The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, March 10, 2005  

Cows' & Pigs' Tails

The more I read about the business that should be referred to as mega-industrial-farming-and-food-creation, the closer I inch toward vegetarianism. (For background, see "These Are New Rules? It's Enough to Make You Turn Vegetarian," The Rittenhouse Review, January 31, 2004.)

The latest prompt comes from "The Unkindest Cut," by Nicolette Hahn Niman, on the March 7 op-ed page of the New York Times, from which have been culled the following pull quotes:

A few months ago, I toured a Wisconsin dairy and witnessed something unsettling. . . . As I walked through the place with the farmer's wife, I noticed that the cows' tails had been cut off and I asked her why. "Well, it's just easier to milk them without their tails," she explained[.] [...]

A cow without a tail, you see, is a sad sight. [...] And I have often observed just how useful tails are to cattle. At certain times of year, cows' tails are in constant motion, flicking away flies and other insects that gather on their backs. Other than predators, which most farm animals don't have to worry about very much, flies are the bane of a cow's existence. And confinement dairies, which often have dense fly populations, are places where cows are especially in need of their tails.

But lest you think of the dairy farmer's wife as some misguided villain, it's important to point out that she's just following the trends of her trade. The Wisconsin dairy farm I visited is in fact becoming the norm. Although the Department of Agriculture does not keep official records on the practice, animal protection advocates say that cutting off most or all of animals' tails -- known as "tail docking" -- is now commonplace in the livestock and dairy industries.

The reasons given in the dairy business are convenience in milking and disease prevention. But there is little proof that tail docking, which is generally done without anesthetic, reduces disease -- and there's plenty of evidence that it makes a cow's life unpleasant. [...]

Tail docking is also commonplace in the hog industry. [...] Like a dairy cow, a pig uses its tail not only to shoo away insects but also to communicate. [...]

The pork industry's rationale for tail docking is that pigs bite each other's tails and that the tails can then become infected. When pigs' tails are cut off, the stubs stay intensely sore and so, the theory goes, the bite will cause so much pain that the bitee will move away from the biter. [...]

Now, part of this is true: tail biting is common in pig herds in confinement buildings. But isn't the tail biting a direct result of how they're being reared -- in metal buildings with concrete floors, giving pigs nothing to occupy their active minds? In nature, pigs spend most of their days rooting around in the dirt, exploring and grazing. Stuck inside, bored pigs often bite one anothers' tails -- one of the many "vices" or abnormal behaviors that occur when pigs are raised in confinement.

However, the real question is not why tail biting occurs in modern hog buildings but whether cutting off the tails of pigs raised in confinement reduces it. So far, the research is not encouraging. [...] Given the suffering it causes animals and its dubious benefits, tail docking should be stopped. [...]

My father didn't raise pigs on his farm, and while I can profess no particular affection for his herd of cows, sweet as many of them were, I saw enough flies on his "free-ranging" cattle -- their such status predating for nearly two decades the vogueishness of that very phrase -- to recognize that this practice is not only cruel, but just plain stupid.

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