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Crammed into Gestation Crates

But America's breeding pigs are starting to regain their freedom


Pigs are among the smartest animals on Earth. Studies show that they are more intelligent than dogs and even some primates: They can play simple video games, teach each other and even learn names. They also form elaborate, cooperative social groups and feel fear, pain and stress.

Yet on U.S. factory farms, where sows are kept in row after row after row of gestation crates throughout their pregnancies, they're also among the most abused. The 2-foot-wide cages are so narrow, the animals cannot even turn around. They chew on the bars, wave their heads incessantly back and forth, or lie on the pavement in an apparent state of dejection. Nearly immobilized, the pigs spend months staring ahead, waiting to be fed, likely going out of their minds. 

For a brief period while and after they give birth, they are placed in slightly larger farrowing crates, but they still can't turn around. Then their piglets are taken away and the sows are impregnated once more, returned to gestation crates to start the entire cycle of misery again. 

For decades, most U.S. pork producers have raised pigs this way. But the tide is starting to turn as scientists, voters, lawmakers and retailers reject extreme forms of farm animal confinement.

Scientists speak out

Renowned animal welfare scientist Dr. Temple Grandin says gestation crates must go: "We've got to treat animals right. … Confining an animal in a box in which [he or she] is not able to turn around does not provide a decent life."

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production came to the same conclusion. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health—and counting a former U.S. secretary of agriculture among its members—the commission recommended that gestation crates and "all systems that restrict natural movement” be phased out.

An American Farm Bureau poll found that most Americans don't consider gestation crate confinement to be humane.

The economics favor alternatives

Over two and a half years, researchers at Iowa State University compared the costs of gestation crates and group housing, which allows animals to move around and socialize. They found that group housing was cheaper. 

“Reproductive performance can be maintained or enhanced in well-managed group housing systems ... without increasing labor," the researchers concluded. “Group housing ... resulted in a weaned pig cost that was 11 percent less than the cost of a weaned pig from the individual stall confinement system."

An HSUS white paper [PDF] provides more details.

The public rejects gestation crates

An American Farm Bureau poll found that most Americans don't consider gestation crate confinement to be humane. A Michigan State University study found that 60 percent or more of respondents in every state would support a gestation crate ban. And every time voters have been asked to support legislation that would outlaw gestation crates—in Florida, Arizona, California and elsewhere—they've overwhelmingly responded.

The HSUS advances change

Backed by consumers who are increasingly aware of where their food comes from, The HSUS is transforming the pork industry, helping state legislatures to ban gestation crates and persuading some of the world's largest food companies to eliminate crates from their supply chains. 

  • Many farm pigs spend the majority of their lives confined in small gestation crates that do not allow them enough room to turn around. Photo by The HSUS

  • Some pigs must share the close quarters and become caught underneath the crates because of the limited amount of space. Photo by The HSUS

  • The HSUS has investigated several large industrial farms and found them guilty of inhumane treatment of pigs. Photo by USDA

  • Pigs are one of the most intelligent animals on Earth, yet they are treated very inhumanely and denied the right to live comfortably. Photo by iStockphoto

  • Many pigets are torn from their mothers shortly after birth. The moms are impregnated and quickly returned to the gestation crates. Photo by iStockphoto

  • Studies show that it is more economincally beneficial to allow pigs to live free of crates. Photo by iStockphoto

One of the largest announcements came in 2012 from McDonalds, which condemned crates as “not a sustainable production system for the future.” Costco, Oscar Mayer and food service giants Sodexo, ARAMARK and Compass Group have also pledged to stop buying gestation crate pork. (Chipotle, Whole Foods and Wolfgang Puck already sell only more higher welfare pork.)

Under pressure from The HSUS, which has carried out a series of undercover investigations at pig factories, major pork producers have pledged to transition to a better way of raising pigs. Smithfield Foods (the world's largest pork producer) and Hormel Foods (maker of SPAM) are going gestation crate-free, and Cargill has removed crates from all of its facilities.

What you can do?

Here’s what you can do to help ease the suffering of pigs on factory farms:

  • Sign our pledge encouraging the pork industry to get rid of gestation crates.
  • Follow the Three Rs: Reduce the amount of pork you eat, refine your diet by buying from suppliers that do not use gestation crates, and replace meat with plant-based dishes.
  • Donate today to help The HSUS secure more pork industry reforms. 


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