If Pigs Were Pets

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Credit: Ken Balcomb / Center for Whale Research

Empathy can be a powerful thing. Who would have predicted that millions of viewers connecting so deeply with the plight of a dead pilot whale calf on Blue Planet II would spark off an international war of outrage on plastics? Or more recently, the viral reaction on social media to Tahlequah, a 20-year-old Orca, also known as J35, who carried her dead calf for 17 days off the Pacific Northwest coast of America in what researchers have described as a record-breaking “tour of grief”? Experts suggest that the killer whale bonded closely with her calf before it died, hinting at the complex emotional lives of these cetaceans.

Yet, anyone who has a pet dog or cat gains fresh insight into their inner lives every day. As Dr Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, told me recently, she had a teacher who taught her every day that animals have personalities, minds and emotions; that teacher was her dog, Rusty.

However, scientists have traditionally frowned at such empathy, describing it as ‘anthropomorphism’ – prescribing human characteristics to animals – and getting in the way of objectivity.

And there are interests in our food industry that would prefer we suppress this empathy too. Not so much in pursuit of scientific rigour, but for fear we may be put off buying meat and other products if we knew what producing them entailed.

How many of us pause to really think of the life of the sentient being behind the plastic packaging of the meat and dairy we purchase on supermarket shelves?

The fact that many of us don’t is perhaps unsurprising.

In days gone by, the butcher on the high street would have hung carcasses outside his shop. Today, many millions of pounds are spent with branding companies designing engaging packaging suggestive of happy farm animals in buttercup fields. Labelling terms are used to market the products under terms like ‘farm fresh’ and ‘country fresh’. The sad reality is that many of the products sold like this are fresh from the factory farm.

How much do we scrutinise the promises behind the labels? Is Tahlequah, the grieving orca, so very different from the dairy cows whose calves are taken away in order to provide our milk, and who are also known to grieve and call out for days afterwards?

One thing is for sure, here in the UK we are a nation of animal lovers. Almost half of households have a pet. Daily there are pet stories that spread far and wide in the media and on social. Some have their own highly profitable, social media sites, others successfully raise thousands through crowd funding to pay for complex operations and help rescue dogs. There seems to be no limit to what we will do, or how much we will spend, on our love for our domestic pets.

Why then the disconnect with the life of the similarly sentient animals that provide our food?

The suffering on factory farms is the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet. Yet, much of it goes on behind closed doors, out of sight, out of mind.

In the same nation of animal lovers that, quite rightly, won’t stand for abject cruelty to our companion animals, much of our meat and dairy comes from intensive farms, where animals are treated in ways that many of us wouldn’t stand for either. If only we knew.

How then can we react strongly to cruelty to our companion animals, yet seemingly turn a blind eye to the intolerable suffering that may have gone into producing the meat on our plate?

Intensively reared sows in tiny stalls

Is it a genuine disconnect that has developed over time or a lack of information? Scientists have proved beyond doubt that pigs are every bit as intelligent as dogs, yet the life of a pig on an industrial farm is horrific. Just imagine how dog lovers would react if Labradors or French Bulldogs, now top breeds, were treated in the same way as a factory farmed pig. Mothering sows giving birth in farrowing crates so small they can’t even turn around for weeks at a time. Bored piglets’ in barren conditions often having their teeth painfully clipped and tails cut off without anaesthetic. Slaughtered as young as five months old.

At the abattoir, half the pigs are gassed with CO2, causing them panic, pain and terror for up to 60 seconds or more. They go to their deaths hyperventilating, fighting for breath and screaming. Hardly the gentle ‘putting to sleep’ that the industry would have us believe under the guise of ‘humane’ slaughter. It’s a method long condemned by the government’s own expert advisory body, yet has crept in as the norm for pigs slaughtered for supermarkets.

If pigs were our pets, the animal loving nation of the UK would take to the streets to demand urgent, definitive action and, of course, the government would listen.

And there’s very little appetite within the food industry to tell consumers how these creatures were kept, how the pork, bacon, chicken or beef was produced.

Honest Labelling Reality

A shopper standing in front of the meat and dairy section of the grocery store can be overwhelmed by confusing and misleading labels. Stickers and labels like ‘all-natural’ and ‘farm fresh’ give the impression animals are treated well on farms, but in reality, these terms are completely meaningless.

Yet, despite efforts to disguise the way pigs and chickens are shut away, never seeing daylight for that cheap pork or chicken nugget, more of us are discovering what’s behind the label. Growing numbers of consumers are connecting with that basic human empathy for other creatures and choosing genuinely higher welfare labels such as ‘free range’, ‘RSPCA-Assured’ or ‘organic’.

But it’s not easy to pick these out in a sea of misleading labels.

At the very least, we need government to end this effective blindfolding of consumers, by making it a legal requirement for every piece of meat, every carton of milk to state how it was produced. If it was intensively produced on a factory farm, then it should say so on the label. We have a right to know.

We need to wrestle our humanity, our love and compassion for the animals within our food system back from the hands of those who don’t want us to know what’s going on.

We should have the right to freely express that basic human value of empathy; be it for Tahlequah, our Labrador, or that pig who brought home the bacon.

If you would like to support our #HonestLabelling campaign, please sign our petition to demand simple, clear labelling, so we can expose the truth behind the meat and dairy production process and make informed choices: Thank you.

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