to wonder why such an extraordinary step should be required to make so modest a reform in agricultural practice. We're talking here literally about a few extra feet of space for the pigs, allowing them to turn around, shift a bit, and perhaps even mix with other pigs in group housing more suited to their natures. You would think this goal could be achieved by something short of a constitutional amendment.

On the other hand, just what kind of industry we are dealing with here that refuses, of its own accord, to observe such an elementary standard of animal husbandry? When a bill of similar effect was proposed in the Legislature two years ago, lobbyists for the pork industry flew into action as if on a matter of the highest principle -- "No, not one extra inch for the pigs!" -- and saw to it that the bill never even got a hearing.

The average voter might not be so easily manipulated, however, correctly sensing something incredibly small and grudging about the industry's position. The sows do not have much as it is, after all, living as they do in complete confinement. Corporate hog farmers meanwhile enjoy the highest profits, per animal, in all of the meat business. They can't spare these creatures just a bit more space, and a few little decencies to make their lives more bearable?

Cruelty and kindness alike often do come down to little things, and no industry today better reflects the petty, unyielding spirit of corporate agriculture than pork producers. Hog farmers, except the few small-scale farmers still with us, no longer even speak of "raising" pigs, with the modicum of personal care that word implies. Pigs are "grown" now, like so many crops. Barns somewhere along the way became "intensive confinement facilities," and the inhabitants mere "production units."

The gestation crate shows us how, once accepted, there is really no end to where this attitude leads. The pigs' cages are so cramped -- two by seven feet, confining a four-to-six hundred pound animal -- because, of course, the smaller you make it the more sows you can fit into one facility, maximizing production while minimizing the need for care. A sow almost completely immobilized burns off fewer calories too, allowing for a further savings in the costs of feed.

It all makes perfect sense, provided you erase from your mind any thought that the products, before they are products, are actually living creatures with needs and natures of their own -- in the case of pigs, bright and sensitive creatures very much like dogs. Moral concern surrenders entirely to economic calculation, leaving no limit to the privation and suffering that "growers" are willing to inflict upon animals to keep costs down and profits up. On our hog farms, even the smallest scraps of human charity -- a bit of maternal care, room to roam outdoors, straw to lie on -- have long since been taken away as needless and costly luxuries.

I went to a few of these places last year in North Carolina. And I hope that in their coverage of Amendment 10 Florida television stations will find and air some footage of sows in gestation crates, because that will settle it there and then.

Entering, you are greeted by a bedlam of squealing, chain rattling, and horrible roaring from the sows. Even "confinement" doesn't describe their situation. Row after row, hundreds of the creatures are encased, pinned down, inside their iron crates. "Science tells us," declares Paul Sundberg of the National Pork Producers Council, "that she (a sow) doesn't even seem to know that she can't turn." For some darn-fool reason, though, the sows keep trying to turn anyway, endlessly, and they all have festering sores and fractured or broken legs to show for the effort.

A noted defender of intensive-confinement farming, agricultural scientist Dennis T. Avery, assures us that "the hogs are becoming healthier and happier as more of them move indoors." I didn't see evidence of this, either, but only bruised and broken creatures going mad from their constant confinement. Forced to lie and live in their own urine and excrement, the sows chew frenziedly on bars and chains, as foraging animals will do when denied even straw to eat or sleep on, or else engage in stereotypical nest-building with the straw that isn't there. Everywhere you see tumors, ulcers, cysts, lesions, torn ears -- these afflictions never examined by a vet, never even noticed anymore by the largely immigrant labor charged with their care.

When the sows leave their iron crates after four months of pregnancy, it is only to be driven and dragged into other crates just as small to give birth. Then it's back to the gestation crate for another four months, and so on, for about eight or nine pregnancies, until they expire from the sheer punishment of it, or are culled as too sick and weak to go on.

Factory farming operates on an economy of scale, presupposing a steady attrition rate, and each day, in every gestation barn on every confinement farm in America, you will find cull pens littered with dead or dying creatures discarded like trash. All of them -- every one of the 4.5-million sows condemned to this life on our factory farms -- will go to their deaths having never even been outdoors, never once known the feel of soil or the warmth of the sun.

In the debate to come, defenders of the industry will reply that the narrow cages and other factory farm methods are necessary to keep pork at the lowest possible price -- proving only that they think you are as miserly and amoral as they are in the care of animals. They will say this ballot initiative is all the doing of animal-rights activists, shifting attention from the real issue -- their own disgraceful neglect of basic human responsibilities. They will seek the support of Gov. Jeb Bush and of the White House -- receiving, one hopes, no sympathy, but instead a reminder that "capitalism with a conscience" must apply to livestock companies, too.

Another argument we'll hear is that Florida doesn't even have many industrial hog operations that would have to adjust to the new law. This is true -- for now. Unless Amendment 10 is passed, pork producers may well set their sights on this state, just as they once did on South Dakota, North Carolina, and Utah, states where today you can find thousands of hog farms and all of the problems they bring. High on the agenda of pork producers is an increase in exports, which places a premium on factory farms close to port cities, and where better to expand than central and northern Florida?

There are many reasons for Floridians to steer clear of this fate: Industrial hog farms spread filth and disease. They pollute rivers and waterbeds. The pigs can be confined but the foul odors and ammonia emissions cannot. With the thousands of massive lagoons they need to store animal waste, hog farming states are always just one hurricane away from catastrophe -- as Hurricane Floyd taught North Carolinians by turning vast stretches of their state into an Everglades of excrement and toxic swill.

The best reason of all, however, is not an environmental but a moral one -- that to treat animals as factory farmers do is low and merciless. A resounding Yes on Amendment 10 will remind corporate farmers in this state and beyond that profit isn't everything and there really are limits -- both to the miseries that animals should endure and to the cruelties that people will tolerate.

Matthew Scully, a onetime student at the University of Tampa, served from January 2001 until recently as special assistant and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush. He is a former literary editor of National Review and author of the forthcoming Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.

   
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