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Lessons from my pig Winnie

WHERE DO respect and dignity for life begin and end? This question was raised during a family vacation at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y. For the last four years, we have been sponsoring a pig that narrowly escaped someone's outdoor barbecue. She jumped the fence and ran the streets of New York until she was captured. She was frightened, injured, and starving and taken to the safe haven at the Farm Sanctuary. She was given the name ''Winnie."

I am a physician, and have made a commitment to reducing suffering. How then can I stand by and watch the unnecessary suffering of many farm animals destined for human consumption? Where does one draw the line at what practices are acceptable? How does one define a sentient being? Our visit to the Farm Sanctuary and spending time with Winnie helped my family and me put these questions in perspective.

The human impact of factory farming should alarm us all. Human Rights Watch recently reported that meatpacking is the most dangerous factory job in America. Workers are injured at extraordinary high rates and often denied compensation. Immigrant workers are frequently exploited to work under such horrific conditions, and employers take advantage of their undocumented status and fear of deportation to keep them quiet. At a minimum, federal and state laws need to enforce protection of all workers in this industry, without regard to immigration status.

Factory farming hurts our environment. Natural resources are depleted when wetlands, forests, and wildlife habitats are decimated to grow the grain necessary for factory farms. Agricultural runoff and the vast amount of manure produced by large numbers of animals confined in small areas are not only detrimental to our water supply but toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Shouldn't we be utilizing our natural resources more efficiently to produce food?

There is evidence that a plant-based diet is more healthful than an animal-based diet, which has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The factory farming industry also uses drugs, hormones, and other chemicals to enhance animal ''production," a practice that potentially causes detrimental health effects in humans. But I want to tell the stories of the animals.

I learned about ''downed animals" at the Farm Sanctuary. ''Downed animals" is the term given to those animals in stockyards that become too sick and weak to walk. Once they fall down, they are often denied food and water. Although they may still be alive, they are often treated as though they were dead. They are moved with forklifts or tractors that can break bones. Sometimes they are thrown away. Downed animals experience unimaginable suffering because there are no adequate laws protecting them.

I also learned about the painful procedures pigs are subjected to by the industry -- for example, having their tails cut off without anesthesia, and being overcrowded in small pens with concrete floors. Pigs remain in these conditions until slaughter at about 6 months of age. The air is noxious and even workers suffer respiratory diseases. Diseases such as salmonellosis are rampant. Breeding sows are confined in small pens and live a constant cycle of impregnation and birth, and they are often denied straw bedding. They suffer their whole life, then are sent to slaughter when they are not productive breeders. Hogs are hung upside down, their throats are cut, and they bleed to death. They are supposed to be ''stunned" first; however this practice is imprecise. If stabbing is unsuccessful, the pig will be dropped in scalding water to be boiled alive.   Continued...

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