Euthanasia in hog industry falls under scrutiny

Humane handling | In wake of TV documentary, industry officials look for methods more acceptable to consumers

Is it OK to kill piglets by banging their heads on concrete floors?

Is it proper to kill a sow with a captive bolt gun?

Is it humane to house pregnant sows in stalls?

The answer to all three of those questions is “yes,” according to most livestock veterinarians.

However, from the reaction to footage from a hog barn near Arborg, Man., that was recently released by an activist group and given national media attention, the public’s opinion might be “no.”

Veterinary researchers and the hog industry have responded to the increasing concern over formerly normal livestock practices by developing methods of animal handling and euthanasia that will at least look more palatable to the general public.

“Efforts are being made to determine effective methods that may be more acceptable to the public,” said Dr. Laurie Connor, head of the University of Manitoba’s animal science department.

“Even as we alleviate any suffering or potential for suffering via euthanization, we need to be able to explain the techniques in a way that is understandable and acceptable to those people truly concerned about animal care and well-being, not just propaganda for a non-meat agenda.”

However, Connor said an animal’s welfare should take precedence over public squeamishness. The use of poison gas or barbiturates to kill pigs might look less gruesome to city dwellers but often causes more stress, anxiety and suffering to sick or injured pigs. Using alternative methods is only acceptable if they reduce the animal’s suffering.

“Euthanasia needs to be conducted in the most humane manner possible with respect and consideration for the animal being euthanized and the person that is responsible for the euthanasia,” said Connor, who was one of the three-person panel who reviewed the footage that was used to claim that many animals at the Arborg barn were being abused.

“We cannot have a piglet left alive to suffer and experience a slow death, so we need an acceptable manner from the standpoint of a humane death for the piglet and also a method that the stockperson can administer effectively,” Connor said.

Improving the humane handling of pigs has been a major concern of the hog industry in the past decade, after the industry suffered an onslaught of accusations that it treats pigs badly. Secret camera exposes have become common in recent years in the United States, and the Arborg one is the first by Mercy For Animals’ new Canadian office.

Connor has been involved for many years with developing open housing systems for gestating sows, which are gradually replacing the presently widespread sow stall system. The North American hog industry has faced a barrage of attacks over gestation stalls, which will be banned in the European Union in January. Some producers have already built stall-free barns or converted existing barns.

In Manitoba, the hog industry has set 2025 as a voluntary target for eliminating gestation stalls in the province.

Euthanasia methods are also being advanced. Some barns in the U.S. and elsewhere use poison gas to kill piglets because it does not seem brutal. However, Connor said gassing a pig can cause it more discomfort and stress than a quick thump on the concrete.

While most swine veterinarians believe thumping is humane, animal welfare expert Temple Grandin believes it should be phased out because it can be done incorrectly and result in an injured piglet.

Connor said another problem with thumping is that most women cannot do it because it takes a lot of strength to hit the pig hard enough to immediately kill it. Female staff will often wait for a male to become available, which can leave a piglet to suffer for longer.

Ian Duncan, a professor emeritus and researcher at the University of Guelph, said the challenges with doing thumping 100 percent effectively and the difficulty for women to attempt it has prompted his university to develop a machine that can do the same thing without having to swing the pig.

The Zephyr is a modified nail gun that uses a mushroom-shaped head to smash a piglet’s skull. After the first shot, which immediately knocks the pig unconscious, a second shot is fired further back on the skull to ensure the pig is dead.

“This does the same damage to the brain and has exactly the same effect as blunt trauma, but appears to be much less violent,” said Duncan.

Not all veterinarians agree on which forms of euthanasia are appropriate at specific times in a pig’s life. Connor believes the captive bolt killing of a sow shown in the footage from the Arborg barn was done correctly: the animal was immediately knocked unconscious and the worker quickly followed up with checks and a secondary action to ensure it was truly dead.

Duncan thinks the captive bolt shouldn’t have been used on a grown sow.

“This is very bad,” he said.

“Mature pigs have extremely thick skulls and captive bolt guns are not effective in stunning them.”

Connor and Duncan agreed that a staff member that was recorded shoving a downed sow with his boot and pulling on its ears was breaking humane treatment standards.

However, both thought anesthesia-free tail-docking and castration were acceptable.

The Canadian code of practice for pig handling is presently being revised.

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