Thinking critically about pigs

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Last March, I wrote a piece on pigs for the Manitoban, following the dispute in the campus center between the Winnipeg Humane Society’s “Quit-Stalling” campaigners and the Aggies who came out to disagree with us. Professor Laurie Connor of the faculty of Agriculture then published a letter to the editor, taking issue with some of my wording, especially the part about Manitoba Pork Council having “dispatched its representatives to campus.” She also clarified other points and supported her students.

I remember thinking, as I was writing, that the word “dispatched” sounded too strong. But I also remember thinking that, whether dispatched or not, if you’re handing out pamphlets and stickers printed for Manitoba Pork Council, then you’re representing them. In the end, though, I’d take it back if I could, because the word implies a kind of mechanistic or militaristic operation. The words we use bring the world into focus in particular ways. We have to be careful with them.

We have to be careful with pigs too; it’s something humans have always known. There is something intricately complex about sharing the planet with pigs if many of the world’s major religions have strong ideas about their flesh. I read a lot of books on pigs in human culture, but I’m still trying to figure out why every single female deity whose worship preceded the major monotheistic traditions — from Ancient Greece to Wales — had pigs for companions. However, after eight years of researching modern pork production for the Winnipeg Humane Society, I have come to the following conclusions.

Pigs occupy an uneasy conceptual place on the line between the sacred and the profane. This conceptual unease has something to do with the challenges of their domestication in the first place, I think, but it makes understanding pigs themselves very tricky. Ancient civilizations knew what we are only now re-learning: we cannot have too many pigs and too many people in one place. It’s too hard on the earth. As similarly omnivorous species, humans and pigs use too many of the same resources and create too much waste.

As members of a democracy, we need to know what is going on with the world we inhabit, and that world includes pigs. If we stayed informed, then we would not find ourselves baffled by the H1N1-virus, sometimes called the swine flu. We’d pay more for pork and we’d have a better idea about the kind of jobs involved in its production. We might even value those jobs more. In our past, it was the high priests who oversaw slaughter and meat distribution. It was work involving the highest honour. Now, we toss a few bucks over a counter at a fast food restaurant forget about it. In this, I feel our government fails all of us: pigs, people, producers.

This summer, I met with the Faculty of Agriculture’s Dean Trevan and Professor Connor, as well as with Professor Arthur Schafer of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics. Over several months of discussion, occasional misperceptions, coffee-drinking and clarification, we have finalized the details of a public forum on the issue of confinement systems for sows (that is, of pregnant female pigs).

We will hear a range of contrasting and informed viewpoints — which is the goal of an academic institution and its commitment to understanding the world in peaceful ways. The speakers include myself; Twyla Francois, an animal-rights activist with CETFA; Dr. Connor, an animal scientist in the Faculty of Agriculture; Dr. Wayne Lees, Chief Veterinarian for Manitoba Agriculture; and Paul Shapiro, Head of the Factory Farming Campaign for the HSUS. The forum is titled “Sow Stalls: Ethics, Perceptions, and Animal Welfare.” It will be held on Thursday, Oct. 15, from 12:30 to 2:30, in Room 172 Agriculture Building. If you have any concerns or questions regarding these issues, I invite you to take part in the discussion.

Dana Medoro is an associate professor in the department of English, film, and theatre.