In February 2015 I spent some time in Finland. It was fascinating to see how open the public discourse seemed to be around the topic of animal rights. The national publication Helsingin Sanomat
had run a full two pages about my work in their Saturday paper a few months prior to my visit, and a national television station invited me to speak with their hosts about animal rights. The animal advocacy group Animalia
hosted several well-attended We Animals talks and exhibits as well.
During that busy week I also had the opportunity to visit a pig farm with a team of anonymous Finnish activists. What I saw was in stark contrast to my impressions of the country. If the dialogue about animal rights was so open and progressive, would the conditions of the farms not reflect public opinion and interest? A common misperception about developed countries is that the standards of care for animals at farms will be higher. Some of the worst farms I've visited around the world have been in the richest countries. We're quick to assume that the inhumane treatment of animals happens elsewhere. I've learned that it happens everywhere.
These images document a mid-sized pig farm, a few hours from Helsinki. We could smell the farm long before we entered its doors. Weeks later, my camera equipment would still smell of urine and feces. As the activists and I walked through the farm, our feet were soon covered with a mix of excrement, urine and pig feed, which has sloughed out into the paths between pens. The pens themselves, crammed with pigs, were also full of this mess. The ammonia in the air made my eyes burn and my nose run. Pigs have such a sensitive sense of smell; I could only imagine what it was like for them to live in this stench with no reprieve.
Some of the pigs we met at the farm were despondent and afraid, while others came over to the bars of the pen to smell us. Some chewed endlessly on the bars of the crowded pens. We noticed a few quiet pigs with umbilical hernias. The industry definition of these hernias is an abnormal protrusion of an organ or tissue through a defect or natural opening in the covering skin or muscle. Hernias often cause welfare problems as well as economic loss.
Farm Sanctuarys National Shelter Director, Susie Coston, states that "umbilical hernias are seen in the industry a lot and on slaughter lines, though many are pulled to do experimental surgeries. Umbilical hernias are a hole in the body cavity of the pig which can have intestinal loops, directly contacting the skin portion of the hernia. If the hernia is small it can cause adhesions; the intestines actually adhere together and do not allow the pig to digest food, which can strangulate the intestines and kill them. These hernias can cause pigs to die a painful and horrible death, or they can grow large while the intestines are in the sack, and dont seem to necessarily bother them. One problem is that the hernia can rupture and then the intestines and guts come out, which can also cause a very painful death. The industry does not like them because they rupture during slaughter and that contaminates the meat. We all know what is in an intestine. Navel ill, or an infection in the umbilicus is the main cause. Navel ill occurs from infection in the umbilicus due to unsanitary housing conditions, or clipping the umbilical cord too close to the body. Some piglets are genetically predisposed to have this condition, but it is more likely due to unsanitary conditions when the babies are born and genetic predisposition just makes it more likely."
At both small and large farms, pigs are treated as commodities and not as sentient beings who can experience pain and suffering at our hands. In many countries, pigs undergo teeth cutting, tail docking, ear tagging and castration without anesthetic while in our care. They live in cramped and dirty conditions, such as at this Finnish farm, before being transported and slaughtered. My hope is that these images will remind us that the mistreatment of animals happens everywhere, including where we least expect it, and that we all have the power to bring these practices to an end.
This story is being launched in Finland by Elaintehtaat.fi
, where you can read more information and see additional images about the farm. Elaintehtaat has been a platform for investigations and reportage on the relationship between humans and animals, including extensive coverage about dairy, beef, pig, chicken, egg and fur farms across Finland since 2013.