Fires in factory farms are taking a heavy toll

By Andrew Hunt

Something horrible is happening in Canada and most Canadians probably aren’t even aware of it. An epidemic of factory farm fires have blazed across the country over the past several years, resulting in untold tens of thousands of animals being burned alive.

Did you know 51,500 animals died in factory farm fires in this country in 2009? That figure is up considerably from 3,700 in 2007 and 30,500 in 2008. Thank you to the wonderful group Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals for these figures. Here’s the most shocking figure of all: Since the beginning of this year, 78,466 animals have died in barn fires across Canada.

On May 7, thousands of pigs perished in a destructive inferno inside of three barns owned by ProVista Sandy Pine Pork in Zhoda, Man. The Manitoba Fire Commissioner estimated the death toll to be 6,500, but fire inspectors who sifted through the smouldering rubble guessed the number of dead pigs to be closer to 17,000. Since 2008, this has been the fourth fire in a large pig barn in the area around Zhoda.

Ontario has also had its share of factory farm fires. In mid-March, 5,000 pigs died in a barn fire just east of Wingham. In December 2009, two major barn fires, one in St. Catherines and the other in Stratford, killed about 2,000 pigs between them.

Barn fires happen with alarming regularity in Canada. We could sit here and crunch death-toll figures, but numbers never tell the whole story. To comprehend the horror these animals experience in the final moments of their lives, you have to imagine what it’s like to be caught inside one of these blazes.

In the May 7 fire, spreading flames and searing heat likely triggered thousands of deafening screams. About 1,600 sows caught fire inside of cramped gestation crates. In the intense heat, many of the pigs split open while still alive and their internal organs spilled out. Some stressed pigs tried to bite their way through metal bars. Not one pig survived.

The recent rash of Canadian barn fires has been alarming. Yet it’s important to understand them in the context of the factory farm system, which slaughters billions of animals in North America every year. Each of these creatures possesses a range of feelings. Each is capable of bonding with fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Each is a sentient being with awareness of the world. Studies have shown pigs are as intelligent as three-year-old children. They’re much smarter than dogs and cats. Yet most pigs, like most cows and chickens, are bred by the factory farm system for the purpose of being slaughtered. Their short and tragic lives are spent in cold, dark, disorienting worlds. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking there’s a humane way of killing them. There isn’t.

At best, the factory farm system is brutal. The recent epidemic of fires also demonstrates it’s unsafe. Why aren’t politicians investigating conditions in factory farms? The answer is simple. Animals don’t vote. They don’t have fat wallets to contribute to the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP. They’re invisible. They’re voiceless and incapable of advocating for their safety. And the ones who have died in Canadian barn fires end up numbers on insurance claims.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You can judge a nation’s moral progress by how it treats its animals.” What would Gandhi say about Canada, where each year tens of thousands of animals know only terror and unbearable pain in the final moments of their lives?

Andrew Hunt is an associate professor of history at the University of

This article originally appeared in The as an Editorial Opinion in June, 2010.

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