The past, present and future of our campaign against the Australian pig farming industry.
For my entire life I’ve managed to avoid seeing an animal slaughtered—even as the daughter of a farmer.
Last month, there I was: in an abattoir, amid a cacophony of machinery, shrieking pigs and shouting men with their ‘slappers’—long plastic paddles used to hit the pigs’ backs and force them single file up the race to their deaths.
I could only manage a glance at the man who ‘stuck’ the pigs after they tumbled, unconscious, from their one and only ride on a Ferris wheel. The industry-preferred method for rendering pigs unconscious is loading them into ‘gondolas’, three at a time, which are lowered on the ‘Ferris wheel’ into a chamber of carbon dioxide which stuns them.
The gassing, officially called controlled atmosphere killing, is hailed as more humane than the traditional method of stunning—an electric stun behind the pig’s ear—which is still used in some circumstances but isn’t always effective.
What was claimed to be world-first footage of the view from inside this ‘gas chamber’, as activists call it, emerged this year. And it was disturbing. The secretly installed cameras showed pigs apparently distressed in the gondolas, thrashing around as they fight for air. It suggests the gentle ride into unconsciousness that many in the pig industry, including free range farmers, like to believe occurs, may not be so peaceful.
The abattoir is part of the Rivalea piggery complex, at Corowa, near the Murray River. Rivalea is thought to be the largest pig enterprise in the southern hemisphere. According to Rivalea management, until I came along, no other journalist had been taken through the piggery and abattoir. But things are changing for the pig industry.
Animal rights activists are intensifying their campaign. They see controlled atmosphere killing as one of many hard truths they must observe and report on. My month in the world of pigs began with a cinema screening near the Sydney Opera House. As people partied outside at the Opera Bar on a balmy Friday night, I sat with around 100 people and watched one hour and 46 minutes of piggery and abattoir footage: close-ups of wounds, dead and dying piglets, filthy conditions.
How this crowd of mostly vegan activists could watch it, I don’t know. I had to turn away at scenes of overt cruelty, but most of the audience held their gaze. Their mission—and it is spoken of in quasi-religious terms—is to bear witness.
Some of the activists present had captured this footage. They entered piggeries in the middle of the night and experienced firsthand what they find most distressing: confined animals whose purpose is either to become food, or give birth to those who become food. The activists film or install cameras amid the permeating stench of ammonia from pig waste.
That footage is now being used to ‘name and shame’ pig farmers, primarily through the Aussie Pigs website, run by activist Chris Delforce, maker of the film Lucent, which is now being toured in capital cities. His purpose is clear.
‘If you are going to hurt animals,’ he says, ‘if you are going to abuse and exploit animals, we will be watching. Your name will be associated with that material.’
The scaled-up attack on their industry has pig farmers reeling. It’s turned personal, and nasty. Comments from the public on social media sites administered by animal activists have been threatening to individual farmers and violent in tone.
Adamant that intensive farming is being misrepresented by the illicit footage, farmers are tentatively beginning to fight back in the image war.
I was invited to visit piggeries, but only after long telephone conversations during which farmers gauged whether they could trust me to be fair. Their voices would sometimes crack a little as they talked about the strain of having been publicly targeted.
So I donned overalls and gumboots, showered in and showered out. Farmers cite bio-security breaches, through the spread of disease, as one of the biggest threats brought by night-time raids by activists.
At piggeries in NSW and Victoria, I was shown pigs that were well fed and watered, and it was explained why the almost-permanently pregnant sows are kept in small, single pens (they get aggressive in groups, and some can miss out on feed); and why farrowing crates are used for the birthing process and for the first four weeks of piglets’ lives (to prevent the 300kg sows squashing their babies).
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The farmers want the public to know that during the day the sheds look very different to the night-time footage: the sides are open, the breeze is flowing through, the sows appear mostly calm and quiet.
When you’re seeing it for the first time, however, the scene of long rows of sows confined to tiny pens they can’t turn around in is a shock. These pigs won’t go outdoors, won’t smell grass in their lifetimes. Most of their offspring go off to ‘market’—a euphemism for the abattoir—at around 20 weeks.
Do they care? Do they know what they’re missing? Edwina Beveridge, a farmer from Young who has been one of the most targeted by activists, believes notions of welfare get muddled, that humans wrongly interpret what’s good for a pig, seeing it through human terms.
She did away with sow pens, one of the first farmers in the industry to do so, after consumer pressure. However, she says her new system, with open-ended stalls where sows can eat in peace and reverse out to be with others, has thrown up a surprise. The sows choose to spend most of their time in the small stalls.
Farmers shake their heads at their opponents. Vegans! They exclaim. May as well be Martians. The idea of not eating meat seems extraordinary, and wanting to stop people breeding animals for meat, outrageous.
Two diametrically opposed cultures, who both venerate the humble pig. If only those many noises pigs make—barks, shrieks, coughs, grunts—could be translated.