Domesticated pigs have been around for thousands of years. Gestation crates, which are small metal cages used to permanently immobilize pregnant sows, have been a standard industry practice for just about 40 years. Yet industrial-style pork producers actually want to mislead Americans into thinking that extreme confinement of sows is somehow necessary for their health—a point they asserted in a weekend New York Times article that amplified their view that if pigs are allowed to move, they could get injured.
Matt Prescott/The HSUS
Animal scientist and farm animal expert Dr. John Webster points out that this defense of crates “rests on the premise that it is acceptable to prevent an undesirable pattern of behaviour by restricting all forms of behaviour.” He goes on to explain that “it would be as valid to claim that prisons would be much more manageable if all the inmates were kept permanently in solitary confinement.”
Indeed, it’s a ludicrous argument. As I mention above, pigs have lived in group settings for thousands of years. They’re herd animals, and farmers who are actually knowledgeable about pig husbandry can raise sows without resorting to such extreme confinement. In fact, even as far back as 2004, National Hog Farmer published an article about group housing entitled, “Sows Flourish in Pen Gestation.”
Further, according to the National Pork Producers Council, the trade association for the pig industry, at least 17 percent of sows are currently in group housing. In fact, NPPC's incoming president uses group housing for sows himself. There are about a million sows in group housing already, and you don’t hear the pork industry complaining about them.
Instead, you hear animal scientists like Dr. Ted Friend at Texas A&M Animal Sciences, a former proponent of gestation crates, striking a new note. Dr. Friend tells pig farmers in a commentary covered by Feedstuffs just this week that if 17 percent of sows are in group housing, obviously people know how to raise sows in group housing. He concludes that a transition will indeed work, and that producers seem to be getting dragged "kicking and screaming into another inevitable change."
And it’s not just scientists arguing for this transition. The pork industry’s biggest buyers are demanding it. From McDonald’s and Burger King to Safeway and Costco, the writing on the wall is clear. It’s so clear that Meat & Poultry magazine wrote in a recent article about the success of The Humane Society of the United States’ gestation crate campaign: “This is no longer a debate about the viability of gestation crates in hog production, but rather a discussion about how producers will respond to meet expectations.”
The fact is, the pig industry moved toward gestation crates as a matter of ruthless efficiency, not animal welfare. Putting the sows side by side in gestation crates allowed them to fit more pigs in a barn. And it made feeding and handling easier, since the farmers really didn’t have to farm. They became confiners, nor farmers.
I have seen pigs in crates, and I have seen them in group houses and in pastures. These animals want to express their normal behaviors, including turning and walking around. Immobilizing them in a cage is wrong for the animals, and it’s time to speed up the transition away from these crates.