The Business of Cruelty

Why New Zealand treats animals so badly

by Catriona MacLennan

New Zealanders watching television on the evening of 17 May were shocked to see footage of distressed pigs filmed at an intensive pig farm in Levin. The pigs were confined to tiny cages measuring 60cms by 2 metres in which they could not turn around, were crying, were chewing on the metal bars, and exhibited other signs of stress. They were unable to engage in normal patterns of behaviour such as making nests for their babies, moving and walking, being outside, and eating and sleeping away from the space in which they toileted.

The footage sparked intense media coverage and widespread public abhorrence. Agriculture Minister David Carter was deluged with emails and letters protesting at the condition of the animals. He called for a report by MAF’s animal welfare investigators, saying that it was essential to find out whether the intensive pig farming operation was in breach of the Animal Welfare Act.

However, anyone aware of how animal welfare laws operate in New Zealand knew that the conditions in which the pigs were kept were not illegal. Three years’ ago TV3 had broadcast pictures of pigs in the same conditions at the same farm, owned by former New Zealand Pork Industry Board chairperson Colin Kay. The farm was investigated at that time, and it was found to be largely in compliance with the law. This time around, the farm has been found to be fully compliant, despite the shocking conditions shown in the footage.

The final report on the MAF investigation was released on 2 July and stated that no breaches of the current Animal Welfare (Pigs) Code of Welfare had been found. The same vet who carried out the 2006 inspection wrote the 2009 report.

The vet, whose name was deleted from the report, wrote that :

“Following my inspection, it is my opinion that standards of animal husbandry, stockmanship, and animal care are very high in this piggery. I have no doubt that farm staff take their responsibilities for the health, well-being and welfare of pigs in their care very seriously, in spite of operational constraints imposed by the buildings’ age and layout.”

The vet went on to say that modifications had been made to the dry sow stalls identified as being non-compliant during the previous inspection.

“It could be argued that the owner should have acted on recommendations to utilise group housing of dry sows to a greater extent and therefore reduce average time of stall confinement. My understanding is that this has been done and is done to a very limited degree. However, there is no obligation on the owner to do so under the code in its current form.”

The vet said that observations of resting dry sows did not support contentions of pigs in distress. “While the present tone of public sentiment may be strongly disapproving of intensively-housed and reared pigs, the fact is that I found no evidence on this property of non-compliance with or breaches of the Animal Welfare (Pigs) Code of Welfare 2005 in its current form.”

The report said that approximately 140 to 145 pregnant sows were stalled in two dry sow rooms. The condition of the dry sows’ bodies was described as “very good – only two sows were deemed marginal. Environment very clean.” The vet said that 15 to 20 per cent of the sows had “Mainly chronic, healed or healing sores on backs,” while 10 to 20 per cent had “overgrown toes to some degree.”

How animals can be described as being in good condition, when up to a fifth of them have chronic or healing sores is hard to fathom. It is also extremely difficult to accept that a vet viewing animals in the conditions depicted on the Sunday programme could describe the standards as high.
The statement is an indication of how low the bar is set in terms of animal welfare under the code.

The New Zealand Pork Industry Board estimates that 35 per cent of pig farmers keep sows in stalls for up to six weeks at a time during pregnancy.

Around 10 per cent of pig farmers keep sows in stalls for longer than six weeks – some for most of their lives. However, pig farmers also make use of farrowing crates to confine pigs for around four weeks once they have given birth.

This means that animals will be in cycles of being placed in sow stalls, then farrowing crates, then being re-impregnated and beginning the cycle again.

Advocates of sow stalls argue that they are necessary to protect pregnant sows from attack, and that farrowing crates are required to protect piglets from being crushed by their mothers. However, free-range producers describe this as “poppycock.”

So how can the vet’s “all clear” report possibly be reconciled with the tv pictures, which most New Zealanders assumed showed treatment of animals which would be against the law ? And how can the pigs’ conditions be reconciled with a law described as the Animal Welfare Act, and which is said to have the goal of preventing the ill-treatment of animals ?

Austrian animal lobbyist Martin Balluch believes that the reasons for our poor treatment of animals can be traced back thousands of years.

He completed a doctorate in physics and worked as an academic, but increasingly came to question how colleagues with whom he had morning tea and who he considered to be friends, could return to their laboratories after enjoying their coffee and then subject animals to horrendous pain in the course of experiments. Balluch queried the complete disjunct which these people seemed to operate: they would no doubt have been horrified to be confronted by cases of cruelty to people, but had somehow developed a mindset in which they considered that what they did to animals was perfectly acceptable.

In fact, they did not even think about it. The animals were not regarded as autonomous living beings, but rather as the raw material of experiments – essentially, as things.

Balluch, who visited New Zealand earlier this year to speak at an animal rights’ conference, abandoned his scientific specialty and did a doctorate in philosophy to help him understand how the Western world had developed its attitude to animals. He traced our current perspective back to the writings of Aristotle close to 2500 years ago.

Philosophy of human superiority

Aristotle postulated a hierarchy of living beings based on a criterion of intelligence, with creatures of lower intelligence existing for the benefit of those with higher intelligence. At the apex of this pyramid was the most perfect being – a white, male, able-bodied, Greek human. Unsurprisingly, this most perfect creature represented the category to which Aristotle himself belonged.

Next in the hierarchy were white, female, able-bodied, Greek humans, followed by their children and then by barbarians. Animals were lower down in the hierarchy than humans, but there was also a hierarchy among animals.

Aristotle asserted that waging war to capture slaves and wild animals was justified, as these beings were there for the benefit of superior beings. “Man can have no friendship with horses, cattle and slaves,” he claimed.
Animals, he said, existed solely for use by humans and a very strict hierarchy was the natural order of society.

Later philosophers postulated a body-mind dualism, asserting that the body was mechanical and transient, while the soul was immaterial and never died.

Humans, it was argued, were metaphysical beings with souls in transient bodies, while animals comprised only bodies, like machines.

Descartes described animals as having no real feelings and emotions. Rather, they were like automatons. These philosophies were used to justify slavery – because black people were inferior to white people – and lower status for women, because they were lower in the hierarchy than men.
Animals were at the very bottom.

Balluch related this approach directly to the views of his academic colleagues, who said of the rats they used in experiments “That’s what they’re there for.” More recent philosophies have come closer to asserting that all humans are equal, but still claim that animals rank lower than humans.

This can be seen clearly in our use of language. Humans insult other humans by describing them as “animals.” Calling people “sheep” implies that they are stupid, “pigs” implies that they are dirty, and “cows” connotes that they are unpleasant. Animals, which clearly in biological terms are either male or female, are described by the word “it” as a further means of reducing their status as living creatures and making them into things.

It is these viewpoints which are used almost 2500 years later to justify continuing poor treatment of animals. However, as well as being morally repugnant, the philosophy is logically flawed. An adult pig is more intelligent than a baby human.

Does this then mean that the young human should be able to be exploited for the benefit of the adult pig ? There are unlikely to be many humans who would accept that. Similarly, would it be justifiable, using a yardstick of intelligence, to treat a person of extremely low intelligence worse than a highly-intelligent animal ?

Aristotle’s hierarchy can also still be seen in the way we continue to categorise animals. We divide animals into “companion” animals and “farm” animals. New Zealanders regard animals such as cats and dogs as companion animals and would be horrified at the thought of killing them to eat or skinning them to use their fur.

However, it is considered acceptable to do this to animals such as cows, sheep and pigs. Yet humans, cats and pigs all share brains, hearts, lungs, eyes, ears, mouths and other biological features. And on ethical grounds, surely the mark of a compassionate society is how well it protects its most vulnerable members ?

From that point of view, it can be argued that the weak and less intelligent should be given more, rather than less, protection than the strong. Judged on that basis, our society has not progressed very far as it still fails to provide animals with adequate protections in law. Most of our law treats animals as things and possessions, rather than as living beings. And the rights of property owners include the right to deal with their possessions as they see fit.

Animal Welfare Act

The Animal Welfare Act 1999 aimed to reform the law relating to the welfare of animals and the prevention of their ill-treatment. In particular, it requires owners and people in charge of animals to attend properly to their welfare, specifies what types of conduct are permissible in relation to animals, and provides for the development of codes of welfare.

Section 9 of the Act states that the purpose of Part 1 of the legislation is to ensure that owners and people in charge of animals attend properly to their welfare. Section 9 (2) accordingly sets out a list of duties for people who own or care for animals.

Such people are required to “take all reasonable steps to ensure that the physical, health and behavioural needs of the animals are met in accordance with both – good practice; and scientific knowledge.” Ill or injured animals “where practicable” must be given treatment that alleviates any unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress, and minimum conditions are specified for the transportation of animals. Section 4 spells out what is necessary to satisfy these requirements by defining the phrase “physical, health and behavioural needs” as including –

  • proper and sufficient food and water
  • adequate shelter
  • the opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour
  • physical handling in a manner which minimises the likelihood of unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress
  • protection from, and rapid diagnosis of, any significant injury or disease.
  • The opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour means that hens should able to scratch for food, have dust baths and walk around outside.

    For pigs, it means being able to care for their young, being able to walk, stand up and turn around, being outside, and getting exercise. Obviously hens confined to battery cages and pigs in sow stalls cannot do these things.

    So how can such farming practices be legal under the Animal Welfare Act ?

    The answer is that there are exceptions to the Act’s fundamental requirements, with animal welfare being traded away in favour of economics.

    Codes of Welfare

    The Act provides for the development and review of codes of welfare, which set minimum standards for animals in setting such as intensive farms, rodeos and circuses. However, although the standards set by the codes are supposed to be minimums, in practice they have become the acceptable legal standard for the treatment of animals in each particular industry or sphere.

    Prior to the Animal Welfare Act, there were already Codes of Recommendations and Minimum Standards for the Welfare of Animals.

    It was intended that, once the new law took effect, all of these would be reviewed and replaced with updated provisions. However, the code development process has proved to be extremely slow, as intensive farming industry groups have battled hard to prevent stricter standards from being implemented.

    Provision was made for the existing standards to remain in force for three years while codes were drafted, but subsequently the Government has had to legislate to extend the transitional period indefinitely. Almost a decade after the new law took effect, therefore, millions of animals are still governed by the old standards. By 2007, only nine codes had been approved by the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, with 14 more awaiting development.


    And the code development process is in itself problematic. The Act provided for the creation of the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, as a means of ensuring that an independent body provided advice to MAF on laws and regulations relating to the welfare of animals.

    It is NAWAC which develops the codes. However, the membership of the committee is heavily weighted towards those from farming and animal industry backgrounds, as opposed to those from welfare backgrounds.

    That is clearly evident from the list of NAWAC members:

  • JP and secondary school principal Margaret Burrows (nominated by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs),
  • Farm business consultant Hilton Collier (nominated by Te Puni Kokiri),
  • Landcare Research pest control scientist Philip Cowan (nominated by Landcare Research),
  • National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee chairperson John Martin,
  • Federated Farmers’ national vice-president (nominated by Federated Farmers),
  • Retired vet Peter O’Hara (independent chairperson),
  • Vet Karen Phillips (nominated by the New Zealand Veterinary Association),
  • RNZSPCA national vice-president Jenifer Prattley (nominated by the RNZSPCA)
  • MAF Biosecurity senior adviser animal welfare Roger Poland (MAF nominee ex officio),
  • Lincoln University Professor Emeritus in agricultural economics Bruce Ross (independent appointment), and
  • vet and welfare scientist Gwyneth Verkerk (nominated by the New Zealand Society of Animal Production).

    Code drafting process

    Anyone can write the initial draft of a code and submit it to NAWAC for review. However, Unitec Programme Director of the Certificate in Animal Welfare Investigations, Arnja Dale, notes in an article titled ‘Animal Welfare Codes and Regulations – The Devil in Disguise ?’ that this theoretically neutral process offers significant potential for code-writing to be taken over by the affected industry.

    Dale says that most of the codes have initially been drafted by the very industries which use or produce the animals in question. For example, she says, the pig Code of Welfare was written by the New Zealand Pork Industry Board, the layer hen Code of Welfare by the Egg Producers’ Federation of New Zealand, the broiler code by the Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand, and the deer Code of Welfare by the Deer Industry Association of New Zealand.

    Dale states that, although NAWAC does not simply adopt the submitted versions, they have a powerful influence and set the tone for the entire process, normally leading to a final version favourable to the relevant industry.

    Animal welfare advocates are accordingly left to fight a rearguard action to have the worst practices removed from codes. Dale also points out that MAF itself has a conflict of interest in its role in relation to codes, as the organisation’s primary purposes are to ensure that the production of animal products continues in an economic manner and that New Zealand exports are profitable.

    MAF’s website states the following in relation to its aims –

    “Our mission is to enhance New Zealand’s natural advantage. We do this by: encouraging high-performing sectors; developing safe and freer trade; ensuring healthy New Zealanders; and by protecting our natural resources for the benefit of future generations.” Plainly, there is nothing in that requiring MAF to play any role at all in protecting the welfare of animals.

    Despite this, it would appear that intensively-farmed animals should still be entitled to the protection of sections 4 and 9 of the Animal Welfare Act.

    How, then, can it be possible for hens to live their entire lives confined to cages giving them space equivalent to slightly more than an A-4 piece of paper, and how can pigs be confined to sow and farrowing stalls in which they cannot turn around, walk or display any natural patterns of behaviour ?

    The answer lies in the exceptions provided for by the Act. Section 73 states that NAWAC, in drafting codes, must be satisfied that :

  • proposed standards are the minimum necessary to ensure that the purposes of the act will be met; and
  • recommendations for best practice are appropriate.
  • In carrying out its functions, NAWAC must have regard to submissions and consultation, as well as good practice and scientific knowledge, available technology, and any other matters it considers relevant. However, section 73(1) provides that NAWAC may “in exceptional circumstances” recommend minimum standards for best practice that do not fully meet the obligations of sections 10 or 11.

    Section 11 requires people to alleviate the pain or distress of ill or injured animals. In making recommendations under sub-section 3, NAWAC must, according to sub-section 4, have regard to the following matters –

  • the feasibility and practicality of effecting a transition from current practices to new practices and any adverse effects that may result from such a transition
  • the requirements of religious or cultural practices
  • the economic effects of any transition from current practices to new practices.
  • It is sub-section 4 which effectively gives both NAWAC and intensive farming industries a “Get Out of Jail” card. The industries argue that moving from intensive farming to humane practices would be economically ruinous to them, and NAWAC has accepted that as a justification for continuing cruel practices, or for recommending very long times periods for phasing them out.

    Public opinion

    NAWAC has also repeatedly ignored widespread outpourings of public concern about intensive farming practices. A Colmar Brunton poll of 500 people in December 2001 found that 86 per cent of respondents considered sow stalls to be unacceptable, and 87 per cent wanted them banned. The poll had a margin or error of plus or minus 4.4 per cent.

    In December 2004 a TVNZ Close Up (unscientific) poll found 3,986 people in favour of banning battery farming of hens, and 452 in favour of its continuation. 120,000 New Zealanders forwarded postcards asking for a ban on battery hens during that code drafting process.

    One source suggests that NAWAC members do not actually read the submissions forwarded to them. Instead, the submissions are simply summarised by students.

    NAWAC’s response to the public views has been to state in NAWAC Guideline 07: Taking account of societal expectations, technical viewpoints and public opinion that “it is important to distinguish between background societal expectations and current public opinion on the matter, and to note that a surge of interest in a particular matter may or may not be a good measure of a change in general societal expectations.”

    Parliamentary committee calls for ban on battery hen cages

    The delays in banning battery cages for hens and the way in which NAWAC has spent years calling for additional reports and further research in relation to the treatment of hens are instructive in relation to the way it has dealt with the pigs’ code.

    Parliament’s Regulations Review Committee, in an almost unprecedented move on 9 May 2006, issued a report on a complaint lodged by animal lobby group, the Animal Rights Legal Advocacy Network. ARLAN had complained to the committee about the operation of the Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare 2005.

    The committee held hearings, with both ARLAN and MAF and NAWAC representatives giving evidence. Former NAWAC chairperson, David Mellor, told the committee that : “NAWAC is very concerned that the disadvantages of the alternatives to the current cages are such that there is no indication that there would be a net improvement over and above current cage systems. This is a rather exceptional circumstance. We would like to see a change but we can’t recommend that that change should be towards at this stage.”

    Mellor said that NAWAC was accordingly recommending that, in four years’ time, there should be a review of information on all systems, including modified and improved systems as well as barn and free range “in the hope that, and in the expectation, that improvements will be made so that the assessment of whether there would be a net benefit to a phasing out of cages towards those other systems would be evident.”

    Current NAWAC chairperson, Peter O’Hara, told the committee that NAWAC was not sitting on its hands. He said that he intended to establish a poultry research committee with clear terms of reference to ensure that NAWAC, when it reviewed the code in 2009, was “in possession of the most up-to-date information that’s available both from within New Zealand and overseas. In particular, has up-to-date information on the performance of alternative systems that currently operate within New Zealand.”

    O’Hara went on to say : “If you take the totality of the physical health and behavioural needs of the animals, then barn and free-range systems present some real problems of management that would compromise the welfare of the animals. The question is can we consider now whether it is possible to move three millions laying birds from cage system to these alternative systems, and we simply can’t be confident that that’s possible.”

    The committee upheld the complaint, concluding that the Animal Welfare Act was being breached and recommending that battery cages should be phased out. The committee produced a 41-page report in which it stated that NAWAC was extending the meaning of “exceptional circumstances” too far in providing for a further review of the code in 2009, with no fixed date for phasing out the current cages.

    The committee said that – “We consider that the code does make an unusual or unexpected use of the powers conferred by the Animal Welfare Act 1999 as it extends the notion of exceptional circumstances beyond the intent of the Act. ..while the Act provides for minimum standards and best practice that do not fully meet the obligations of section 10, this applies only in exceptional circumstances. We are of the view that the failure to specify what new practices are required and to set a time frame of the transition from current to new practices goes beyond what the Act envisages are exceptional circumstances. This is an unusual or unexpected use of powers under the Act.”

    The committee recommended that the Government –

  • review the Minimum Standard No 7 to comply with the obligations of the Animal Welfare Act
  • include in the review a requirement that the minimum standard specifies dates for the conclusion of current non-complying cage systems and for the transition to alternative systems
  • consult on revised wording for the definition of current and conventional battery cages as required for a proposal to make an amendment to the code.
  • However, the Government ignored all of these recommendations.

    New Zealand’s 2.8 million battery hens accordingly remain confined to tiny cages, unable to walk properly, stretch their wings, peck or have dust baths.
    They produce around 300 eggs a year, depleting their calcium levels and increasing the likelihood of osteoperosis, fractures and broken bones.

    NAWAC in May 2008 announced that it had completed a review into the minimum standards relating to maximum stocking densities in the 2003 Broiler Code of Welfare and concluded that no change to the minimum standard was required. It said that the conclusion was based partly on New Zealand research which found that the welfare of broiler chickens in New Zealand was “on a par with world best practice.”

    “The research, coupled with overseas research, has enabled NAWAC to conclude that the management of environmental factors (temperature, humidity, noxious gas levels and litter quality) is the key to determining actual stocking density. Where management is good, a maximum density of 38kg liveweight per square metre is not associated with compromised welfare. NAWAC emphasises that the minimum standard in the code specifies a maximum density. We are satisfied that the welfare of the birds can be maintained at an acceptably high level through good management and there are no scientifically-sound reasons for abandoning it in favour of lower stocking densities or more extensive systems.”

    O’Hara went on to say that NAWAC would undertake a complete review of the code by November 2009. The animal lobby group, SAFE, participated in the process for preparing the first five codes, but then announced in 2006 that it was withdrawing from involvement as the process had been captured by industry groups.

    The industries also argue that the public would not be prepared to pay the extra money which it would cost to produce eggs, bacon and other products using free range practices. However, that argument is not supported by the facts.

    Auckland’s Victoria Park New World supermarket several years ago introduced a system of labelling for the eggs it sells – free range, barn eggs and battery eggs. Since that time, the free range eggs have gradually come to dominate the shelves, and the battery-raised eggs have become fewer and fewer in number.

    The egg shelves are divided into 25 segments. At present, 19 segments are filled with free range eggs, five with barn-raised eggs, and only one with battery eggs. Opinion polls have also repeatedly found that the public is prepared to pay extra for eggs and meat produced using cruelty-free methods. However, producers have continued not only to argue against such production methods, but have also resisted mandatory labelling to ensure that customers can make informed choices.

    Where to from here ?

    In the wake of the Sunday programme, Agriculture Minister David Carter asked NAWAC to review the code of welfare for pigs as a matter of highest priority. He wrote to O’Hara saying that he wanted to issue a new code by the end of the year.

    However, in a process echoing that adopted in relation to battery hens, NAWAC has said that it is commissioning a review of the latest research.

    That will be followed by two rounds of consultation. NAWAC also said that, in 2005, there had been a lack of evidence for or against sow crates.

    This is incorrect. There is sufficient research to have enabled many other countries to announce the phasing out both of battery hen cages and of sow stalls. Switzerland banned battery cages in 1992, Sweden in 1999, Germany in 2007, and the European Union has imposed a ban to take effect from 2012. Dry sow stalls will be completely banned in the United Kingdom, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden from 2014. Dale in her article describes as “baffling” NAWAC’s repeated claims that it cannot impose stricter standards because of a lack of New Zealand research.

    She says that the conditions in intensive farms in New Zealand are very similar to those in intensive farms overseas, but NAWAC refuses to accept international evidence of harm to animals. However, NAWAC’s lack of action is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

    In addition to public concern, both Carter and Prime Minister John Key have described the footage of Kay’s farm as disturbing. Carter, in a letter dated 30 June 2009 to me, said that – “ I was equally disturbed by the images shown and I found them unacceptable. As the Minister of Agriculture, I have made it clear that animal welfare is an absolute priority for this Government.”

    The letter concluded by stating that –

    “It is important that animal welfare policy is developed reflecting both scientific knowledge and public expectations for the ethical treatment of animals. I know the NAWAC process will take this into account, and I am confident it will develop a revised code that meets the high expectations of the Government and the New Zealand public.”

    Carter on 20 July in a speech to the New Zealand Pork Industry Board conference warned the industry that consumers expected action, and said that “this issue ain’t going away any time soon.” He said that he would not pre-empt the current review, but personally believed that a 2015 date for action on stalls “needs to come forward significantly.”

    Such statements create a strong expectation that the outcome of the current review process will be a ban on the use of stalls in the near future. There is no requirement at all for further research or reports. There is ample New Zealand and international material already.

    In fact, all that the NAWAC members need to do is view for themselves the condition of the pigs on the Levin farm, and compare that with the condition of Piggy Sue. Piggy Sue previously lived on the farm, but was bought by Carolyn Press-McKenzie for $2.50 a kilo and now lives at her Pakuratahi Farm Animal Sanctuary.

    Press-McKenzie says that when she bought Piggy Sue, the animal had pressure sores from the cage in which she had been confined, was emotionally switched off, and had glazed-over eyes. She had never been outside. By contrast, Piggy Sue now has her own shelter and three acres of land to share with 17 pigs. She has been introduced to grass, the outdoors, sunshine and rain.

    However, it is depressing to reflect that, after all the public outcry and extensive media coverage since May 17, the other pigs on Kay’s farm are likely today to be in exactly the same conditions as they were when the Sunday programme aired.

    That is what the current law permits.


  • Write to Prime Minister John Key, Agriculture Minister David Carter and your local MP asking that the Government ban sow stalls immediately
  • Write to NAWAC to provide your views about the review of the Pig Code. Email NAWAC to request notification of the release of the draft revised code –
  • Ask the Government to make it mandatory for all eggs, bacon, ham and pork to be clearly labelled free range or factory farmed.
  • Buy only free range pork, ham or bacon.
  • Ask for free range meat at your supermarket or café to make retailers aware that this is an important issue to you
  • Support SAFE, the RNZSPCA, your local SPCA and other animal lobby groups with money, time or expertise.
  • *Catriona MacLennan is a South Auckland barrister, journalist and author.

    ** As a postscript, it can be noted that the Sunday programme has been sold to countries overseas. The public in those nations will be just as shocked as New Zealanders were by the pictures, which will be extremely damaging to this country’s reputation.