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Sow Stalls: Ethics, Perceptions, And Animal Welfare

What if we granted that, of course animals can be raised for food, but that tightly caging them in gestation stalls is unethical because they are mammals?

Dana Medoro is associate professor of American literature at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Farm Animal Welfare Committee with the Winnipeg Humane Society. The following is a condensed version of her presentation to a recent forum on sow stalls hosted by the university’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics.

What is ethics? It’s different, I think, than morality, for morality governs what a tradition defines as right and wrong. Ethics, however, goes beyond that to preside over what is just or good; ethics reaches toward justice, holds its possibilities for goodness open.

To act or to respond to something ethically is to proceed without violence, with the least amount of violation of another’s right to be treated justly and carefully. So, to protest a system such as sow stalls in the name of ethics is therefore to advance with care. It’s to ask how we might agree upon something good without invoking tradition or convention, without drawing a line between who is scientific and who is sentimental, who understands and who does not.

Because if ethics implies a process toward an attentive treatment of others, then it is about returning again and again to the divisions we perceive and to the systems within which we work, in order to re-evaluate them, to keep them endlessly open to revision in the spirit of what is good and fair.


It is not that producers and agriculture faculties have failed to contemplate these issues; they have been discussing sow stalls in North America for at least a decade now. But, the trend at their forums is to assert that more scientific data is needed before we can really move forward.

Another trend is to raise questions about the perceived irrationality of laypeople concerned about animal welfare. As animal scientist Dr. Janeen Salak-Johnson argued at a 2007 sow stall forum: “it is easy for activists to make claims and demand

change, but these demands are unrealistic. It has become apparent that the sow stall issue has been driven primarily by perception and not science.”

Such a statement is unjust, for it implies that scientists rise above frameworks of perception and that activists are trapped within them. The framework governing both perceptions, however, is pork production, the scientist working from within the framework, the activist from without. If there is no pure position of objectivity in either case, what if we both started from the same place: what if we granted that, of course animals can be raised for food, but that tightly caging them in gestation stalls is unethical because they are mammals?


What happens when you work with living creatures is that you’re called to a higher standard of ethics. That is, you are faced with more consistent challenges of re-evaluation and inquiry in the name of what is good for those creatures – not in the name of what is good in the abstract or in such emotionally loaded slogans

about “feeding the world” or predicting global starvation, but rather what is honestly good for the creatures themselves who can’t form their own unions or articulate demands beyond their biological needs.

No one who opposes sow stalls simultaneously chooses human death from hunger. Such an image blurs the focus; it reframes the picture of pigs we are trying to see clearly for a moment.

The definition of what is good for these creatures cannot come from one perspective alone. In order to be the most ethically true, that definition must be arrived at through many routes.

What is a pig? It seems that a complex idea emerges if a pig is to be defined not only by pork producers and faculties of agriculture, but also by philosophers, animal rights activists, historians, animal ethologists, and even children, given that they say “oink” before they can say “please.”


This isn’t about one perspective over another, but all of them together – so that somewhere between the communicational chasm across which producers see our definition enslaved to anthropomorphism and we see theirs to bacon, a plan might arise in such a way that we can get the sows into the group housing soon – without another decade of research on what we already know. Pigs are mammals who are social, curious, and intelligent. Better and therefore more ethical systems exist to house them.

This is also not about the end of meat production – nor an illusion of Grandpa’s old-time farm – but about an open discussion regarding the fact that nothing is in place in Manitoba to move away from intensive confinement systems. Until real changes are contractually in effect, no phaseout exists except as a dream on paper on some Maple Leaf executive’s desk.

Thus, the ethical question surrounding sow stalls is, almost simply, this: Given that this confinement system emerged a half-century ago, what do we know now that we didn’t know then? This question has to be answered honestly and not approached from the perspective that those who ask are overly emotional, even religious, about animals – that they barely have the right to ask because they’re not from the farm nor sufficiently trained in scientific data.


This is a logical fallacy in the first place, replacing the question with the questioner and sidestepping the issue, which is this: that the operations of hog barns are intricately connected to the world around the barns. And this is the world we’re all passing to our children, so we want to know how it works and what might be possible for the future.

To note the problems surrounding sow stalls isn’t to call someone deliberately cruel. To say that the sows are owed a bit more in return for what we take from them isn’t to say that the system is a faceless machine.

We know that many families own the barns, but the word “family” is not the same word as “ethics.” The word “family” means neither ethical nor unethical; it’s a word that evocatively gets in the way of approaching a business that works with and exports animals and that therefore opens itself up to ethical inquiry.

And this is an inquiry that could perhaps be perceived, not as a threat from the outside, but as the potential for a reciprocal commitment to something new, better and collectively accomplished.

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