Capitol Alert

Thumping, castration and cages: Animal watchdog alleges pig-farm abuse

An animal rights group is sending a grim message to California voters, releasing footage of Kentucky farm workers punching pigs, kicking them, bashing their faces into the floor and locking them in tight cages.

The video aims to draw a strong emotional reaction as the group campaigns for a November ballot initiative aimed at more humane treatment for farm animals, said Matt Rice, president of Mercy for Animals.

“We’re using footage to draw attention to the fact that despite California voters overwhelmingly being opposed to animals in tiny cages, this is happening out of state,” Rice said.

If passed, Proposition 12 would expand living space for pigs, calves and egg-laying hens. By 2022, egg-laying hens would need to be placed in cage-free housing. Breeding pigs and calves raised for veal would be required to have at least 24 and 43 square feet of floor space, respectively.

The measure applies to business owners or operators that “knowingly engage in the sale [of such animals] within the State of California.” Rice said the Kentucky farm, Tosh Farms, supplies its products to JBS USA — a company that describes itself on its website as “a leading processor of beef, pork and lamb in the U.S.”

Rice claims the animal treatment practices at the farm would be illegal under Proposition 12, since JBS sold the supplier’s pork in California. JBS did not respond to allegations of animal abuse at the Kentucky farm, but it broadly outlined its expectations for suppliers.

“All JBS USA company-owned live pork production facilities use open pen systems,” the company said in a statement. “Regardless of the system deployed, JBS USA expects and demands the highest animal handling standards throughout our supply chain.”

Rice said his group has not yet conducted an investigation into pig factory farms within California state lines.

The video, which Mercy for Animals made available in its entirety, was edited by The Sacramento Bee to ensure it offered a fair representation of practices that could be affected by the ballot measure. Rice said Californians are often unaware they’re buying pork that comes from spaces where animals are closely confined, and hopes the footage will educate them on the realities of animal confinement.

Kristina Horback, assistant professor of applied ethology at UC Davis, has conducted extensive research into how farms treat pigs and other domestic animals. While portions of the video may look disturbing to the average viewer, she insists some of the practices are common. For example, it shows an employee “thumping” a piglet into the ground as it squeals.

“That’s a horrific thing to see, but the purpose of that is to cause instant death in an animal that is suffering,” Horback said. She said one reason the practice is used is to kill piglets quickly that have been crushed by their mothers in confined spaces.

Just because something is common doesn’t make it right, argues Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States — the primary backer of the ballot measure. “The thumping of piglets is a barbaric practice that should be banned, quite frankly.”

Mercy for Animals claims the pigs biting on cages in the video is a sign of “serious mental collapse.” Horback said that claim may be a stretch, given how some pigs choose to bite on things for pleasure.

Still, she said it is likely the pigs were in an under-stimulated environment and in a state of stress or frustration. As for the castration, she explained it is typically done by workers who make an incision within the first three days of a pig’s life, as the footage appears to show.

Horback called other portions of the video, such as an employee punching and kicking a pig, “obvious animal cruelty.”

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