Thursday, 7 April 2016

Farming Part One : The Pigs

The HUHANZ animal shelter used a Facebook page   to call for action to draw attention to the latest of three fires at a Waikato controlled environment pig farm.  A total of 750 or so pigs have died in these fires; the first fire in 2005 under previous ownership killed 300, a fire 8 months ago under the current owners killed 400, and the latest fire killed 50 sows in farrowing crates.

Farrowing crates were developed by the pig industry because, as a result of selective breeding, sows are very heavy and cumbersome and made more so by a lifestyle that denies them adequate movement, and they have very large litters. The sow’s bulk and lack of fitness, combined with enormous litters, the stresses of confinement and the frustration of the instincts to separate and nest build as farrowing is imminent, can lead to high piglet mortality. 

Hence the crates, in which sows are imprisoned prior to giving birth and for up to 4 weeks afterwards.  The crate does not allow the sow to turn around and it forces her to lie down which allows the piglets to suckle and decreases the risk of them being crushed, smothered or savaged by their over-stressed mother.

In a crate the sow is effectively reduced to a milk machine - a living version of the ‘calfeterias’ that dairy producers use to feed those offspring of dairy cows that are destined to be replacements for dairy herds or to be raised for beef.

Crating is horrible enough when you consider pigs’ intelligence and the frustration of basic instincts but it enters the realms of the horrific when there is a fire. The thought of any animal trapped in a cage in a fire appals most people and anyone it doesn’t appal is surely missing an essential element of their humanity.

The latest fire at the facility is thought to have been electrical and possibly due to damage to wiring caused by the numerous rats.  The owners, who sold a dairy farm to move into intensive pig farming, say they had had problems with equipment failure. Observers have pointed to the absence of an automatic sprinkler system and fire extinguishers.

When the news broke that this facility had had its third fire, HUHA members called for a vigil on the road outside it. It was a small scale affair, quiet and dignified and aimed at raising awareness of the lives and deaths of animals in intensive farming operations.

There was a lot of support for it on the HUHA Facebook page but also some opposition, some of it from people who claimed to be motivated by concern for the feelings of the farmers. One of the most active of the critics, on her own FB page, supported a petition to withdraw the charitable status of the animal rights group, SAFE which has been a thorn in the side of controlled environment and intensive dairy farming. 

Several of those who were critical of the vigil claimed that the sows would have died or been rendered unconscious by smoke and fumes before the fire reached them which means they would not have suffered.

The fact that people and companion animals often die of smoke/toxic gas inhalation in house fires does not mean that animals in shed or barn fires will die or lose consciousness from smoke inhalation before burning to death.  Whether the smoke and fumes render them insensible or kill them depends on the nature of the combustible material and how the building is constructed and ventilated. 

Most importantly, those who use this rather shabby argument ignore the fact that caged animals who smell and hear a fire will be in a state of utter terror for some time before they are overcome by fumes.   Even if the flames or the radiant heat did not burn the pigs alive, it would not have been a quick or an easy death. 

The critics also avoid the fact that, if the building had had very good smoke alarms and a sprinkler system or other effective means of quickly dousing a fire, and had the owners had plans for responding to a fire - even if the way the fire started was beyond any reasonable person’s ability to anticipate or prevent - the animals may well have been saved.

One of the critics even made the astonishing statement that, if animal rights people were so concerned about the fire risk, THEY should have installed sprinkler systems in the facility themselves after the last fire and, as they hadn’t, they were as culpable as the owners.

Another argument was that the appropriate course of action was to write to the MPI to call for improved fire safety standards and the vigil was highly insensitive to the feelings of the owners who were suffering as a result of the loss of their animals and property 

The argument is an odd one. The claim is that the vast majority of farmers, including these particular famers, are deeply concerned about the welfare of their animals and do everything they can to ensure their welfare, however, the only way that high health, welfare and safety standards on all farms can be guaranteed is by tighter government regulation.  So, if pigs burn to death it's because the standards are too low which means the government is to blame - not the farmer who chooses to operate at or below the bare industry minimum. 

As to the hurt feelings of the owners of the pig farm, it seems logical to ask, if they had the intention to run it in a safe and professional manner, why did they not do due diligence when buying the facility or, having realised after purchase that the buildings and equipment were sub-standard, why did they not make the necessary improvements immediately - and if necessary, take buildings out of commission until they were safe? 

I believe that if you make your living by locking animals in cage or inside a building and you:
fail to control rodents which might degrade electrical wiring;
do not to install a sprinkler system and/or have other fire fighting equipment appropriate for different types of fire;
do not install and maintain smoke alarms that can be heard from or are linked to the farm house or staff quarters; and,
do not have evacuation plans for the animals – then I am sorry but you cannot claim to care about animal welfare or expect the likes of me to feel sorry for you.  

I don’t care if it's poultry, pigs, cows or horses. If, for your convenience and/or your profit, you lock animals in a cage or a shed, leaving aside the wider welfare issues, you have the moral responsibility to do everything you can to prevent fire and to be able to fight it.  If the current law does not make you criminally liable for harm to animals occasioned by your failure to ensure health and safety, then the law is wrong and needs to be strengthened.

Or we could just ban all factory farming.

Edit: link to FB page hosted by HUHANZ 

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