I saw firsthand how clever and empathic pigs can be. A sow and her entire litter had escaped their crate and gathered in the hallway. I examined how they’d escaped and discovered that the sow had loosened steel pegs in two different places. I told a co-worker this story and she said that when a sow figures out how to unlock her crate, she often goes around unlocking all of the other crates as well.
Using a “captive bolt pistol,” a worker fired a rod into the sow’s head once, but she didn’t die. She stood looking stunned, as blood trickled down her forehead. She then got her bearings and turned and tried to run. After a struggle – kicking her and yanking her ears – the worker got in another shot, which sent her down. She spasmed for about 15 minutes in a pool of her own blood. Afterward, our supervisor told me she was dubbing my co-worker “Two-Shot” because he rarely killed sows with one bolt.
Pigs crated…beaten…mutilated…neglected…and killed by toxic gas or massive head trauma – these are just a handful of the nightmarish findings of a recent Mercy For Animals investigation of Country View Family Farms, a factory pig breeding facility in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania.
Country View confines over 7,000 pigs and is owned by Hatfield Quality Meats. Pigs bred at this cruel facility are slaughtered and sold as meat under the Hatfield Quality Meats label by major grocers such as Walmart, Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, Sam’s Club and Costco.
During the spring of 2009, an MFA undercover investigator, “Mike,” worked as a barn technician at Country View. Equipped with a pinhole-sized camera that he wore on his body, he captured on film a rare glimpse into the gruesome and secretive world of industrial pork production.
The conditions documented are standard within the pork industry.
Life Sentence - No Parole
At this factory farm, approximately 1,500 stalls run side-by-side and face-to-face, farther than the eye can see. These “gestation” stalls are approximately two-feet wide and barely longer than the sows themselves, allowing them no movement except a step forward or backward. Caught in a constant cycle of impregnation and re-impregnation, breeding sows spend almost their entire lives locked in these barren metal enclosures.
Many sows have deep sores on their shoulders, noses and heads from constant rubbing against the bars of their stalls. The stall floors consist of slatted concrete, designed to allow manure to fall through; however, much of the manure sits stagnant, smearing on the sows’ undersides.
Sows are unable to lie down in their stalls, other than on their sides with their feet, legs, bellies and tails often protruding through the bars. Many display neurotic behavior, such as biting the bars or banging their heads against them.
Gestation crates are so cruel that the entire European Union and seven U.S. States have banned their use.
Workers castrate and tail dock between 100 and 500 piglets each day. Castration is to prevent testicular hormones from “tainting” the flavor of the pigs’ flesh, and tail docking is to prevent pigs from gnawing on each other’s tails, a behavior that often arises from the stress of extreme overcrowding.
Workers grab a piglet out of his crate by a leg, hold him upside down, slice open his scrotal sacks with a knife and tear out the testes and connective tissue with their bare hands. They then clip the piglets’ tails at the base with a dull pair of scissors.
No anesthesia is administered for either procedure. The piglets screech, heave and violently struggle – their eyes bulging, mouths gaping and legs jutting out to brace against the pain.
Often during castration, a piglet’s intestines will fall out of the scrotal incision. These piglets, termed “ruptured,” are dropped into a gas cart to be put to death later, once enough piglets have accumulated in the cart to economically justify expending the gas.
Veterinarians and animal scientists harshly condemn such knife-castration and tail docking. Dr. Nedim C. Buyukmihci, Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis states, “The pain of castration is intense regardless of the age at which it is done…Regardless of any arguments to the contrary, to castrate or cut off tails without the use of anesthetic is cruel…”
Dr. Buyukmihci continues, “Tail docking is completely unnecessary and the piglets at this facility had to endure the pain of this procedure and its long-term effects for no defensible reason.”
Marks of Cruelty
Sows are “tattooed” and ear-tagged with individual ID numbers. Workers tattoo the sows by taking a mallet with ¾-inch spikes on the end, dipping the end in ink and then driving the spikes into the sows’ flesh, once above each leg. The first blow sends the sows squalling and fleeing their assailants. Workers then stalk the sows in the pens, as they crowd into corners, looking for the next opportunity to pound them with the mallet.
Ear tagging is also performed without anesthesia, using a clamp that forces a metal spike through the pigs’ ears. The pigs’ extended shrieking and head-shaking attest to the severe pain it causes.
Mothers in Misery
Twice a year sows experience minutes of mobility as they make the journey from their gestation stalls to “farrowing” stalls, where they spend one month birthing and nursing their young. Because the sows so rarely get a chance to walk, when they realize that they are about to enter another small stall, many resist, bucking and squealing and trying to push past the workers. Workers force them forward by yanking their ears and kicking their hindquarters or back them into the stalls by kicking them in the face.
Playful animals that they are, piglets like to wrestle and chase one another. In the minimal space of the stalls, such innocent play can turn deadly, as they often run under their standing mothers and are crushed to death under her or between her and the sides of the stalls when she sits down. One piglet had been flattened from his lower ribs back. In a natural setting, where sows have the freedom to move more than just up or down, they tread carefully, so as not to harm their precious young.
Piglets and their mothers also frequently become lodged between or pinned under the bars of the stalls. Mike discovered one sow who had gotten her head stuck between the floor and the bottom bar of her stall, and in the ensuing struggle to free herself, appeared to have twisted her neck. A co-worker concurred that she likely had snapped her neck, and noted that this was not the first time this had happened.
Handling of pigs is rough and often appears malicious. Workers “wean” piglets by grabbing them from their mothers by an ear, a leg, or sometimes with a “grabber” – a long pole with two grasping metal jaws on the end. One worker flips a piglet off the end of the grabber into the air. The piglet repeatedly somersaults, screeching wildly, before the worker catches him in the palm of one hand and tosses him into a bin teeming with other panicked piglets.
Workers callously throw piglets, passing them to one another like footballs, over distances of several feet. At times one worker holds the piglets as high in the air as he can and lets them drop, or forcefully slams them into the bins of piglets, as though spiking after a touchdown. Once he tried spinning a piglet in midair towards the bin. The piglet hit his back on the edge of the bin and fell on the floor.
After reviewing the undercover footage of workers mishandling pigs, Dr. Debra Teachout, a practicing veterinarian with an advanced degree in veterinary clinical pathology, emphatically asserted, “This entire operation deserves to be shut down.”
According to Dr. Geoff Ball, a licensed veterinarian, whose training has included pig farming, pigs have long-term memories greater than three years. Dr. Ball says of the manner of handling at Country View:
[T]hese animals are constantly berated by stressors. From gestation crates where they cannot even move…to farrowing pens where their piglets are grabbed from them screaming, to pens where the tattooing takes place, there is no break from affliction. For animals that remember each occurrence and can anticipate the next, the level of psychological stress has to be immeasurable.
Typical of factory farms, the animals at Country View often suffered from advanced injuries and illnesses. No matter how severe the affliction, however, Mike never observed veterinary care provided to any animal.
He documented numerous sows with prolapsed rectums – a painful condition in which the rectum herniates outside the body – including one case that festered for at least 13 days, decaying, turning black and emanating a putrid odor. Mike repeatedly reported such cases to management, but as a worker said of one sow, “We don’t treat that. We’ll let her wean her babies, if she makes it that long. Then she’s probably a goner.”
Dr. Temple Grandin, associate professor of livestock behavior at Colorado State University and animal welfare advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the meat industry, describes Country View’s failure to treat the sow’s prolapse as “abusive animal neglect.”
There were also several lame sows, including one who appeared to have a broken back, and another with a lame leg who was unable to lift herself up to eat. At first she flopped around, but soon just resigned herself to screaming.
Trail of Terror
Piglets are weaned from their mothers at about five weeks of age and most are sent to a “finishing” shed to be raised for meat. Shaking and striking the piglets with rattling jugs, workers scare them out of their stalls, occasionally smacking uncooperative piglets hard enough to send them flying out.
They stampede the piglets, hundreds at a time, down a narrow hall and onto a ramp leading into a transport truck. The terrified piglets try to force their way through the throng and climb over one another, in a frantic effort to escape the raucous rattling and “herding boards,” which workers thrust in front of them whenever they attempt to move anywhere but forward.
"Squealing Bloody Murder"
Sows who are too sick, injured or old to profitably maintain are put to death using a “captive bolt pistol,” which shoots a thick metal rod through the sow’s skull. Captive bolt killing is purported to be quicker and less cruel than other killing methods, but Mike frequently noted this not to be the case.
Once a worker returned from bolting a sow, looking exhausted. She told Mike that the sow could not use her back legs, but still managed to give her trouble. She persisted in dragging herself in the “wrong” direction, “squealing bloody murder,” as the worker tried to lead her outdoors to kill her. She said that she was shouting and shoving the sow, and finally just said, “Goodbye, pig” and bolted her in the middle of the feed aisle.
Another worker remarked that on one occasion a sow had taken four bolts before she died, and on another a sow had died after one bolt, but staggered around vomiting for a long time before she died.
"It's Incredibly Cruel"
Sick, injured and runt piglets are put to death in a CO2 gas cart. Mike’s supervisor told him that death is supposed to occur within five minutes, but that it usually takes 10 or more. “It’s incredibly cruel,” she told him, “but it’s how we’re told to do it.”
Mike frequently discovered that piglets were still alive after the gassing process, lying on their sides, eyes open and gasping for air. The pained vocalizing of one piglet could still be heard, his intestines dangling out of his body. On one occasion Mike observed four live piglets in the cart, who had been slowly suffocating from the gas for over 40 minutes.
According to Dr. Holly Cheever, a licensed veterinarian who also assists law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of cruelty to animals, “…it is painful as well as terrifying to experience this suffocation without being fully killed.”
Over the course of a day, buckets and cartloads of dead piglets accumulate in the hallways. Like all factory-farmed animals, these piglets are viewed as mere profits and losses, rather than the emotionally complex individuals that they were. As the dead are loaded onto a tractor, the industry’s disregard for the value and potential of their lives is expressed by Mike’s co-workers, who term the process, “dumping the day.”
The Power of Our Plates
The average American consumes about 35 farmed animals per year. We can transform that number into animals spared, not killed, by choosing a vegan diet, free of meat, dairy and eggs.
What’s more, it’s never been easier to go vegan, as mainstream grocers have kept up with the rapidly growing demand for animal-friendly fare. We can boycott not only the pork industry, but the cruel egg industry, by serving a savory tofu scramble instead of eggs alongside our vegan “sausage” patties or “bacon” strips, and say “no” to dairy farm cruelty by topping our meatless beer brats with “Nayonaise” or “Vegenaise” instead of dairy Mayonnaise, or melting soy, rice or nut cheese over our “pepperoni” pizza toppers.
The power to stop animal suffering is on our plates, as much as in our hearts. As consumers, each of us has tremendous power; it’s as simple as using our consumer dollars to support compassionate food industries over cruel ones.
- Brooke Mays