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Legal help sought for pregnant pigs

Citing animal cruelty, activists say "gestation crates'' should be banned.

By STEVE BOUSQUET

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 2001


Citing animal cruelty, activists say "gestation crates" should be banned.

TALLAHASSEE -- A right to privacy, lottery and even a high-speed rail system all enjoy sacred status in Florida's Constitution.

Should pregnant pigs be in there, too?

Animal rights advocates around the country say yes. The Florida Farm Bureau says no, that giving pigs protected status will "lard up" the Constitution.

The idea of giving a pig a constitutional right to roll around in the mud seems to cause more laughs than indignation. But to the Humane Society of the United States, and its allies, it's no laughing matter.

Alarmed by the practice in other states of hog producers forcing pigs to spend much of their lives in cramped "gestation crates," unable to turn around, animal rights volunteers are collecting signatures from Florida voters.

If they succeed, and voters agree, Florida's Constitution will have a new animal cruelty amendment, "limiting cruel and inhumane confinement of pigs during pregnancy."

"We think if these animals are going to be raised for food, they should have a decent life before they are slaughtered," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. "To treat them as meat machines before they are slammed into a crate is the very definition of animal cruelty."

The Florida Farm Bureau Federation of Gainesville, an active lobbying group for agriculture interests in the state, says it supports the humane treatment of animals. But the group says it will fight the proposal on the ground that the Legislature, not the Constitution, is the proper forum for such public policy battles.

"They are putting forward a very narrow perspective for our state Constitution," said Pat Cockrell, the Farm Bureau's agricultural policy director. "We feel the state Constitution really needs to be used for those larger issues that have a broad impact on the health and welfare of the people of this state."

Pacelle acknowledged that Florida has few so-called factory farms, but that the Florida campaign is part of a nationwide strategy to prohibit confining pregnant pigs in crates. The state has a citizen-friendly initiative petition process, Pacelle said, in sharp contrast to major hog producing states such as Iowa, North Carolina and Minnesota.

Pacelle said the largest farm in Florida that used gestation crates is in Polk County, where 1,700 are in use. He said Florida ranks about 30th among states in hog production, but said an all-volunteer signature-gathering army has collected 140,000 signatures in Florida so far.

He said organizers took a cue from the successful petition drive to ban the use of large commercial gill nets in Florida waters.

Opponents on the pig issue disagree on whether the crates are cruel.

Pacelle cited studies showing that pigs forced to spend their lives in confinement show signs of stress, such as shaking their heads from side to side or chewing without food in their mouths.

Cockrell said farmers would not house animals in conditions that would be detrimental to their health, because that's not good for business. He said the use of gestation crates has improved the number of pigs-per-litter for farmers.

"Efficiency goes up. That's why people use them," Cockrell said.

Besides the Humane Society, groups joining the drive to help pregnant pigs are the Farm Sanctuary of Watkins Glen, N.Y., the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, based in Broward, and a political action committee, Floridians for Humane Farms, in Pompano Beach.

The PAC has raised $210,000. Its largest single contributor is Nanci Alexander of Boca Raton, a longtime animal rights advocate, who gave $25,000. The London-based Compassion in World Farming Ltd. gave $8,000.

Their first sign of progress came Thursday, when Attorney General Bob Butterworth asked the state Supreme Court to review the ballot language. Butterworth must by law review the language once petition organizers collect more than 10 percent of the 488,000 signatures they will need statewide by June 2002.

Under state law, the ballot summary must be "clear and unambiguous" and deal with one subject. Butterworth raised questions about the definition of "farm" in the amendment, and said that the proposal would prohibit transporting pregnant pigs, other than to veterinarians. Butterworth also said the ballot question complied with the single-subject provision.

"We're very heartened by that," Pacelle said.

Animal rights activists and Farm Bureau representatives met earlier this year but could not find common ground. Cockrell, of the Farm Bureau, is troubled by what he views as animal rights groups using Florida as a platform for a "national agenda," to expand their fundraising base in the nation's fourth-largest state.

"Why are they making such a big issue of putting it in the Constitution?" Cockrell said. "It's so they can go to the states where the real hog producing is and say, "See what we did in Florida?' "

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