Educational Series: It’s Time to Stop Treating Pigs as Walking Meat

By Nick Engelfried
More than probably any other animal species, pigs are considered by countless people around the world to be practically synonymous with meat. In the U.S. alone, approximately 120 million pigs are slaughtered every year to make ham, sausage, and other meat products consumers love. Yet, what is much less widely appreciated is that pigs are intelligent, sensitive creatures who exhibit complex social behaviors under natural conditions. Once you really understand this, it becomes hard to escape the realization that the way our society treats these animals is deeply flawed.

Pigs have lived in close quarters with humans since as far back in time as 10,000 years ago, when the first wild boars are believed to have been domesticated. In fact, the species appears to have been brought into domestication at least twice: in the Mekong Valley of China and in modern-day Turkey, two of the earliest centers of agriculture. From these focal points, pigs spread throughout the Eurasian continent–and eventually the whole world–occasionally interbreeding with local wild boar populations who left their genetic mark on today’s hogs..

In fact, domestic pigs still share many traits with their wild relatives, of which the wild boar is their closest ancestor. There are sixteen members of the pig family, or Suidae, most of which are voracious omnivores who feed on a mixed diet of plants and small animals. Some suids–like the common warthog, found in savannas and woodlands throughout Africa–have an immense natural range. Others, like the critically endangered Visayan warty pig, are found on only a handful of small islands in Southeast Asia.

Although members of the Suidae family are found naturally in much of Europe, Asia, and Africa, none are native to the Western Hemisphere. In the United States, the phrase “wild pig” can mean one of two things–either it refers to feral domestic pigs introduced by humans, which have become established in large parts of the Eastern U.S., or it is used to describe peccaries, a family of pig-like animals found in Central and South America and the Desert Southwest. Despite resembling true pigs in many ways, peccaries belong to a separate family, the Tayassuidae.

Today, domestic pigs can be found over a much larger share of the globe than any other pig species, having been imported to every continent except Antarctica. There are currently estimated to be over 750,000 domestic pigs in the world, with over half living in China. Yet, of those in captivity, only a tiny fraction will ever live out their natural lifespans. What is worse, most pigs in industrialized countries like the U.S. lead lives of misery and terror before finally being slaughtered for their meat.

The large majority of pigs on factory farms are killed before they reach their first birthday–and during their short lifespans they are among the most ill-treated animals in the world. As a standard practice, mother pigs are kept in barren cages called gestation crates, which are too small for an adult pig to turn around in. Piglets, when they are born, are not treated any better; they and their mother are moved to another type of cage called a “farrowing crate,” where they are kept in quarters too cramped to engage in natural behaviors. Young pigs often have their tails, ear notches, and teeth removed without anesthesia. When they reach full size, they are typically stunned with an electrical gun and then killed with a cut to the throat.

Animals on factory farms are deprived of bedding, sunshine, and almost all the other things that make life in the wild comfortable. This is particularly torturous for an intelligent species like pigs. In the wild, pigs would spend their time roaming over large territories, using their acute sense of smell to forage for food, and interacting with other members of their species. The social structure of feral pigs centers around small, matriarchal groups composed of sows and their young, who interact with each other and sleep in communal nests. Adult males, or boars, are more solitary than females and a dominant boar will drive others out of his territory. Sows and boars both readily recognize individuals in their social group, an essential skill for animals with complex social habits.

Pigs are also good mothers. When the time to give birth approaches, a wild sow will temporarily leave her group and seek out an isolated place to bring her piglets into the world. She may travel for miles to find an ideal place to make a nest, which she builds by digging a depression in the earth and lining it with plant material. The care a mother pig puts into caring for her young could not be more different from the treatment piglets receive on factory farms, where they grow up in barren, tiny crates.

The ill-treatment of pigs is certainly a tragedy for the abused animals themselves. However, it also jeopardizes human health and even that of the entire planet. Pollution from factory farms is poorly regulated in the United States, and these facilities regularly discharge pig manure and urine into enormous ponds of liquefied waste known as “lagoons.” Manure lagoons emit noxious chemicals that may cause asthma and other breathing problems among people in nearby communities. In some cases, waste from lagoons is periodically sprayed over agricultural fields, where much of it runs off into local waterways. Remaining animal waste in lagoons breaks down without oxygen, a process that produces the potent greenhouse gas methane.

The abuses suffered by domestic pigs, and the effects of these practices on the environment and human health, are horrific. However, there are rays of hope in the fight to end some of the worst pig farming methods. Several U.S. states–including California, Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida–have banned the use of gestation crates. Some countries, such as Sweden and the U.K., have taken similar steps. While gestation crates are only one of the many cruelties inflicted on factory farms, their elimination can be an important first step toward treating domestic pigs humanely and with a measure of respect for their natural behaviors. Of course, an even better course of action is to shift our society’s consumption patterns toward more sustainable diets and replace meat with plant-based alternatives.

For millennia, domestic pigs have been treated as little more than a source of meat–and modern factory farming has made the condition of countless millions of pigs in captivity indescribably worse. Yet, we now understand that they are complex, intelligent animals with their own social systems and behaviors that cannot be duplicated in the cramped quarters where most pigs suffer. Understanding this reality can be a first step toward redefining our relationship with a species that has been more abused than almost any other creature on Earth.

Photo credit: Marie Anna Lee, University of the Pacific

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Which of these countries is among the first where wild pigs were domesticated?
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What is one way of describing pig social systems?
What country is home to more than half of all domestic pigs today?
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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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