The truth about pig farming is concealed behind glossy advertising but what really goes on?
Blog written by Julie Hurst, volunteer blog writer

‘Horizontal humans’. This is how biologists often refer to pigs, as they are like us in many ways. A quick online search will not only reveal a wealth of information about the comparative intelligence of these fascinating fellow beings, but their emotional likeness too. 

Pigs are highly social individuals who love to play, are full of personality and curiosity, and experience happiness and excitement like we do. And just like us, they also feel pain, sadness, anxiety, isolation and grief. But despite this, we choose to see them as unthinking, unfeeling objects rather than the complex, sensitive souls that they are, and reduce what would be relatively long, rich lives to a short, torturous existence simply to satisfy our appetite for meat.

As Jane Goodall writes in the foreword to Marc Beckoff’s The Emotional Lives of Animals,“ it is easier to do unpleasant things to unfeeling objects”, and at any one time in the UK there are almost five million pigs enduring acute suffering as a result of a culinary preference. Brought into this world simply to die, they are stripped of their autonomy, and their most basic natural behaviours and way of life are cruelly and purposely ignored.

A pig’s natural habitat

Naturally, pigs call forests and shrublands home. They prefer to live with their families or in small groups and spend most of their day exploring and foraging freely for food. In stark contrast, the vast majority of pigs grown for meat in this country (96%) spend most of their lives indoors in huge, overcrowded sheds. 

Crammed together with thousands of unfamiliar animals and with as little as one square metre of space each, the pigs confined inside these buildings understandably suffer untold stress. As one resident local to a farm holding a modest 7,000 pigs said, “The harrowing squealing is unbearable”. 

Natural behaviours of pigs

Pigs have a strong instinct to root, which describes how they disturb the soil by pushing it up with their snout. Just as we use our hands, pigs use their snouts to investigate the world around them. However, farm flooring systems frustrate this natural behaviour. 

Concrete or slatted floors, designed so that faeces can conveniently be flushed through, not only cause pigs great discomfort but can injure their highly sensitive snouts as they continue to try to fulfil this basic rooting need in a totally artificial environment. 

Pigs are very clean animals

Contrary to popular belief, pigs are extremely clean animals. For example, when allowed to live freely, they will use one particular area as a toilet, which will be far away from their bedding and food. The misconception that they are dirty probably stems from the fact that they cover themselves in mud. But this is their natural and primary means of regulating their body temperature.

With no opportunity to wallow in mud when incarcerated, and given that they are prone to heat stress, they will often attempt to wallow in their own faeces out of sheer desperation, behaviour that is entirely driven by human selfishness, and which puts the pigs at significant risk of disease. They often have no bedding or substrate, so becoming covered in their faeces is inevitable as they lay on the hard, filthy flooring. 

Pigs love to play

Not only are pigs highly intelligent, but they can also sense the passage of time and across multiple days. Therefore, being kept in barren environments with little, if any, stimulation for weeks on end causes them to suffer extreme mental anguish and boredom. Out of complete frustration, pigs may then, quite understandably, become aggressive, which can result in tail-biting and bullying. Again, these are wholly human-driven behaviours. But rather than address the root cause, the farming solution is to subject pigs to mutilation and even more suffering. 

Tail biting is attempted to be countered by slicing off most of a pig’s tail, without anaesthetics or pain relief, when he or she is just days old. By law, this ‘tail docking’ should only be carried out as a last resort when all other methods have been exhausted. But this is simply not the case. Between 2013 and 2017, it was found that 71% of pigs had their tails docked as a matter of routine, something that is not only unimaginably painful in itself but can also lead to infection that can leave lasting discomfort.

Bullying is attempted to be prevented by ‘teeth clipping’, a similarly barbaric procedure, which involves pigs having their four most prominent teeth snapped off or ground down. 

Female pigs are subjected to horrors on farms

Probably the most harrowing example of how we exploit pigs is how we treat expectant mums. Several days before a free-living sow is due to give birth, she will leave her small group and collect branches and other vegetation to build a nest for her piglets. In contrast, farmed female pigs about to give birth are each confined to a metal cage, known as a farrowing crate, which is only centimetres larger than their bodies and where they will be kept for up to four weeks afterwards. Not only are they unable to turn round, but they can barely move, and when their piglets are born, they can’t mother or nurture them, and even the simple act of feeding is made extremely difficult. 

According to the industry, this ‘farrowing’ process is designed to ‘protect piglet welfare and stock person safety’, but once more, these issues are entirely human in their making. Firstly, piglet welfare is actually put at risk by the artificially large litters pigs now produce. Whereas sows would naturally give birth to between four and seven piglets, the average is now thirteen, and up to sixteen (or more) in certain cases, due to selective breeding. As a result, 12% of piglets die after being born due to crushing, starvation or hypothermia.

Secondly, stock person safety is related to the stress that confinement causes to a pig. But her inability to carry out her natural maternal behaviours, such as building a nest and mothering her young, unsurprisingly, sparks aggression. This is undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that she is forced (by being held down and artificially inseminated) to endure this process twice a year (naturally, she would only produce one litter annually), and on each occasion, her piglets are forcibly taken from her. 

Piglets are mutilated on pig farms

Taken from their mothers at less than a month old, piglets are moved into ‘growing sheds’ with pigs from other litters; barren environments with little opportunity to play. However, pigs are naturally very playful, and socialising is vital for their development. When allowed to live freely, they will play with each other, with objects and on their own, play-fight and chase one another. Happy pigs will shake and carry sticks, push balls with their snouts and toss straw about. They will also develop strong bonds with other pigs and form friendships, often for life. Depriving them of these natural instincts is not only cruel, it leads to behavioural problems as the pigs grow older.

The transportation of pigs

Pigs are unable to be ‘herded’. Due to their unnaturally large size (they are genetically manipulated to reach ‘market weight’ when they are just six months old) and because they are kept in such crowded conditions and are unable to move around, many pigs develop arthritis and become lame. Despite this natural aversion and the fact that many are unable to walk or even stand, they are forcibly loaded onto trucks – in numbers limited only by the size of the vehicles - to be transported to slaughter.

Pigs are incredibly sensitive to the feelings of others around them, and it is well known that they don’t travel well and can suffer from travel sickness. Regardless, they can legally be transported non-stop for 24 hours without any ‘rest’ stops. There is also no legal requirement for them to have access to food or even water during these journeys, prior to which it is also recommended that they are fasted. 

Not only are pigs deprived of food and water, but the extreme overcrowding means that they are unable to lie down and, without the ability to mud-bathe, they can’t regulate their body temperature either. Therefore, by the time they arrive at a slaughterhouse, pigs are highly stressed, dehydrated and exhausted. This assumes that they survive the journey. In 2021, a total of 3,000 incidents of trauma and illness, such as lameness, prolapses and even emaciation, were recorded on arrival, and among this number were 770 deaths.  

The horrifying process of pig slaughter

Larger pig breeds can naturally live for up to twelve years. However, those bred for meat are killed at the tender age of just five or six months old, and almost ten million are slaughtered in the UK every year, the majority (over 85%) by gassing and the remainder by electrical stunning. 

Gassing involves herding groups of up to six pigs into a ‘gondola’ or carriage and then lowering them into a chamber where they are exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide. The aim is to render them unconscious before they are then strung up on hooks by their hind legs, their throats cut (‘stuck’) and then left to bleed to death. Electrical stunning is carried out by clamping electrodes to each side of a pig’s head, and passing a current through his or her brain to render unconsciousness before also being ‘bled out’.

No matter which method is used, it is not instant, and the pigs suffer unimaginable pain. As they are forced into the gondola, those destined to be gassed scream and struggle as they try to escape. Then, once exposed, they can and do remain conscious for several minutes, during which time they feel their insides burn as they suffocate. Stunning is known to fail frequently, meaning the pigs can be conscious when they are strung up and ‘stuck’. 

Pigs are commonly abused on farms and in slaughterhouses

Being born into a life of such exploitation is tragic in itself, but the fact that the practices and procedures employed by the farming industry are entirely legal is hard to comprehend. And they are used virtually across the board. While a proportion (4%) of farmed pigs will spend their entire lives outdoors, and 0.5% are organically farmed (there is no legal definition of ‘free range’ when it comes to pig production), all pigs will still face the same fate when it comes to transportation and slaughter.

Of course, however woeful, laws governing the treatment of pigs may exist on paper, but this doesn’t mean that they are enforced nor complied with. Indeed, a 2022 report on the farming industry by the Animal Law Foundation revealed damming evidence of both systemic non-compliance and a lack of accountable action. But shockingly, it also set out how in 100% of undercover investigations that took place between 2016 and 2021, not only was some form of illegal treatment witnessed, but neglect, prolonged suffering, and deliberate and violent abuse.

Our own exposes have captured a horrific culture of cruelty within pig farming, from small family-run businesses to major supermarket-contracted suppliers and slaughterhouses. And so-called ‘higher-welfare’ operators fare no better, as our footage of RSPCA Assured transport workers clearly shows.

Let’s create a better world for everyone

However human-like they may be, it seems that this isn’t enough for us to afford pigs the respect and dignity, or even a right to life, they deserve. But should having human qualities really be necessary for us to consider not treating fellow beings as mere objects? In Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, Gary L Francione and Anna Charlton argue not, and that if he or she has his or her own preferences, wants and desires (as pigs clearly do), then that is sufficient for them not to be used as simply a means to human ends. 

Until we choose to see pigs for who they really are, it is heartbreakingly likely they will continue to be condemned to a life that is almost impossible to consider worth living. To quote Jane Goodall once again, “The more people understand that animals, especially group-living mammals with complex brains, have rich emotional lives and above all are capable of suffering – mentally as well as physically – the sooner we may succeed in changing the inappropriate ways in which so many millions of animals are treated.”

As always,

For the animals.

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