Pregnant and caged

In our society, pregnant women are treated with care and compassion while they experience the physical and emotional stresses of pregnancy. As a mother-to-be, I am so grateful for the courtesy and kindness I receive from those around me, and the opportunities I have every day to rest, be comfortable and simply reflect on my coming motherhood.

But others are not as lucky. As I navigate the challenges of pregnancy, I find myself dwelling on the plight of the more than one million pregnant pigs intensively confined in gestation crates in Canada who endure intense suffering during the most vulnerable times of their lives.

Gestation crates are small, metal cages used to tightly confine pregnant pigs in the pork industry, and they are among the most inhumane systems in animal agriculture. The crates are barely larger than the pigs, preventing them from turning around or even lying down comfortably. Typically just 24 inches wide, these cages are lined up row after row in facilities that often confine thousands of animals. The sows are forced to live in these suffocating conditions, packed between other sows just inches away on either side, over open pits of manure and amidst the stench of excrement and urine.

Just like ours, these mother pigs’ bodies are already stressed during pregnancy. I can’t even imagine the misery these animals live through day after day in these inhumane conditions. Some studies show pigs are more intelligent than the dogs we call our best friends. By nature, pigs are maternal and nurturing. Left to her own devices, a mother pig will build a nest for her piglets where she will give birth to them and nurse them for several months. Yet in intensive confinement systems, these sensitive animals are prevented from satisfying their most basic psychological needs or engaging in most of their social and natural behaviours including rooting, foraging, nest-building, grazing and wallowing.

Just as concerning are the devastating physical effects, which include respiratory disease, foot and leg disorders, urinary tract infections and cardiovascular problems. I’ve been in many facilities that use gestation crates and the severe suffering of these animals is undeniable. The extreme frustration experienced by these broken-down mothers causes them to bite at the metal bars that confine them, sometimes until their mouths bleed. Open sores are visible on their bodies. I remember the overwhelming sense of desperation that flooded those places, and the helplessness I felt at not being able to get the pigs out of these inhumane cages.

But finally, there is real hope. Polling shows an overwhelming 84 percent of Canadians support a total phase out of the use of gestation crates in this country and the treatment of farm animals is getting more attention than ever before. Countless retailers are eliminating gestation crates from their supply chains in response to consumer pressure, including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Loblaws. Meanwhile, many family farmers have been raising pigs without the use of gestation crates for generations.

In response, a new draft code of practice for the treatment of pigs on Canadian farms has just been released. It includes significant improvements to animal welfare standards, including a phase out of the lifelong confinement of pigs in cages. However, the current proposed standard will still allow for pregnant pigs to be housed in gestation crates for up to five weeks at a time per pregnancy. That adds up to more than three months of almost complete immobilisation every year. The length of this confinement is not supported by science and is simply unacceptable. I urge the committee to reconsider this standard based on the best available science, the demands of major Canadian retailers and members of the public, and in the name of offering the most basic level of welfare for animals in our care.

The fact is, consumers don’t approve of confining pigs inside gestation crates for any duration. A forward-thinking industry would adapt now to the overwhelming public demand for minimal animal welfare standards in food production. Without a doubt, it is the only logical direction for an industry that wants to expand its domestic market and international sales to nations who have long since eliminated these cruel confinement devices.

Read the response to this op-ed: Farmers, not activists, should be in charge of pig care

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