Shocking treatment of pigs in Manitoba breeding facility exposed by CTV’s W5

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
P.E.I. has been shipping pigs to China for about 10 years.

We're a little hypocritical about animal cruelty in this country. We can get very wound up when we read about someone abusing their pet dog or cat, right up to threatening that person with death.

But most of us don't summon the same level of outrage when appalling examples of livestock being mistreated on factory farms comes to light.

The cattle, the pigs, the chickens, they're not our home companions. They're meat on our table, and the cheaper the better. We don't much concern ourselves about their lives before they get there. That's the government's job, right?

This latest story, revealed by CTV's investigative public affairs program W5, shows a Manitoba pig-breeding operation where sows spend their lives in tiny crates, are repeatedly impregnated to produce litters until they can't anymore, then unceremoniously killed. Employees cull defective piglets by smashing their heads against something hard.

Cruel, yes. But apparently not against the law. Saturday's W5 segment uses video footage shot secretly by an animal-welfare investigator to expose conditions in the Puratone facility just north of Winnipeg.

In a story on W5's web site, reporter Tom Kennedy writes that after viewing the video, Barbara Cartwright, chief executive officer of Canada's Federation of Humane Societies, predicted Canadians were in for a shock.

"They are not used to seeing this," she said. "They still believe animals are being raised in the old farm style."

The reality couldn't be more different, Kennedy writes.

"The video shows what amounts to a living production line with thousands of pregnant sows, each held in a tiny metal stall where they will spend the nearly four months of their gestation," he reports.

"When they are ready, they are transferred to a slightly larger stall called a farrowing crate where they will give birth. After three weeks, the piglets are then sent away for fattening and eventual slaughter while the sows are returned to the gestation crates, re-impregnated to start the cycle again."

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The undercover investigator, who spent almost three months employed at the facility and now works on other animal-welfare investigations, told W5 that conditions were horrible.

"Nothing could prepare me for what I saw," said the man, whose name was not disclosed. "There are thousands of pregnant pigs in these crates nearly their entire lives."

The recording was supplied by a U.S.-based group called Mercy for Animals, which is setting up a Canadian chapter. The Puratone video was its first undercover investigation in Canada.

The video shows piglets having their tails cut off and male piglets castrated, all without anesthetic. Sub-standard piglets are killed with a method called "thumping" — quite simply swinging them by their hind legs against something hard — then thrown into a pile. Some appear still alive.

Sows that are no longer productive are killed with a device that fires a bolt into the brain but it does not always appear to work, according to the Mercy for Animals investigator.

Veterinarians who were shown the recordings condemned such actions, which they considered to be abuse and neglect causing unnecessary suffering.

Dr. Ian Duncan of the University of Guelph, after watching an employee botch the job of euthanizing an adult pig, called it "the worst cruelty inflicted on an animal that I have witnessed in many years."

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Despite the evidence of the recordings, experts interviewed by W5 said the practices shown were within accepted industry standards and likely did not break any laws.

The reaction of Puratone, based in Niverville, Man., when W5 screened the footage for executives? The executives were shocked by what was depicted.

"We are disturbed by some of the images shown in this video, which do not reflect our principles or our animal welfare policy and operating procedures," Puratone CEO Ray Hildebrand said in a statement posted on its web site. "We have launched an immediate investigation and corrective actions are underway.

"Over our 25 years of farming operations we have strictly followed the provincial regulations regarding animal welfare … and we have two veterinarians on staff to support this mandate."

But, really, why should we be shocked by this? We've seen it before, often.

Last summer, CBC News reported that officials launched an investigation when 1,300 piglets at an unnamed production facility in western Manitoba had to be euthanized after being found in distress.

Pork producers blamed the incident on the drop in market prices, which combined with high feed prices made the piglets essentially worthless. Why this producer left his animals to starve was not explained.

In 2011, Manitoba hog farmer Martin Grenier pleaded guilty to what was called one of the worst cases of animal cruelty in the province's history, QMI Agency reported.

Police and Manitoba Agriculture officials raided his farm in June 2010 and found hundreds of dead pigs, as well as 2,200 more living in their own filth with no food, water or light. The dead pigs apparently died of manure-gas poisoning and some drowned in sewage.

Grenier was banned for life from owning or caring for livestock and fined $60,000, the maximum penalties under Manitoba's recently amended Animal Care Act.

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Mercy for Animals pointed out the practices at Puratone's facility such as anesthetic-free castration and tail docking, thumping and the use of bolt guns to kill unwanted animals, as well as confinement in tiny crates are all standard in the Canadian industry. Not so elsewhere, W5 noted.

"Some of what is seen in the video is poor practice and some of it would be illegal over here," Kate Parkes, senior scientific officer for the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told the program.

"Gestation crates are illegal in the U.K. They were banned in 1999 on welfare grounds."

The Manitoba Pork Council's Andrew Dickson said crating is used to keep pigs from hurting and competing with one another.

"We're being careful with change because with a new system there's no guarantee that these animals will have the same level of care that we might have had with the previous system," he told W5.

But falling pork prices have stalled efforts to change things. Apparently humane treatment is a luxury producers can't afford.

"We know our industry is going through a very bad time financially," the National Farm Animal Care Council, which is developing the news standards, wrote on Nov. 20, according to W5.

"At the end of the day, if the producers can not incorporate changes that we're proposing, their option is either to go out of business or perhaps put themselves in a very negative financial position."

Something to think about if you're slicing into a nice, juicy ham this holiday season.