“It’s about the pigs and the people, not just the pigpen.”
– LAURIE CONNOR, U OF M
Arecent speakers’ panel of animal welfare specialists generally agreed on phasing out sow gestation crates, but differed widely on how to get there.
Sow stall opponents called for immediate action to eliminate sow crates, while others urged a go-slow approach.
The two sides debating at the University of Manitoba reflected the deep divide in the ongoing debate about the future of gestation stalls currently sweeping the hog industry.
On one side were animal welfare activists who argued current confinement systems for pregnant sows are self-evidently inhumane and should be banned.
“The average sow I see is pretty badly beaten up,” said Twyla Francois, an investigator with Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Food Animals, which monitors conditions for livestock in transport.
Others argued the perception of sows in stalls isn’t necessarily reality and housing is not the only determinant for a pig’s welfare.
LOOK BEYOND THE BARS
Laurie Connor, a U of M swine specialist, urged people to look beyond the bars of a cage to see how the sow is actually performing under proper management.
“It’s about the pigs and the people, not just the pigpen,” Connor said.
The October 15 debate sponsored by the university’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics played to a standing-room-only crowd consisting largely of agriculture students.
Kelly Burch, a fourth-year animal science student, said most of her fellow students do not oppose phasing out sow stalls. But she warned against moving too quickly because of the effect on hog farmers.
“For them to change over their current barns to an open stall system could be difficult,” Burch, who hails from a farm near MacGregor, said later.
Dr. Wayne Lees, Manitoba’s chief veterinarian, said tough economic times have forced 30 per cent of Manitoba’s pork producers out of business since 2007 and forcing new housing standards on them now would be unreasonable.
“To impose simplistic solutions on an industry in free fall won’t do anybody any good,” Lees said.
But Paul Shapiro, a Humane Society of the United States director, said switching from stalls to loose housing is not as onerous as producers claim.
He cited an Iowa State University study which tracked nearly 1,000 litters of pigs over 2.5 years. It found that open housing barns cost 32 per cent less to build and a weaned pig in it costs 11 per cent less to raise.
“It doesn’t require big dollars to let pigs walk around,” said Shapiro, who heads the HSUS campaign against so-called factory farms.
In his presentation, Shapiro called the eventual elimination of sow stalls inevitable because of an international movement against them.
The European Union will ban gestation crates by 2013. Seven U. S. states have legislated phase-outs, most recently Michigan, which last month proposed a law to eliminate certain animal confinements, including gestation stalls, over 10 years.
Shapiro agreed with Connor and Lees that eliminating stalls must be based on science, not just public perception.
But others in the audience felt emotion and inadequate research are driving the debate.
“Let’s not hide our heads in the sand and let junk science prevail,” said Dennis Hodgkinson, a Winnipeg-based engineer who designs hog barns.
Marg Rempel, a Ste. Anne producer, objected to the way animal welfare issues are portrayed in the media.
“A lot of stuff that’s put in the Internet or in magazines is there to sell that. It’s sensationalized and it isn’t representative. Some of it is outright lies,” Rempel said after the meeting.
She also rejected Francois’ claims that pregnant sows are often transported close to term and that piglets are routinely euthanized by bashing their heads against a concrete floor.
“In 34 years I’ve never heard of that. I don’t know of anyone who does that or why they would do that.” [email protected]