Monday, March 28, 2011

Livestock Confinement: Fantasy and Reality

By Diana Hsieh

Melissa McEwen recently noted that "it's a myth that letting animals do their own thing outside is always the best thing for them." So true! Pastured pigs routinely crush their little piglets to death. Farrowing crates and other human contraptions, while sometimes not wholly pleasant for the pigs, prevent those deaths.

Of course, we don't raise livestock for the good of the livestock. Farmers ought to be self-interested, and that means being primarily concerned with the profitability of their farm. However, I don't think that brutalizing animals is good for the balance sheet -- or one's own moral character -- and that's why I'm in favor of the humane treatment of livestock. (There's a question waiting in the queue for my Rationally Selfish Webcast on the humane treatment of animals... so go vote for it if you want me to address it!)

However, the humane treatment of animals doesn't always mean that the animals must be pastured or free-range. Animals are dumb beasts -- and they are driven by instincts or impulses that are often self-destructive. Here's an example of that from my own experience that I posted in the comments on Melissa's post:

On the supposed goodness of animals doing their own thing outside:

One of my horses, Tara, has a strong instinct to stand tail-to-wind (which wild horses would do) in nasty weather. So when it rains or snows, she'll stand on the south side of the barn -- to the point of endangering her life -- rather than move inside the barn or even under the overhang. That behavior is a particular problem for her, as she's never had a particularly thick coat, so if it's raining or snowing, she'll get chilled to the bone very quickly.

If I was not there to tend to her -- whether to put a blanket on her (which she doesn't mind so much) or lock her into the barn (which she hates) -- she would have died years ago from exposure, despite totally adequate shelter.

Personally, I'm a strong believer and practitioner of allowing my horses to roam as they please. The horses are happier, and hence I'm happier. I don't lock them in the barn unless I have some important reason for doing so -- like dangerous weather outside.

Nonetheless, beasts are not rational decision-makers, and they'll often act in ways that endanger their own lives -- or the lives of their companions. They'll do so repeatedly, even when better alternatives are obviously available. They usually can't be trained out of such behavior. So we, their human owners, need to be on the lookout for such behaviors -- and to protect them from the harm they would do -- even if the animals are frustrated and unhappy as a result of not being able to do what "nature" dictates.

And if that means confining sows so that they don't crush their piglets too, then so be it!
I hope to write more on this topic in the future, but that's enough for now!

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