Researchers at the University of Guelph have been working on what they had hoped would be the first genetically modified farm animals approved for human consumption – they call them Enviropigs. Instead, after several generations of breeding, the project has fizzled and Guelph intends to kill the animals if they can’t secure alternative funding, despite my organization’s offer to help the university save them.
The pigs have been genetically manipulated to digest phytic acid, which means that phosphate needn’t be added to their food. Researchers suggested that this would reduce feed costs and pollution, although apparently not enough for the pork industry, which cut off funding. But rather than simply kill the pigs, we can, and should, do better for them.
My organization, Farm Sanctuary, which operates three farm sanctuaries in the United States and provides lifelong care to more than 1,000 abused and neglected farm animals, has offered to work with the university to find loving homes for the Enviropigs, where they can live out their unnatural lives as naturally as possible – taking mud baths, revelling in the sunshine, playing with one another and simply being pigs.
We’re sure that Guelph’s scientists have learned what our caregivers have known for decades – that every pig has a unique personality and that pigs are smarter than dogs and that they interact with one another in complex ways. As Jane Goodall has noted, “Farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined. … They are individuals in their own right.”
Sadly, the university doesn’t see it this way. I have been in correspondence with Guelph’s vice-president for research, Richard Moccia, who has refused to work with us, pointing vaguely to “care and control protocols” and “Canadian regulations.” But he has been unable – despite my repeated requests – to point to anything specific in either category.
Leaving aside the Orwellian nature of “care” protocols that require killing rather than actual care, I don’t believe that the regulations and protocols that exist are as stringent as Prof. Moccia is implying – which would explain why he has been unable or unwilling to provide them. Indeed, chimpanzees, monkeys, dogs and cats are routinely retired post-research. Retirement has also been provided to pigs; at the University of Utah, pigs named Marilyn and Madonna were sent to a sanctuary when they were no longer being used for research. Surely the University of Guelph could revise its protocols to allow a similar happy fate for the Enviropigs.
The two actual concerns we’ve heard are these: First, that the animals might breed with non-GMO animals; and second, that they might end up on someone’s dinner plate. The solutions are obvious: First, the university should spay and neuter them. And second, the university can keep strict track of them and monitor them as they live out their lives and require that their remains be returned upon their natural deaths.
Of course, the entire controversy raises a larger question: What’s the point of this research? We know the solution to farm animal pollution – eat fewer or no farm animals. And this solution has benefits not just for our environment, but also for our health and (of course) animal protection.
But the research has been done. The university brought these pigs into the world and manipulated their genetics in an attempt at commercial gain. They now have a moral obligation to do right by these intelligent animals, who love life every bit as much as we do. For the same reason the public would be horrified if 16 healthy puppies or kittens were about to be killed because researchers had no remaining use for them, we should all be equally horrified that the University of Guelph is about to kill 16 perfectly healthy Enviropigs.
Bruce Friedrich is senior director for strategic initiatives at Farm Sanctuary, which provides lifelong care for more than 1,000 abandoned and abused farm animals.