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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

What makes hog farmers so important?

Published 12/08/09
By Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate

It was around October 22nd that an Ontario hog farmer by the name of Wayne Bartels gained his fifteen minutes of fame the hard way. He was broke, as is true of many people with the recession. Bartels owed $11,000 in unpaid bills to Haldimand County Hydro. The company cut off the electricity to his farm. The 4,500 pigs on his farm faced unpleasant death from overheating once he ran out of fuel for the two diesel generators that powered the ventilation system essential to the animals’ survival.

As it happens, at about the same time the press was reporting on the plight of the financially strapped hog farmer, there was a totally unrelated story on the news about a new book, The Boy in the Moon, by Canadian journalist Ian Brown. Just published by Random House Canada, the book was about Brown’s son, Walker, now 12. The child suffers from one of the rarest of diseases, cardiofacio-cutaneous-syndrome, or CFC, a devastating genetic mutation. Brown says that watching his son can be like looking at the moon: “You see the face of the man in the moon, yet you know there’s actually no man there.”

The boy is unable to speak, and can only eat the food that is inserted directly into his stomach via a tube, and must wear diapers, as well as a helmet to guard his head from self-inflicted injury. It is a ghastly, tragic situation. But, Brown concludes, life matters to his son. It’s his life. “... why does he feel so important?” asks Brown. “What is he trying to show me? All I really want to know is what goes on inside his off-shaped head, in his jumped-up heart. But every time I ask, he somehow persuades me to look into my own.”

The hog farmer’s plight and the launch of the book-author’s promotional interviews are totally unrelated beyond the fact that they happened to occur at about the same time. That, and that they made me again ponder the disconnected feelings we are expected to have toward certain other beings whose lives are as important to them as Walker’s appears to be to him. Like Walker, they cannot help how they were born.

I speak, of course, of hogs, but let us first briefly consider an animal most of us have a more intimate knowledge of, the dog. Last August 8 Canadian canine researcher Stanley Coren, of the University of British Columbia, told a Toronto conference of the American Psychological Association that dogs were approximately as intelligent as a two-year-old human, with the smartest dogs learning about 250 words. On one hand such comparisons bother me. For one thing, a two-year-old human cannot be self-dependent, but a dog, especially a wild species of canine such as a coyote or jackal, definitely can be.

On the other hand these comparisons are useful in reminding us, as so many of my fellow dog aficionados can never forget, how much dogs, like young humans, can experience pleasure in the act of living, and, no less than any human child let alone a child suffering severe mental and physical incapacitation, their lives are as important to them as ours are to us. And pigs, the folks who study such things tell us, are on average more intelligent than dogs.

That does not stop people from eating pigs, or dogs. Not many of the latter are eaten by humans in North America, true, but some 100 million are killed annually in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, Wayne Bartels’ herd is a drop in a very bloody bucket.

Bartels wanted help, of course, and assured us that he loved his pigs, and loved farming. Apparently we were supposed to feel sorry for him, and farmers like him, caught up in economic forces far beyond their ability to control. For hog farmers that included not only the effects of the recession, but decline in sales due to concerns about so-called “swine flu,” the H1N1 virus. Mind you, things were, as they so often seem to be, tough for farmers before then, but when the media reported that the a “pandemic” was on the way, and was caused by a virus that originated in hogs, the situation for the pork producer went from bad to worse. For the pigs it simply remained horrid.

While initially the origin of this officially-declared pandemic was reported to be Mexico, in fact it was recently traced to a factory farm in North Carolina. Viruses are not really “alive” but, like living things, can reproduce when inside a host cell. Viruses consist of ultra-minute bits of DNA or RNA within a coating of protein and can mix and match various elements from various sources, producing “hybrids.” H1N1 apparently (I’m no expert!) is made up of such elements from human, bird, and pig viruses. Because of their sub-microscopic size they are easily transmitted via bodily fluids. And the more they do so the more likely there will be new changes. And some can lead to diseases. Commenting on an earlier pandemic fear, the so-called “avian influenza” H5N1, which originated in Asia in 2006, Earl Brown, a professor at the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa, said, “When you have high density conditions and overcrowding, like you would see in a pig farm, then the mutation occurs much more quickly as it passes from one snout to the next.”

Of course you can’t catch H1N1 from eating cooked pork, and we have been continually assured that the virus can only live about an hour on the raw tissue of a dead pig. But must we eat dead pigs? As a child I was taught that the answer was yes, and developed a great fondness for bacon, spare ribs, pork chops, pork pies and ham — very frequent and mouth-watering components of my diet. I never thought about the pigs, but when I did, I revisited the question, and discovered that no, I didn’t have to eat pork, or any dead animals, and stopped doing so.

And yet the farmers say we must. Society implies, indeed insists, that we feel compassion for any human, no matter how limited that human’s ability to think, to enjoy, to develop, may be, and I think that is a good thing. But why must we produce beings whose ability to think, enjoy, and develop is no less than that of any human toddler?

Were I to buy and drive a Hummer, keep the windows open all winter while heating my house with coal, or leave my air-conditioning on when I was away from home, I assure you my ever-so-helpful and friendly neighbors would be critical of the size of my carbon footprint, and rightly so. And yet, if they encounter any news they must surely by now know that most inconvenient truth, that as the United Nations reported in 2006, livestock production accounts for 18% of the worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course there are numerous other horrors connected to hog production, such as (but certainly not limited to) the massive waste “lagoon” spillage of 25 million gallons of hog manure into North Carolina’s New River in 1995, killing some ten million fish and devastating the local shellfish industry. Indeed, from 1995 to 1998, a thousand similar, if smaller, spills from various feedlots across the U.S. killed an estimated 13 million fish.

One could also refer to health concerns. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three American adults is obese. The reasons are complex, but massive meat consumption is invariably identified as a contributing factor.

The bottom line is I’ll be damned if I’ll shed a tear for the plight of any hog farmer, any livestock farmer, who wants to continue in the business. Wayne Bartels argued passionately, on the radio, about how important farming was to him: a family tradition. I know what it is like to go broke. In my youth I lost my own ability to survive financially by doing what I had a passion for: rescuing wildlife in need. No one bailed me out, and in fact, the service that hog farmers provide is one we’re better off without.

So I repeat: What makes hog farmers so important? We’re better off without them.

Blogging off,

Barry

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