Truth, falsehood, science, belief, feeling and image: What counts when it comes to sow stalls?



Does this seem cruel to you?

Or this?

How about this?

To some folks having any sort of a pig in a stall at any time looks cruel and abusive. To others, it looks just fine and a good way to keep an animal healthy and happy. After all, the pigs in the bottom picture seem pretty comfortable in the stalls, which are stalls they don’t have to stay in.


But to many people sow stalls that can’t be left seem not exactly cruel, but not very nice either. If that’s how a female pig has to spend its entire adult life, it’s not the nicest way to live – and not as nice as farmers could make it. (See note at the bottom on the origin and reality of the photos)

To me that’s pretty much the breakdown of the sow stall issue. To animal rights types, putting sows in stalls in which they can’t turn around for their adult lives is definitely an abusive way to treat a conscious animal. To most veterinarians and many other experts on animal welfare, sow stalls are humane, pleasant and give female pigs a good life. Sows thrive in stalls. To the average person, I would guess, stalls look OK – except if pigs can’t ever get out of them to wander around.

So what is the truth of the matter?

That’s tough to assess. Animal rightists would scoff at the question and treat it as absurd that you could even ask whether such a (to them) clearly inhumane practice could be humane or acceptable. To them I would ask: How much do you know about how pigs actually think and feel? I’m no expert in that, but I’ve been in plenty of hog barns and the sows seem happy enough. I know what abused, neglected and depressed animals tend to look like, and the sows in the stalls of the barns I’ve been to don’t seem any of those things. I’m not an expert on that matter, but neither are most of them.

Veterinarians might enjoy the question, turning to research and scientific data and studies that measure signs of stress, unhappiness, health and welfare. Most of them conclude stalls are a fully healthy and humane way to treat a pig. To them I’d ask: Aren’t your scientific measurements of an animal’s reality circumscribed by the crudity of your tools and what they are capable of measuring? Are you really able to assess how an animal feels by behavioral, physical and chemical tests? Animals aren’t just machines and modern notions of quality-of-life go beyond simple physical health. You could probably go along a a cell line at a human jail, measure the physical well-being of the cons, and conclude they’re all doing great. But we know that’s not really the case. So the true state of a pig’s psyche might be beyond our methods of measuring presently.

It’s pretty much impossible to get the animal rightists and scientists to talk this one through together, because they speak conflicting languages that don’t translate well. Each side has profound beliefs that are the foundation of their views. The rightsy types just believe what they believe because of how sow stalls look and how that makes them feel. The scientific folks think science should be enough – and many think the only way – to answer the question and they often have no time for non-scientific views.

So how does everyone out in the public feel about sow stalls? Another hard one to assess, but I suspect the average person wouldn’t have trouble accepting sows and gilts being confined to stalls for limited periods, like farrowing-to-weaning and right after impregnation, but the idea of an adult, intelligent animal being locked into a crate for its entire remaining life seems pretty ooky. And that’s what’s going to count in the end.


The feeling of the public – or where public feeling is likely to develop in the next few years – is what’s driving the grocery and fast food chains to run away from sow stalls. It’s something that isn’t helped by the appearance of sow stalls, which look uncomfortably like human jail cells. (Hence my use of that description above). And that image is what’s letting the animal rightists win this argument. Even if 1000 measures of animal well-being proved that sow stalls are humane, that could still not counter the idea that stalls “seem wrong.” But pigs in open pens look a lot better to human eyes, and that will, I suspect, let farmers win back the support of the public once sow stalls have faded away and pigs are back in open housing.

I’m writing all this because I just spent three days at the World Pork Expo and the sow stall issue lay over everything. But while all sides of the issue were batted around at the sprawling show, it seemed clear to me and most of the folks I spoke to that the days of sow stalls are ending and that producers had better get on with figuring out how to switch to the new system whenever they needed to replace their barns.

This issue has been giving a black eye to hog producers for years now, and I can’t see that fading while stalls are still being used. Sometimes what counts in an issue involving the truth, falsehoods, science, belief, feeling and image are the mushy latter three elements, and that to me is the case here.

(All the images with this post were taken by me during a tour of the University of Manitoba’s barns which employ various open housing systems. The U of M has been comparing regular stall barn systems to free access feeding stall systems in which pigs can enter, eat what they want, then back out and wander off, and open pen systems using electronic sow feeders. The open pens in the pix use electronic sow feeders. Notice how one sow is lying up against the electronic sow feeder? And how the others are lying almost on top of each other? There’s not necessarily much difference for the sow between being in a stall and being in the open, but then again, maybe there is. I don’t know how to accurately assess that, and I’ll bet you don’t either – even if you think you do.)