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Animal-rights advocates, ranchers square off in a battle over animal-confinement practices

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What some call barbaric and equate with torture, others call sensible, cost-effective animal husbandry.

Such is the debate over a statewide petition drive launched by a coalition of animal-rights groups seeking to ban stalls that are too small to let pregnant sows and calves turn around or fully extend their legs.

Arizonans for Humane Farms needs 122,612 valid signatures by July 6 in order to get the question on the general election ballot in November. The coalition, which, among other organizations, includes both the Arizona and national branches of the Humane Society, Farm Sanctuary and the Arizona Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says it has about 19,500 signatures right now.

"The organizations that are working on this initiative have an overall concern about the welfare of the animals--animals of all types," said Cheryl Naumann, coalition chairwoman and president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Humane Society. "This particular initiative targets some of the most egregious conduct in terms of how animals are cared for.

"Nothing in this initiative precludes animals from being slaughtered for food. The only issue we're focusing on is that animals have basic, humane standards for care while they're living."

The proposed measure includes exceptions for legitimate scientific research, sows in the final seven days of pregnancy and other reasons. If passed, it would take effect on Dec. 31, 2012.

Paul Shapiro, factory farming campaign manager for the Humane Society of the United States, says sow and calf pens, also called gestation and veal stalls or crates, are "so restrictive that the animals can't even turn around, let alone engage in other important animal behaviors."

Shapiro described the sow stalls as metal enclosures that are slightly larger than the animal's body. The pigs are unable to turn around or take a step forward or back. They eliminate on a slatted floor suspended above a manure pit, he said.

"Cows and pigs are social animals that have a variety of natural behaviors that they need to engage in to maintain a reasonable level of welfare," Shapiro said. "It should be common sense that these animals' behavioral needs aren't being met."

Shapiro noted that Floridians approved a constitutional amendment banning sow pens in 2002. In addition, a European Union directive mandates that the stalls be phased out by 2013, after research concluded lack of mobility and social interaction affected the pigs' well-being.

The primary reason farmers use the stalls is money, Shapiro said, because "when you restrict the amount of space each animal has, you can cram more animals into a given facility." He said the stalls are "the norm" in animal agricultural business today, although both he and Naumann indicated that wasn't the case in Arizona.

"We're fortunate that we don't have many of the big, industrialized, corporate farming operations that use these methods," Naumann said. "There are many operations in our state that are very large and have been owned and operated by Arizona-based families for decades. They typically understand what humane care means, and even though they are raising animals for slaughter, they wouldn't think of raising animals in a way that won't even let them extend their limbs."

Jim Klinker is chairman of the Campaign for Arizona Farmers and Ranchers, a coalition of industry groups formed to oppose the gestation and veal stall initiative. He said the objections to gestation and veal stalls are based on "pure emotion" and not science.

Klinker refused to talk about the stalls directly, saying the real goal of Arizonans for Humane Farms is to abolish animal agriculture. He said "outside groups" like Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society of the United States have made public statements advocating this position and have an "agenda" they're trying to foist on Arizonans. If they succeed here, they'll push the boundaries of that perceived agenda elsewhere, he said.

"These people want these animals raised the same way we raise our dogs and cats," Klinker said. "I think most people understand that's not how food is produced."

With $40 million in revenues annually, Arizona is a fairly insignificant hog producer. Nationally, Klinker said, there are 61 million hogs in 70,000 farming operations; Arizona, in contrast, has 150,000 pigs in 180 operations. There is virtually no veal production in Arizona, he added.

"Why Arizona? Why not Iowa? Why not Nebraska?" Klinker said. "We're a small producer with small production. We really don't think it has anything to do with pen size."

Although his coalition hasn't done research into specific costs, he said consumers may have to pay for retrofitting production facilities if the initiative passes. Naumann said the economic impact for consumers would be "very little," without citing specifics.

Contrary to what animal-rights groups have asserted, Klinker said there are actually behavioral reasons to confine pigs. He grew up on a farm in eastern Nebraska and said that experience has given him first-hand knowledge about how they act.

"I learned enough in my short time as a young person on that farm that hogs are very intelligent, but they're also very aggressive, and they're also very susceptible to disease," he said. According to Klinker, confinement agriculture is a way to "protect them from disease and from each other."

There are a variety of ways to house and feed sows, and all of them have pros and cons, said Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.

"Basically, what we've discovered in literature, research and consideration of the issue is that one housing system is not necessarily superior to another. They all have their disadvantages and advantages," Burkgren said. The AASV's position is mirrored by the American Veterinary Medical Association's stance.

Pigs housed and fed in groups establish a hierarchy and will fight for food. It's more difficult to regulate consumption, and injury rates tend to be higher, Burkgren said.

Gestation stalls eliminate these problems by keeping sows in a highly controlled environment. The stalls should be large enough for the sow to stand up unimpeded and lay down without being cramped, according to Burkgren. If the stalls are too large, the extra mobility could allow a sow to hurt herself or smother her offspring, he said.

But comfort and social interaction may be sacrificed for the control and efficiency provided by stalls, according to the AVMA's position statement on the matter.

In the end, it's also important to remember that farming is a business, Burkgren said, so the welfare of the pigs has to be weighed against the interests of the farmer.

"We advocate for good herdsmanship and protecting sows from the detrimental effects of any kind of housing," he said. "It's the people who take care of the animals on a daily basis that make the greatest difference in the welfare of the animal--and people who work with pigs will tell you that. You can't engineer good welfare."

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