The castration of piglets without anesthetic was supposed to end in the next weeks but may now continue for two more years. The Bundestag put off a law requiring anesthetics be used, after Germany’s swine farmers argued they weren’t ready to make the change.
Young male pigs are often surgically castrated without any form of pain reduction to prevent boar taint, which can change the taste and smell of pork in 5 percent of animals once they reach puberty, along with aggressive behavior. Recently, as research has shown the animals suffer, moves have been made to oppose the procedure or make it less painful for animals. Farmers, particularly from Bavaria and Lower Saxony, said changing the law would mean additional expenses and complications: €2 extra per pig, and the extra time and space the animals need to wake up afterwards.
Internationally, farmers are divided over the procedure. Opponents to surgical castration say mass vaccination of pigs would be better, as is done in Australia, Brazil, Belgium and Russia. A Brussels group launched a campaign to end surgical castration by the start of this year. In the medium term, scientists suggest gene editing could help. For now, there’s dismay in Germany at the argument that pig welfare should be compromised “for the sake of consumers,” as farmers argue.
Change is slow here in the land of pork and industrialized food, where dishes from Eisbein to Bratwurst reign supreme, and, outside the capital, much may contain bacon. But Berlin, Hamburg and other cities are increasingly home to foodies and to activists. There is a high level of concern and criticism about industrial food, even if it has yet to help pigs.
Although animal castration made headlines this fall, despite competition from news from Italy, Russia and Trump, fewer smaller groups focus on swine welfare full time. Such activists, however, are using technology to raise public awareness. In Berlin, a math student, Kirstin Hofler (not her real name), breaks into farms at night to film conditions. She’s a “research activist”, she says. A few years ago, she broke into a farm in Niessemuende, Brandenburg, and, fitted with a camera, watched workers killing piglets by swinging them against walls and kicking them. She said that’s systematic, the way that farmers deal with animals that they think aren’t big enough. She sent the footage to Animal Rights Watch, an activist group, and the footage aired on national television. The group sued the farm, but Sandra Franz, a spokeswoman for the activist group, said judges tend to sympathize with farmers.
Animal Rights Watch challenges the agricultural authorities with the abuses but the results are discouraging. One in Chemnitz refused to investigate allegations, saying the farm hadn’t had problems in the past.
Another, in Magdeburg, said they were aware of issues, but during checkups, they hadn’t seen any problems. Part of the problem is that inspectors are paid by local municipalities rather than the state or central government. The farms are often key tax payers. “It’s not surprising that they come to some kind of understanding,” she said.
Scarcity of qualified people is a bigger problem. Veterinary authorities cannot inspect all the farms in their catchment zones; in Germany, farms are inspected once every 17 years on average. In Bavaria, some only see an inspector once every 48 years. And farms know when inspectors are coming.
Industry groups call the break-ins “vigilante justice” that has nothing to do with animal welfare. Conservative politicians, in the Christian Democratic Union and pro-business FDP, call for stiffer penalties for animal rights activists.
Ms. Hofler points out that she doesn’t get much joy out of dressing up in scrubs, climbing over fences and breaking the law in the middle of the night. Viewing the footage is upsetting, but in Ms. Hofler’s view, breaking the law is necessary, or else nothing would change.
Times may be changing, however gradually. A judge in Saxony Anhalt heard a case about an activist breaking into a farm and found it was justified, after activists showed that animals couldn’t reach drinking water, had too little space and serious cases of animal abuse. The activists’ work seems to be gradually winning hearts and minds, although not yet in the Bundestag.
Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Today. Sebastian Leber writes features for Tagesspiegel. To contact the authors: [email protected]