Where’s Penelope?

We live in a country where animal-protection advocacy is overshadowed by indifference: beaten elephants still travel in our circuses; the seal hunt is a fur-export industry, backed by the government; hog and chicken barns repeatedly go up in flames — killing thousands of animals — and there’s significantly less public outrage than there was for the sled-dog massacre in Whistler this winter.

I have come to the U of M campus for the past five or six or maybe even seven years — memory fails me, it’s the caged existence I lead — to participate in Environmental Awareness Week. I stand in a sow stall, with a sign that explains how I spend my entire life in this cage, where I cannot even turn around and, pardon the image, defecate where I doze. The pork producers split hairs: “not for your entire life,” they say.

OK, OK: I get to be walked to another cage to have piglets and then walked back to be re-inseminated.

I would like to point out that I come to campus for five days out of the year, in order to ask that consumers support new methods of pork production — the kind that will allow me to use my legs and maybe root around in some kind of material.

I don’t come with the volunteers to supposedly faculty bash, as a contributor to the Manitoban wrote last year. I don’t come to directly and negatively attack pork producers; I come with the volunteers to show consumers what is hidden from sight and how they can begin to choose a system that doesn’t involve such narrow cages.

Let’s do the math: For the other 350 or so days, nobody disturbs the status quo on campus, and the links between corporate pork production, the students and uncritical meat-eating stay firm. So, here’s my question: Why have I not been allowed back on campus this year during Environmental Awareness Week?

Surely, the very existence of intensive livestock operations (ILOs) in Manitoba qualifies as an environmental concern. As my caged sow-comrades can attest, the system results in a lot of water usage and a lot of manure held in big lagoons. And what about the lives of animals in these ILOs? Aren’t they part of the environment, too?

I have not been allowed back this year because UMREG — the recycling and environment group who runs the Awareness Week — says they are tired of the conflict between those who support what they call “independent gestation accommodations” (i.e. sow stalls or gestation crates) and those who advocate for a system in which pigs can move around a bit. UMREG does amazing things. Thank God for them. But they want some kind of conflict-free zone for environmental advocacy here, something on a smaller scale.

At least one of their members feels that the faculty of agriculture is being subjected to woeful unfairness — that it isn’t fair to them to come out against gestation crates and intensive pig production. “The piglets are crushed otherwise,” an UMREG rep told one of our volunteers, who had to respond: “You’re mixing up farrowing crates with gestation crates.”

Funny, the agriculture student who wrote “Behind the Steel Cages” merged the two different crates, too. To clarify: We’re not talking about piglet fatalities here. We’re talking about pregnant sows, held so tightly for months and months that they face one direction for most of their lives.

The fact that the faculty of agriculture seems to have a pretty significant voice on campus doesn’t seem to figure in this concept of balance, fairness and representation. I suppose a pig in a cage with some pamphlets for a week can overshadow the presence of an entire a faculty. The pig in the cage at a table is not meant to be hostile. It is meant to initiate consumer awareness of a production process.

The hostility comes from the repeated accusations that the volunteers are no “better than dog walkers” who lie. Where is the lie? Ninety per cent of the breeding sows in this province are held in gestation crates, until they’re moved to a farrowing crate for a brief period. And, then back they go. That is the life of a female pig in this province and country: A few years of entrapment between two types of cages and then we’re trucked off to slaughter.

A brief moment on campus — in which industrial meat production could be held accountable and brought into dialogue — has been lost. How is it possible that UMREG has succumbed to the pressure of those who endorse the intensive confinement of farm animals?


Penelope, the papier mâché pig, and dictated to Julie Guard and Dana Medoro, members of the farm animal welfare committee of the Winnipeg Humane Society.

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