Animal rights and academic freedom

I advocate for animal rights — mostly for pigs in pork production — because someone needs to speak for the millions of pigs around here from a position disentangled from financial incentives. It’s not that I planned my life this way. In fact, I wish I had never seen the tight, wretched cages in which pigs are kept for life in this province and country. I wish, eight years ago, that I had just gotten up from the factory-farm meeting at the Humane Society and said: “This is just a bad dream. I’m going home to wake up now.”

I advocate for animal rights from a very pragmatic philosophical position. I simply want animals out of cages, granted the ability to move around and check things out. We all die; we should all get to lie in the sun and explore the shade sometimes.

The Manitoba Pork Council, which helps fund the faculty of agriculture’s research centres, is a proponent of industrial pork production and heavy pork exports. In my opinion, the faculty of agriculture’s department of animal science is too bound up with the pork industry. As part of an institution of critical thinking, they should hold industry at an arm’s length and work independently from it, even if only occasionally. Instead, Manitoba Pork Council and Faculty of Agriculture work closely together. See for information about their exports and contributions to the U of M. It’s all there.

However, it’s not like my objections can bring down the faculty of agriculture and international business. Moreover, I come at everything from a commitment to democratic process and in the name of a simple goal: moving sows from their caged existence and into group housing.

I also know and co-write with a Canadian independent barn and slaughterhouse investigator, Twyla Francois. She sees horrible things on a daily basis and I work with her to make some kind of sense of them. We both support local production rather than international markets and we want the government to help push things in a better direction. Until that happens, pork produced in intensive confinement systems should be completely boycotted and bailout money should be directed toward improved conditions.

Have steps been taken to silence us? Yes: people have gone out of their ways to try to shut us up. We have both been frightened — and we have both been forced to seek legal council several times.

Keep a sharp eye on the power of corporations to bring the curtain down on academic freedom and on the consumer’s rights to full disclosure of production methods. Intellectual inquiry requires protection from individuals and companies with the power to cut it down in the name of money or out of misunderstanding. If we don’t stay on top of these issues, we are all going to wake up one day to something worse than the H1N1 pandemic, listeria outbreaks and a lake full of phosphorus — and we’ll be faced with faculties full of academics too afraid for their jobs to ask what the heck is going on.

If you disagree with what I’ve written here, come out to the panel discussion being scheduled for March 25 in the Engineering Building at 11 a.m.. It will feature Dr. Kees Scheepens from the Netherlands, a pig veterinarian and author of several books on raising pigs according to advanced humane methods. He and Vicki Burns, former director of the Winnipeg Humane Society, are going to address the cruelty of intensive-confinement systems, the fact that their phase-out must get underway, and the impact of pork production on fragile ecosystems.

Dana Medoro is an associate professor of American literature and culture.