As local officials responded to the threat of floods in southeastern Iowa with repeated appeals for help with sandbagging, I jumped at the chance—to bury my head in the sand, or a sandbag, whatever could be spared.
The last time I volunteered during a disaster, the results were disastrous.
I’d been part of a mission to the post-Katrina South, aimed at saving pets that hurricane evacuees were forced to abandon, sometimes at gunpoint. Though everyone involved in our operation was a card-carrying animal advocate, in hindsight, group dynamics were doomed from the start, and in the end, egos (and libidos) got in the way of ensuring the animals we had “rescued” were truly safe. Not long after those of us in the field returned home with a misguided sense of “Mission Accomplished,” most of the animals who endured both hurricane and lengthy transport were euthanized, lost or placed in questionable homes—and no one responsible for the mess seemed to give a damn.
It was then that I began to question people’s motivation to help others. I recalled the words of a professor, uttered many years prior. They rang out in an introductory philosophy class, and at the time, I viewed the proclamation as nothing more than an attempt to wake up a bunch of wayward freshmen and set off the semester with a bang. Now, I believed it.
“There is no such thing as an altruistic act!”
So, in mid-June, as Iowa flooded, I hesitated to fill a sandbag—let alone try to save a life. Perhaps to justify my distrust of people, I adopted the mindset I have spent most of my life trying to rid in others: Nothing I do will make a difference.
I was numb like this for days when “Help Was Never on the Way,” an article written by fellow UI alum Leana Stormont, surfaced in my mind. It describes the tragic deaths of thousands of lab animals at Louisiana State University—all because no emergency plan was in place when Hurricane Katrina struck. I thought of the tens of thousands of animals confined in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across Iowa, and I wondered what help, if any, was on the way for them.
Here in Iowa City, the tendency to identify ourselves with the Slow Food Movement or a “locavore” handle is no doubt admirable—but can mistakenly lead some to believe the myriad problems the factory-farm model poses no longer exist. This is far from the case, as Iowa is the top pork and egg producer of the nation, and such standing is not brought to you by sustainable (let alone humane) ag practices. A romanticized notion of farming is not the reality throughout this state.
Housed on a two-block virtual island, allegedly impervious to 100- and 500-year flood plains, I began to scan the news from home, finding no mention of stranded food animals. I thought this odd—at least from the standpoint of economic loss—and mentioned it to a friend. “You haven’t heard, then,” he said, and proceeded to describe the plight of the Oakville, Iowa, pigs.
One-and-a-half hours southeast of Iowa City, in a town of only a few hundred people, thousands of pigs had been living out of public view in CAFOs. The flooding of the Mississippi and Iowa rivers brought their existence into full view, however, as the ones who managed to escape confinement and rising waters had taken refuge on the town’s 20-mile-long levee. Concerned that the animals’ hooves might tear sandbags and put the town at greater risk, local law enforcement responded to this surprise move with a strategy of their own–bearing firearms.
Ironically, up to this point, the pigs hadn’t known much better. Day after day, such animals in confinement inhale noxious fumes that even workers wearing special breathing equipment can withstand for only a few hours. With so many animals housed in a given space, the pigs are unable to move much, if at all. Worst off is the sow, kept in a two-foot-wide crate the duration of her four-month pregnancy. Only during the brief period of giving birth to, nursing and weaning her piglets, is she afforded a little more room in a farrowing stall. Afterward, her babies are taken away, she is re-impregnated by artificial insemination, and the cycle repeats—over and over and over again—until she is “spent” and sent to slaughter. There, where the sheer number of animals to be processed promotes haste among plant workers, inexact stunning occurs, leaving many pigs conscious when hung onto hooks and dunked into scalding water to burn off impurities.
In Oakville, only those pigs deemed “ready for slaughter” had been retrieved. The others were abandoned, written off as a loss. Some owners opened confinements, allowing such animals to fend for themselves; others didn’t bother. Whatever the case, the hundreds of pigs not en route to the slaughterhouse were on their way to what appeared to be another certain death.
I contacted Farm Sanctuary, a group that tasks itself with farm-animal protection. (This national nonprofit partnered with the Humane Society of the United States to co-sponsor a California ballot initiative that recently passed, effectively banning the use of structures most restrictive of animals’ movement by 2015.) Farm Sanctuary knew about Oakville. Busy organizing a rescue coalition made up of a handful of animal-protection groups, they hoped to save as many pigs as possible.
In late June, after gaining legal access to the pigs (a feat in and of itself), the rescuers spent two weeks of incredibly long days scouting for live pigs, rounding them up, administering emergency treatments and transporting them to safety at Farm Sanctuary’s New York shelter. Along the way, coalition members saw both horrific and wondrous sights, revealing to them the terrible situation the pigs had endured, as well as the amazing survival skills the pigs possessed.
It could be argued, however, that not until the daunting rescue of 68 pigs had officially ended did the real work begin. Though the coalition knew the animals were in a safe place at Farm Sanctuary, the pigs would require some convincing.
Pigs are known by animal experts to be extremely social and quite smart. In nature, they root in the dirt and wallow in the mud. When relegated to the unnatural existence that is inside a CAFO—isolation from family, and boredom and discomfort from living on concrete and behind bars—they exhibit neurotic behavior. Examples include “sham chewing” (chewing nothing) and chewing endlessly on the metal that confines them. For the Oakville pigs, this stress was only compounded when the flood hit.
Of the scenes rescuers had witnessed during the flood, one of the most heartbreaking was that of a sow who paced back and forth in a spot where all her newborn lay dead. Her mourning continued in New York. Just as humans neither abandon coping mechanisms when they are taken out of harm’s way nor stop the grieving process soon after the death of loved ones, the pigs did not halt their displays of neurosis or grief when they arrived at the shelter. Fear was also a factor. Having made only a negative association with the human form, the pigs would run away and hide at the sight of approaching healthcare staff. This made it difficult to provide the starving, dehydrated animals with adequate food and water, let alone to administer medications to treat severe sunburns and respiratory ailments.
Still more challenging was ensuring the survival of the piglets born toward the end of July. Babies born into freedom rather than a wretched existence was a thrilling spectacle—but their fragile condition required round-the-clock observation, exhausting the small staff that had been spread thin to begin with.
A call went out for volunteers with vet tech training, large-animal care experience, and the flexibility to work full time for two months. Without a job and with nothing to lose, I lamented not having the professional background they sought but touted a completely open schedule–music to a nonprofit’s ears.
Soon, I found myself in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. There, on an idyllic farm—one that resembles the fantasy marketing firms perpetuate on meat packages, milk containers, and egg cartons, in our children’s minds, and even in our own—I met my fellow native Iowans and their progeny and began caring for them, in earnest.
Getting to know the rescuers and the rescued forced me to question my skepticism about helping in times of need. Coalition members, faced with many obstacles, tackled problems and completed every stage of the rescue process. The pigs, never having known humans as nurturers, began to seek out our companionship, much as would man’s best friend—all in a mere month.
Both parties are shining examples of the qualities necessary to make the most of life—follow-through and unbroken spirit. I shall keep them in mind whenever I am called on to help in the future.
As this piece goes to print, so the Oakville survivors go to permanent safe havens across the country. Thirty-nine of them already call other shelters and private acreages their new homes in New York, Connecticut, West Virginia, Oregon and Virginia. A few pigs will remain at Farm Sanctuary, but even when the last of those that will live elsewhere is placed, this project will not come to an end.
The final stage is one in which your participation is encouraged: recouping the cost of the many expenses that were made to do right by these animals for the first time in their lives. Any level of contribution is appreciated! To donate, go to www.farmsanctuary.org or call 607-583-2225, extension 221.
Thanks to the generosity of a cherished few current and former Iowans and other Midwesterners, nearly $2,000 has been generated through two fundraisers set into motion in October—Farm Sanctuary’s annual “Walk for Farm Animals” event, and the Red Avocado’s gracious benefit dinner for Farm Sanctuary and the Iowa pigs.
More details of the most ambitious rescue the organization has undertaken in its 22-year existence can be viewed on Farm Sanctuary’s official Midwest Flood Pig Rescue Blog. This narrative—complete with photos, slide shows and video footage—covers highlights from five months of a roller coaster ride of a rescue, rehabilitation, and placement effort. Of special note are the stories of Nikki, Mango, Faith and Doctor, though of course every individual animal’s survival is something to behold.