On sows and piglets

Last week, I blogged a bit on the dairy industry and now I'd like to turn to the pig industry.

The first time I met a pig, she was in a farrowing crate inside a temperature controlled room. It was clean and sterile (we had to wear scrubs and boots to enter). There were six sows surrounded by piglets. She could not turn around.

And it was silent. You could have dropped a pin and heard it reverberate off the cement floor.

Sound would fill the room during feeding time, when sows would grunt the "come eat" call. And painful cries would erupt during the piglet processing time, when 2-3 day old babies were unceremoniously castrated, tail docked and ear notched without pain relief. Then the room was deafening.

But usually, it was quiet.

I know that does not sound like a provocative statement, but pigs are talkers. Their world is smells and vocalizations. When I started working at Animal Place, I learned pig talk secretly. I say secretly because the first time you try to grunt like a pig, it's an embarrassing sound and, well, I didn't want to offend my boss who could "talk down" a charging, wild boar. None of the pigs took exception to my fumbling attempts at communication, some even seemed to grunt soft exhalations of encouragement. In those moments, when my ears were filled with the sounds of porcine conversation, my heart ached at how ignorant I had been in that room of silent pigs.

The silence is a sign of an animal defeated, a sow who would normally spend her days talking, speaking, thrilling in the soft sighs of contentment, the growls of anger, and all that it means to be a pig. She would lie in deep-beds of leaves or straw, never choosing hard dirt over soft comfort. When she gave birth, it would be in a nest of her choosing, far from the group, in a safe place of her making. Pigs are normally showy, gregarious animals but birthing is a secret affair, a special time for a sow to be alone with her young. She cannot do that in a crate. And the conversations sows and piglets have! They are wonderful, full of meaning, delightful and perfect. Every touch, every soft grunt, all of it is a lesson on how to be porcine, how to be a pig.

I remember touching one of the sows in those crates. She was red and big with fourteen piglets tussling off to the side. She flinched. I could feel a strange sense of horror deep inside me, but I pushed it down. I rested my hand on her back and, for one brief moment, she leaned into it and then jerked away, as if burned. She could not understand my sudden interest in touching her with gentleness, no pig in the pork industry does.

Anyone who can explain the rightness of a cage has never been in one, never felt the sides of it pushing and denying access to the natural world. They have not felt the frustration of nothingness, of being restricted, of being in a barren, empty world. When her instinct drives her to make a nest for her babies, she cannot. When her preference would be to nurse her piglets in a deep bed of leaves, she cannot. When she wants to run away from the humans who abuse her, she cannot. When she wants to burrow in straw with her sister and brother, she cannot. And when she is desperate to save her piglets, when they are taken forcibly from her at 2-3 weeks of age, when the wrongness of that separation is evident in her tense muscles and strange cries, she can do nothing to stop it. Everything done to her is an attempt at removing her from instinct and desire and what she wants and needs.

We know what happens to her piglets. They too will be stripped of their dignity and of their pigness. Then they will be killed and eaten by a species who does not need meat to survive. She will spend years in that cage, repeatedly artificially inseminated, repeatedly denied access to a nest and the outdoor world, repeatedly abused and repeatedly stripped of her babies.

I don't need meat to survive. You don't either. Pigs need to be allowed to express all that makes them them. And they cannot do that on a farm or in a place that sees them as roasters and production units. Since there are so many alternatives to pork, there isn't any reason to start choosing a compassionate diet now. Do it today, for the millions of sows denied true motherhood and the hundred million piglets turned into pork. We must honor who they are by not reducing them to what our palates desire.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post!!

Anonymous said...

So touching. You bring this scene to life -- or should I say to death? For it is a deathly existence, with nothing to live for. The claustrophobic cages would drive anyone insane.

The Voracious Vegan said...

You brought tears to my eyes. I wish I could convey these things as eloquently as you do. You made me feel for a moment the blind panic and then the crushing, ugly resignation that life in a cage must be like. You are an amazing advocate for the animals, your writing is truly powerful. Thank you.