All of us involved in pork production are aware of the animal rights versus animal welfare debate. As an industry we are making great efforts to communicate the story of our animal husbandry methods to the consuming public. With only 65,000 farms with pigs and over 300 million US consumers, this is a big and very important task.
This past week I’ve been reading a book entitled ‘Some we love, some we hate, some we eat’ by Hal Herzog. The subtitle is ‘Why it’s so hard to think straight about animals’. As you might expect, my first thought when I came across this book was that it would be another negative look at animal agriculture systems.
However, I was wrong. Dr Herzog is a professor psychology at Western Carolina University and is an active researcher in the area of human-animal relations (anthrozoology). As I have been reading this book I am gaining a new awareness of how complicated it is for consumers to understand pork production in light of the fact that almost no consumer has any direct experience with production agriculture anymore.
To highlight how difficult it is to categorize how people feel and react to animals and the dilemmas that arise in even regulating human interactions with animals, Dr Herzog cites the case of mice in research laboratories. Under current Federal animal care regulations, mice that are housed in research colonies are highly regulated in terms of animal care. All deaths of research animals must be an approved method of euthanasia that minimizes fear, pain, etc.
At the same time he cites the case of ‘wild’ mice in the same facilities. Wild mice are often mice that have escaped from their cages and are now behaving as we would expect mice to behave – gnawing at cables, feed storage, etc. These mice are often trapped using ‘glue’ boards. I’m sure many of the readers of this blog have used these devices to trap unwanted mice.
While Federal regulations are very specific on how death of mice in the colony must be done using humane euthanasia methods, death of the same mice once they have escaped the colony is now allowed to be by trapping their paws in a glue board, then getting their fur stuck in the board as they struggle to be followed by death from exhaustion or blunt trauma when someone finds the mouse on the glue board.
In this case, the same mouse can be required to be treated with extreme care and compassion or can be subject to what some consider extreme cruelty. An interesting dilemma that few of us have really thought about as it relates to how our industry is perceived by many consumers.
As pork producers, many of us remember how we used to raise pigs in outside lots and feel that our move to confinement systems has been done to improve the welfare of the pigs. We view the pigs similar to the colony mice – we have compassion for the pigs and care about their well being. Many consumers on the other hand feel that we are treating pigs similar to the wild mice and allow extreme cruelty to occur in the name of cheap food.
Our challenge is to figure out how to bridge this basic gap in perception and animal awareness. When we talk about the science of raising pigs and present scientific evidence to support our view, many consumers feel as though we are dealing with ‘wild’ mice in terms of our compassion for the pigs.
We really need to talk about the husbandry of pork production. We need to talk about how we apply science in a manner that considers the pig’s needs and well being. We need to help consumers shift from looking at us as slayers of ‘wild’ mice to husbandry people who support systems of production that enhance the well being of the pigs in our care.
I am delighted that individuals working in the meat production industry found my book useful as I had hoped that it would be of interest to people with widely differing views on our relationships with other species.
However, just to clarify the status of laboratory mice: By law, mice are exempted from coverage under the Federal Animal Welfare Act. However, mice used in research are covered under Public Health Service regulations which apply to institutions that get NIH funds. Hence at most major universities, ethics committees must approve mouse studies even though they are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act.