I was 15 years old when I decided to become a vegetarian. It wasn’t the outcome of argument or debate, or the process of intellectual investigation, not to begin with at any rate. It was because of a look.
A student friend was working on an agricultural project and needed to visit a model farm. I went along for the ride. If I was naïve to think that hens would be strutting and scratching around a farmyard, all glistening feathers and clucking contentment, then I was not alone. The veil of silence which surrounded animal production then, it was 1979 – and which still does – had simply not prepared me for what I saw.
My vague notions of stack yards, scattered straw and wandering animals disappeared instantly. There were no animals to be seen, only a collection of ugly, windowless, industrial buildings which could just as easily have been do-it-yourself stores or engineering workshops.
We started in the pig house. As soon as I walked through the door, in an atmosphere cloyingly warm and damp and laced with the smells of 100 defecating pigs, the first nagging unease began to gnaw at me. There were no cosy sties, no wallowing contentment, just row upon row of individual concrete stalls, each pig separated from its neighbours, unable to touch them despite being only centimetres away.
These pigs, I was informed, were the breeding stock, the pregnant sows who would provide two and a half litters of piglets every year, each litter frequently running to double figures. Ahead of each creature was nothing but iron bars to which were clipped feeding troughs. Beneath their feet was slatted metal through which most of their excreta would hopefully drop. However, when they urinated it splashed up from the floor, wetting the sides of the stall and the pigs’ legs and belly. They would eventually lie down in it. I noticed that any movement tended to result in a scrabble to maintain a firm footing.
Around the middle of each sow was a broad collar with an attached shackle, securing her to the ground. With this restraint she could take little more than half a pace forward and half a pace back. Those sows who tried to lie down did so with difficulty.
When confronted with horror of this kind, there is always a tendency to explain it away, to excuse it, to want to believe that it cannot possibly be as bad for the animal as it appears. We’re encouraged in this. ‘Give them warmth, food and water and they’re as happy as Larry,’ grinned our guide. I didn’t believe it.
In fact years later I was to watch as a young sow was placed in a stall for the first time. As the tether was attached around her middle and the shackle attached to the floor, she threw herself against the restraint in a frenzy of squealing and panic.
At the farm I visited, the poor creatures had given up the fruitless struggles of resistance. They had no option. The effect of their barren and sterile existence was obvious to see. Many of them exhibited a syndrome known as ‘stereotypic behaviour’, moving their heads backwards and forwards in an exact and constantly repeated motion, gnawing on their bars in a particular and regular way with the precision of a metronome.
It is the same syndrome which causes zoo animals to pace backwards and forwards relentlessly, and as the Government-supported CRB Research states in a review of the scientific evidence of the welfare of pigs, this behaviour ‘resembles in many respects the development in humans of chronic psychiatric disorders’. Many of the pigs I was looking at had quite literally gone mad.
As I stood there and watched the sows in their endless boredom, I could appreciate what a superb example it presented of accountancy and veterinary skills combining to reduce waste, to maximise profit, optimize food intake and reduce staffing. In the planning, design and construction of this model plant every question had been asked and answered except one: what about the animals?
Pigs are highly intelligent animals, descendants of the wild pigs which once roamed Britain’s forests until they were hunted to extinction in the seventeenth century. In their natural state they would have wandered the great woods that covered most of these islands, eating beech nuts and acorns, seeds and roots and occasionally small mammals, rooting them out with their strong snouts and necks. Not keen on temperature extremes, they would seek shade under trees when it became too hot and would build nests from the leaf litter to keep them warm in winter.
For creatures with such a strong sense of community, active and sociable, the decision to imprison them in solitary and idle confinement denies them even a semblance of their natural existence. Such a policy reflects our greed and lack of compassion. Pigs have become a product, have been manipulated and specially bred to produce particular types of meat. Ones with especially long backs produce more bacon rashers; ones with sturdy hocks produce better hams. The dominance of money, the logic of efficiency, the adulation of profit are epitomized in the pig-breeding shed.
The sows remain in their pens, known as ‘dry-sow stalls’, for most of their 16_-week pregnancy and the only remission from the boredom is to be moved to a farrowing crate as they approach full term.
These crates, little bigger than the dry-sow stalls, were in an adjoining building and we were proudly shown them by our guide. I was bemused by the actions of one heavily pregnant pig. In her barren, slatted, metal-floored prison she moved relentlessly backwards and forwards as though desperately looking for something when there was obviously nothing to find. I asked what she was doing and the question was casually dismissed. I found out later. It was another example of stereotypic behaviour, another indication of the animal’s mental collapse.
Sows have extremely strong maternal feelings and in the wild would begin building a huge nest many days before they were due to farrow. When completed it would be as much as one metre high. The search for leaves and twigs and straw may well take them on a journey of several kilometres. What I had witnessed was the pathetic actions of a pregnant female trying to fulfil her natural instincts in a totally barren environment.
In other crates, other sows had already given birth. Little piglets, still wet and smeared with mucus, scrabbled on the metal floor to find their mother’s teats. In one crate, they struggled pathetically to climb the inclined floor, negotiating a route past a dead sibling and the discarded placenta. The mother could do nothing to assist as she was restrained by a series of bars which allowed her young to suckle but prevented her playing any maternal role other than that of milk provider. ‘The bars? Stops the sows from rolling on her young,’ explained our smiling guide.
By now it was a smile I had grown to despise. This grinning, grimacing young man, little older than me, spoke fluently and passionately of increasing yields, boasting knowledgeably about feed ratios and spoke reverentially of market demands. Not once did a solitary word of concern or an expression of interest in the animals around us escape his lips other than in their role as economic units. I knew nothing about pigs before I entered those sheds but I knew that what I was looking at was a betrayal of simple humanity.
Our guided tour continued on its way, into the rearing section of the same shed. Thousands of bright little eyes atop constantly twitching snouts watched us from miniscule prisons wherever we went. Tiers of stacked, slatted boxes, one on top of each other up to a height of about two metres, flanked the aisle. Each ‘piggi-box’ contained several piglets, each box was totally devoid of any material item, each box had become home to its occupants when they were three and a half weeks old and were removed from their mother – some five weeks earlier than would naturally be the case.
Their lives would be extremely short. Those selected for ham and pork would be killed at about five months old. Those to be used for bacon might survive an additional month. Both varieties would be removed from their boxes and crammed into fattening pens a few weeks before their slaughter. Nervous and extraordinarily jumpy, they would live there on a bare floor without any bedding, without trees or flowers or sunlight.
Pork now accounts for 40 per cent of global meat production. Pigs are eaten more frequently than any other animal and are intensively farmed throughout the world. In the USA in the 1960s, ‘Bacon Bins’ were developed, where piglets are kept individually in bare cages, also so small that they can hardly move. This stops the piglets ‘wasting’ energy on exercise, making them ‘get fat quick’.
Such treatment of animals is always excused as being in their best interests. Those who work with them claim to know and understand their habits and dismiss concerns from people such as me with complete contempt. They maintain that so long as an animal is provided with food and water and shelter from the elements, it will want nothing else. It’s extraordinary that they can be so dismissive of freedom, a concept which we, as human animals, value above all else. Freedom fires the imagination with its vision and depresses the soul with its absence. I believe it is the same for all animals. If you doubt me, watch a herd of cows as they’re released from their cramped winter sheds onto the fresh grass of spring.
At 15, I saw things that I instinctively knew were wrong but I was unable to rationalize them, was incapable of mounting an argument against the bland persuasions of my guide. So I was determined to begin the search for information as soon as I left that oppressive animal prison. I was sickened at what I discovered.
Left to mature naturally, suckled by their mothers in open surroundings, piglets scamper and chase, tumble over each other and play the energetic learning games that occupy all young mammals. They do not damage each other. They exhibit all the same antics as we love in our own pets. Crammed together in their boxes, commercial piglets do none of these things and so their curiosity turns inwards. The stultifying boredom produces what the breeders accusingly call ‘vices’, such as severely biting each other’s tails, or even cannibalism. You don’t have to be selected for University Challenge to work out that one possible cure is to allow them more space and stimulation which will give their curiosity the full rein it needs. But that, of course, is uneconomic.
How the breeders answer the problem is to ‘dock’ their tails. That innocuous-sounding little word, like ‘cull’ for kill or ‘geld’ for castrate, gives no indication of its reality – slicing through the tail, either all or part, with a knife but without anaesthetic. Other farmers have a different solution, one sometimes used in combination with docking. They remove the piglets’ teeth with pliers…
Our guide ignored these mutilations and proudly boasted that when the pigs go to slaughter every part of their anatomy is used – everything but the squeal.
Still smiling, he led us back into the area of dry-sow stalls, again boasting of the pig unit’s modern techniques which maximized production to the optimum. Five days after the young piglets are removed from their mothers, the sows are made pregnant again and the misery-go-round continues.
As he spoke we passed a strange-looking device, a kind of low block with straps on it. I asked what it was. ‘Oh, this is what the bunny lovers call the “rape rack”,’ he chuckled.
This little device is designed to hold a sow immobile while she is impregnated by one of the breeding boars. Pigs are naturally choosy about their mates, but here there was no selection, no right of refusal, just an endless cycle of pregnancy, farrowing, separation from the offspring and pregnancy again. When they are finally exhausted by this existence and their piglet yield drops or their body tissues break down into tumours and abscesses, these baby machines face an ironic destiny. Their slaughtered carcasses are used in the processed food industry for pies, sausages – and baby food.
Up to this point in my life I had perceived animal cruelty to be such things as fox hunting, seal culling or the abuse of domestic pets by their owners. I fact the most serious confrontation I have ever had with my father – a bitter, shouting, angry scene – was when I took the money he’d given me for a haircut and sent it to the campaign to end the clubbing of baby seals on Canada’s ice floes. I returned home still with my hair but proud of myself. I couldn’t understand why he was so angry. I still can’t. When the seal trade was finally banned, I didn’t hesitate to remind him of my, and his, role in it. He still refers to it. However, we were both horrified when in 1986 the Canadian Government announced it was to restart this barbaric practice and authorized the killing of 250,000 seals.
My visit to this model farm was beginning to challenge all my perceptions. I kept asking myself why I had never been told about the way farm animals are treated. I had been reared, as children still are, on a romantic myth of contented cows called Daisy and Buttercup and smiling sows called Mrs Pig.
The farm was not even some isolated aberration but a show-piece. It was an example for farmers to follow. Its methods and practices constituted the industry’s recommended pig management and production techniques and provided all the necessary information on how to maximise output, contain costs and make more money from animals. And in the 1990’s, with our consumerist, capitalist model an example for the developing world, the export of factory-farming and their associated technology is a boom industry.
In 1991, Sir Richard Body, a Conservative MP, introduced a Parliamentary Bill to outlaw dry-sow stalls and tethers. Had the Bill progressed, they would already be part of our shameful history, just like bear baiting or cock fighting. However, one of his parliamentary colleagues undertook to ‘talk it out’ – in the interests of the farming industry’s profitability, you understand.
Talking out is a cynical abuse of parliamentary procedures where a politician, either individually or in concert with others, can stand up in the house and talk utter nonsense for as long as they can manage it. If they go on long enough, the Bill fails because there is insufficient time left to take a vote. (‘What did you do today, dear?’ ‘Talked complete and utter bollocks for five and a half hours so that 400,000 pregnant sows can be strapped to the floor for another seven years. Pass the canapés!’)
A compromise bill did go through, outlawing the system in 1998. But the decision only applies to the UK. We will continue to import thousands of tonnes of pig meat and bacon from countries like Holland and Denmark which will continue with sow stalls, as will the USA, where pig farms have become huge industrial complexes, confining millions of sows in narrow steel prisons.
Back in the pig-breeding shed, the final act in my disturbing drama came at the end of the rows of sow-stalls where a few separate, only slightly larger pens were set aside from the rest. In each one was a huge boar, the missing players in this carefully constructed reproductive production line. The one nearest to me stood motionless, his huge head hanging low towards the barren floor. As I came level with him he raised his head and dragged himself slowly towards me on lame legs. With deliberation he looked straight at me, staring directly into me eyes.
It seemed to me that I saw in those sad, intelligent, penetrating eyes a plea, a question to which I had no answer: ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ Without embarrassment or shame I burst into tears, silent sobs shaking my body, and I kept repeating over and over: ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’
It was an emotional response but that emotion has not diminished with age. I can recall it whenever I choose. If ever I need a reminder, that sad and accusing boar is there to motivate me and to encourage me.
Of course my age at that time put me in that group which is constantly described as ‘vulnerable’, ‘impressionable’ or even ‘over-emotional’. It is this same group that I now spend much of my time talking to in schools across the country. Their enthusiasm and clear, untrammelled view of what constitutes cruelty is not only refreshing, it’s what keeps me going. You may call it ‘emotion’, I call it ‘compassion’.
Young people believe that they can change the world and who are we to tell them they can’t? I remember that feeling so well. With my pig experience and other newly discovered information I honestly believed that all I had to do to stop people eating meat was to tell them the truth. I was staggered when it had no effect on my family. They didn’t know it then, but we were engaged in a battle of attrition which was to last for years. There would be individual skirmishes, guerilla tactics and confrontational arguments. ‘Oh my God, you’re not eating that are you?’ I would exclaim, as a forkful of meat hesitated on my mother’s lips. Every meat-containing package I saw in the fridge and freezer was embellished with a ‘This Package Contains a Dead Animal’ sticker.
My mother listened to my arguments and never shouted at me or battled with me. But I don’t think she fully understood the depth of my feelings or truly believed what I told her. I think the main concern was for my health and so at first she retaliated with what I can only describe as underhand methods. Suddenly I was confronted with numerous rice dishes and always lurking among the pepper and onions were indeterminate little pieces of something, usually chicken. I think I always detected them.
I kept to me beliefs and was determined to educate my parents. After a while my mother accepted my views and became fully supportive. Now, my sister and brother are vegetarian while my father, in typical male fashion, accepts the arguments but is slow to change. But I count this outcome as a partial victory.
The most frustrating aspect of any attempts to convert them was when I was unable to answer their arguments in favour of meat eating. I instinctively knew that I was listening to regurgitations of old wives’ tales, myths and half truths. But I had nothing with which to counter them. I set about remedying that.