I was delighted to see a recent article about Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York (“NY sanctuaries take in animals escaping urban slaughterhouses,” StarTribune.com). My first visit to Farm Sanctuary was earlier this summer.

It’s important to know that there are animals there besides those who’ve escaped from live markets. While I was there, I met a mother pig named Nikki. She was snoozing in a nest of straw she’d built in the barn. Later, she made her way out onto the pasture to graze. After a while, she cooled off in the mud hole and settled in to relax in the shade.

Each morning I was at Farm Sanctuary, I would make my way up to Nikki’s pasture to pay her a visit. As soon as she saw me, she would come running over. I’d like to think this was pure affection on her part, but I’d taken to feeding her big tufts of grass that I’d pulled up from under a nearby tree. So Nikki was coming over for her morning treat. I couldn’t get enough of watching her happily munching away on that grass. She loved a good back scratch, too.

Nikki and her piglets were rescued when floods destroyed a factory farm in Iowa. Her life in the factory farm stands in stark contrast to the life she’s now living at Farm Sanctuary.

On the factory farm, Nikki would have spent nearly the entire four months of her pregnancy in a gestation stall, a cage just a little bit wider and just a little bit longer than mother pigs themselves. She wouldn’t have been able to turn around. She couldn’t have taken more than one step forward or backward.

If they hadn’t been rescued, Chuck (one of Nikki’s babies) would have had his testicles cut out without any pain relief. And all of Nikki’s babies would have had their tails cut off without any pain relief. While her piglets were spared, Nikki herself only had a stump where her tail should have been.

After nearly three weeks, all of Nikki’s babies would have been taken from her. She would then have been reimpregnated, put back into a gestation stall, and the cycle would have begun again.

This would have gone on for around three years, until Nikki was no longer as productive as she once was. It’s at this point that she would have been sent away to be killed.

When she was on the factory farm, Nikki never got to build nests or roam on pasture. She never got to lay in the sun or take mud baths. She never got to munch on tufts of grass, or do the things she loves to do.

Minnesota is the third-largest pork-producing state in the country. The pigs we eat have been taken from moms like Nikki. I’ve been told by those in the industry that the vast majority of the mother pigs on farms in Minnesota, 80 to 90 percent of them, are confined in just the way Nikki had been before she was rescued.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Nikki, who is as at least as curious and sociable as a dog, to be kept in such intensive confinement for so long.

Farm Sanctuary is home to other refugees from factory farms besides Nikki. I met many other pigs, cows, turkeys and chickens. The lives they live now stand in equally stark contrast to what came before.

Seeing the animals at Farm Sanctuary living out their lives helped me know what the lives of animals on factory farms could be like. And that helps me know just how much we take from them when we raise them for food.

I’m reminded of this bit from Jonathan Safran Foer’s excellent book “Eating Animals”:

“We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?”


Jeff Johnson is an assistant professor of philosophy at St. Catherine University. This article represents his own views and is not intended to reflect those of his employer.