And none of them stayed home. They all ended up at market.
There is a reason we learned pig stories when we were very young. Pigs are clever, cute (to some), and seem deserving of a story.
Pig farmers will tell you that pigs are smart. Those studying animal intellect across species will tell you that pigs are one of the savviest of mammals. A New York Times science journal has reported that pigs “are among the quickest to learn tricks such as jump hoops, bow and stand, spin and make word-like sounds on command, roll out rugs, herd sheep, close and open cages, play video games with joysticks, and more.” Pigs rank higher than dogs on the animal intelligence scale.
Both pigs and dogs are mammals — having hair, birthing offsprings live, and nursing their young through mammary glands. Because pigs grow to several hundred pounds and don’t have sweat glands, they need water and mud on their bodies to regulate temperature, whereas dogs cool down by panting and sweating through their paws. Despite perception to the contrary, and as reported by PBS and NBC, pigs are one of the cleanest animals around. Although there are a number of people who keep pigs as pets, because of their size and natural tendencies, they are not as conducive as dogs to being man’s best friend.
Even though there are plenty of cultures who eat dog, most of us have a clear delineation between what dogs and pigs are for. One is raised for food and one as pets.
We’ve trained pets to return love and loyalty, so it’s natural for us to treat them better than food animals. Yet there are places in the world where dogs are raised for food, in intensive confinement conditions, where bitches, locked in cages, are made to produce litter after litter in solitary confinement. When we hear about dogs treated that way it doesn’t make most of us feel so good.
That begs the question whether taking animals out of their natural habitat, raising them in packed, intensively confined sealed buildings, cutting off (literally) their ability to naturally reproduce, feeding them an unnatural diet, locking the females in a cages and keeping them on a continual birthing cycle is considered humane treatment? And if not, does it depend on whether the animal is destined for food or as a pet?
We give out graduate degrees in swine management for those interested in mass-producing pigs in strict confinement methods. Hence, most of the piggies that end up at market never see the light of day. They live their lives in crowded concrete pens. Female pigs, or sows, must live in gestation crates where they are artificially inseminated as soon as her piglets can be weened — so she stays living in a perpetual state of reproduction, in crated confinement. None of those pigs can nest or play in the mud. Smart, intelligent people among us have come to believe that pigs, being confined this way in temperature controlled buildings with no space to run around, is for their own protection — to keep them safe from the elements and predators.
Fortunately, not everyone believes in fairy tales. Farmers like those who run Polyface farms have figured how pigs can spend most of their lives in a natural environment before they are turned into food. It’s possible that pigs can be processed humanely in a way that benefits both them and the environment.
Like most animals, pigs are social creatures and establish hierarchies within their groups. Jammed to live their lives in a building with thousands of strangers, even if it’s temperature controlled, isn’t doing pigs any favors. It’s for the benefit of an efficient, low-cost, meat-producing production cycle.
As in chickens, there is not enough supply of humanely raised flesh for our meat-hungry demand. But we wouldn’t have to give up bacon, hot dogs, and ham sandwiches (although it may help eating them slightly less often). And we wouldn’t need to stop factory farming pigs just because they are smart. But we might want to stop factory farming because we’d like to know that all animals are treated humanely, no matter their destination is our dinner plate. An animal is no less an animal because it’s been cooked, seasoned, and tastes good going down our gullet.
If we demand, through our buying decisions, that the animals we consume are raised humanely, both us and the planet might be a whole lot better off.