PIGS deserve our attention and care. It's welcome that they've been in the news lately. Coles stores are moving quickly to limit their supermarket-branded pork and ham products to those sourced from piggeries that don't use sow stalls.
These contraptions are brutal: metal frames so small that the pregnant pig can only stand up or lie down - she can't even turn around. That's her life until she has a litter. Then she is restricted to lying on her side so that the piglets can suckle. Then it's back to the sow stalls. Mother pigs endure a life of confinement and misery. Then, having served their purpose, they are killed.
Why do we humans treat pigs so badly? Presumably we assume pigs are dumb animals. But they are high-order creatures. They readily communicate with each other, using multiple sounds that to our ignorant ears are just pig-ignorant grunts and oinks.
Pigs are very protective of their offspring. Piglets play games.
These high-order features resemble those of whales. Australia has taken Japan to an international court over commercial whaling. Yet we treat pigs appallingly before eating them.
Pigs can be taught to do tricks, can be toilet trained and are loyal companions to humans. Sounds like dogs, doesn't it? We reel in horror at the thought of societies eating dogs. Yet we eat pigs.
We say we humans sweat like a pig when exercising on hot days. But pigs don't sweat at all. That's why, when they're overheating, they like to roll around in mud to cool off. Pigs are actually very clean animals.
Pigs need a good PR agent. We look on whales and dogs with affection but treat pigs so poorly, such are our warped sensibilities. We consider pandas, polar bears and koalas cute and cuddly (but please, don't try cuddling pandas or polar cubs). The cuteness to humans of these and other so-called charismatic mega-fauna causes us to treat them pretty well.
Kangaroos are cute, too, but there's so many of them that we accept shooting and eating them. We are probably the only nation on earth that eats its national symbol.
So we have proved to be very pragmatic about our perceptions of the beauty of creatures as a guide for how we treat them.
Indeed, lots of breeds of dogs are downright ugly but we still don't eat them.
Rabbits are definitely cute but that doesn't save them from the dinner table in rural Australia or in posh city restaurants.
We humans have developed almost arbitrary rules for how we treat different animals. A more sophisticated discussion is needed as to why we treat some creatures humanely, paying thousands of dollars for life-extending operations on pets, while condoning brutality towards other highly intelligent but defenceless animals such as pigs.
Pigs are sufficiently closely related to humans that we can use their tissue to replace damaged tissue in our bodies.
A special breed of mini-pig can be purchased as pets. But be careful: you could inadvertently buy a conventional piglet that grows into a 120kg monster.
The purpose of extolling the virtues of pigs is to plead for their more humane treatment. Sow stalls are scheduled to be phased out in Australia by 2017. The actions of Coles may accelerate the phase-out. Australian pig farmers rightly point out that if we import meat from pigs that aren't treated humanely, then we are putting the Aussie farmer at a competitive disadvantage. But Coles seems to be applying the same standard to imported pig meat.
Young consumers are increasingly conscious of animal welfare issues. They - or their parents - are willing to pay more for meat from animals that are raised and slaughtered humanely. Others are fast turning vegetarian. Ethical treatment of animals is becoming good for business.
We can't claim to be a humane society if we treat animals inhumanely. Apparently crows are very intelligent too, fashioning tools to extract food from otherwise inaccessible places.
Sorry, gotta draw the line somewhere. Save the pigs!
Craig Emerson is a former minister in the Gillard government and the Labor member for Rankin.
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