SchweinErleben project in Switzerland

Farmed Animals in the EU: Happy as a Pig in the Mud?

Op-Ed by Josef Pfabigan, CEO FOUR PAWS


It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

Elections in the EU: One of the best-known quotes from early school literature shows children what is important in social interactions, controversial debates or when dealing with living creatures, for example. At FOUR PAWS, we also associate this “seeing rightly with the heart” as a mission with regard to the upcoming elections to the European Parliament: in just a few days, more than 370 million citizens will indirectly decide on the conditions under which billions of animals will be kept, transported and slaughtered in the EU in the future.

The sheer importance of this revision is emphasised by the fact that the last EU reform for animals kept for farming purposes was implemented 20 years ago. For comparison: Facebook was founded in the same year, 2004. A lot has changed globally since then. Today's 16- and 18-year-old EU citizens, who will be eligible to vote in 2024, were not yet born back then.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) defines animal welfare as “the mental and physical condition of an animal in relation to the conditions under which the animal lives and dies”. This definition is grossly neglected in factory farms across the EU, leading to legalised cruelty to animals and disproportionate suffering for billions of farmed animals. The cruel images of overcrowded chicken farms and pigs crowded together on fully slatted floors remain invisible to the public and hidden behind closed barn doors. The only thing that remains visible is the meat, attractively packaged and sold at very low prices as a product on European supermarket shelves, served in restaurants in the form of Wiener Schnitzel and other mass-produced products. The animal suffering behind this remains invisible to millions of consumers.

To answer the question of animal welfare, let's take a look at neighbouring Switzerland. In collaboration with the Albert Köchling Foundation and the FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture), the SchweinErleben project was launched in 2023 at the Panoramahof in Meggen, in the canton of Lucerne, which focuses on the question of how domestic pigs behave in a natural environment. Three mother sows and their piglets live in an enclosure with meadows and woodland, where they live their lives exactly as it suits their nature. In addition to researching the natural behaviour of domestic pigs, which are now very different from their wild boar ancestors, at least in appearance, the three-year project also has an educational focus. In contrast to the almost 150 million pigs that are fattened and slaughtered on EU soil and often kept and transported under cruel conditions, the animals at Panoramahof live in a paradise for pigs, which are considered to be extremely intelligent, social and – contrary to popular prejudice – very clean animals. They are also true ‘foodies’, spending most of the day foraging for food. But even in this project, one thing is clear – in the end, the pigs from Panoramahof are slaughtered. During their lifetime, however, they are spared the torment of fully slatted floors, cramped cages and tail docking. Here, people treat the animals with respect and compassion.

This project should have a far-reaching signalling effect. It aims to bring consumers and politicians closer to the animals again and sensitise them to the pigs' needs. Since May of this year, kindergarten groups and school classes have had the opportunity to observe the domestic pigs from viewing platforms and watch them yawn, splash and smack their lips. Everyone is invited to participate in the behavioural research via ‘Citizen Science’ and thus gain an even deeper insight into the life of the pigs – is there perhaps a wild boar with all its behaviour and needs under the pink skin after all?

In addition to the guided tours and scientific support for the project, FiBL is also working with FOUR PAWS on a film project – a low-threshold educational film – to give an even broader public an insight into the life of domestic pigs in a near-natural environment. The project will run until 2026.

What can be deduced from this on a larger scale, the keyword being food supply, and what can we expect from the upcoming European elections on this matter?

Since the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, animals have been officially recognised as sentient beings throughout the EU. According to their needs, they are granted ‘five freedoms’: Freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain and disease, fear and stress and the freedom to act out their species-appropriate behaviour. When we look at the horrific images of factory farms, cargo ships and animal transporters involved in accidents and slaughterhouses and systematic killing of billions of male chicks every year in the course of egg production, these contractually granted ‘freedoms’ in the treaty are pure cynicism. We humans acknowledge that animals have feelings, but are happy to look the other way, especially in the case of farmed animals, when animal suffering is a daily reality in production to be able to buy cheap products. We must work together to eliminate this injustice. Being human also means standing up for each other and showing compassion.

A look at the Panoramahof shows us an alternative reality: that of the pig, whose meat is the most consumed in the world, as a sentient, perhaps happy creature that jumps, digs and grunts.

Standing up for animals is a matter of reason and heart. The EU elections give people aged 16 and over in Germany, Malta and Austria, and 18 and over in other countries, the chance to cast their vote in favour of greater animal welfare on EU animal husbandry farms. Only through clear, strong, common positions against animal cruelty can we achieve far-reaching legal changes through our politicians. The goal must be the highest animal welfare standards for all animals. It is therefore important to take a close look at which candidates and political parties stand up for animals and animal welfare, with respect and compassion, with their eyes and with their hearts.

It is to be hoped that the SchweinErleben project will reach a large audience and change people's attitudes towards so-called farm animals and have a significant and positive influence on their consumer behaviour when it comes to animal products. The visibly contented faces of the pigs at Panoramahof should play their part in this – because the animals looked really happy.

Josef Pfabigan is CEO of FOUR PAWS. He is responsible for the strategic direction, management and development of the global animal welfare organisation for animals under direct human influence, which reveals suffering, rescues animals in need and protects them. Born in Lower Austria, he is a founding member of the organisation and has been a member of the FOUR PAWS board since its foundation in 1988.

Happy pigs on a field in Switzerland

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FOUR PAWS is the global animal welfare organisation for animals under direct human influence, which reveals suffering, rescues animals in need and protects them. Founded in 1988 in Vienna by Heli Dungler and friends, the organisation advocates for a world where humans treat animals with respect, empathy and understanding. The sustainable campaigns and projects of FOUR PAWS focus on companion animals including stray dogs and cats, farm animals and wild animals – such as bears, big cats and orangutans – kept in inappropriate conditions as well as in disaster and conflict zones. With offices in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, the UK, the USA and Vietnam as well as sanctuaries for rescued animals in eleven countries, FOUR PAWS provides rapid help and long-term solutions.

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