I've beem hanging around pigs all of my life. Generally, I think I understand them pretty well. But, like people, they're all different.

Some pigs are friendly, curious. Others are guarded, skittish. Mistreatment can make the friendly, curious pigs guarded and nervous. Kindness and care can instill trust in the guarded and skittish sorts.

Like people, genetic tendencies may prevail regardless of their environment or the care they're given.

Even identical matings often do not result in totally predictable offspring, much as siblings do not have the same temperament, body shape or abilities. Why, then, would we expect all pigs to respond the same to whatever environment they are placed in?

Is it any wonder, then, after decades of study and debate over animal well being, that standards have eluded us?

Different Direction Needed

When you've tried and tried to make something work, but fallen short, it's usually a good idea to approach the challenge from a different direction.

The wisest, most knowledgeable person I know in this field is Stan Curtis, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. Dr. Curtis, a self-described “Hoosier farm boy turned scientist” has been studying pig behavior for slightly longer than I've known him — nearly four decades. He's also trained a sizeable cadre of graduate students now actively trying to shed some scientific light on the animal well being debate.

A few months ago, Dr. Curtis sent a preview of a seminar talk. It was 29 pages long!

True to fashion, his presentation displayed the type of analytical thinking and common sense needed to advance this discussion for all stakeholders — producers, protectionists and scientists.

He quotes from a dairy cattle management textbook by James Wing to make his first, very strong point: “The lion's share of scientific animal management can be founded on two major principles: the strongest impulse in nature is survival; the second strongest, reproduction.”

In other words, the highest priority in animals (including man) is to adapt and meet basic needs to sustain life.

Next on an animal's resource allocation list is reproduction. If their basic physiological needs are not being met, they will not reproduce.

Curtis fondly borrows Peter Drucker's point: “You can't manage what you can't measure.”

To my knowledge, and Dr. Curtis', no one has figured out a way to measure an animals “feelings.” Scientifically, we can't measure levels of happiness, depression, joy, fear, satisfaction or whatever.

Still, we cannot ignore the issue.

The “Performance Axiom”

Curtis says many animal welfare scientists have dismissed the critical role of function and performance in establishing an animal's state of being. He suggests a paradigm shift to a new “performance axiom,” which he defines as follows:

“For a constitutionally fit animal of any kind — in the continuing absence of an adequate scientifically informed understanding of its conscious feelings — the best single set of measurable, hence manageable, indicators of that animal's state of being will be its rates of productive and reproductive performances relative to its predicted potential to perform.”

This would be a uniquely U.S. approach to helping solve the impasse that exists between the various stakeholders today. The performance axiom would replace “beliefs” with science (measurable traits such as growth rate, feed efficiency, reproductive capability).

Lacking the science, we are left with disagreement and confusion.

“It's unreasonable to expect a farmer (pork producer) to manage his animals on the bases of husbandry factors that can't be measured. And, trying to regulate the keeping of animals in large groups, herds, or flocks on the bases of factors that aren't measurable would be absurd,” Curtis states. I agree.

Will this approach bring forth the “perfect” hog-raising facility? I doubt it, but it certainly could identify facilities that pigs prefer — based on their performance in them.

Finally, Curtis says new terminology is needed. The terms welfare, well-being and wellness are wrong and misleading. He prefers “state of being” because it better describes the state of an animal as it attempts to cope with its environment.

Agree or not, those of us in the business of producing pork do set some limits on our animals' lives. We have a moral obligation to oversee their various needs and we should continuously strive, via science, to better understand their natures so we can better meet their needs. Striving to do that, we enhance their “state of being.”

Curtis' “performance axiom” needs serious consideration in guiding future research allocations. Short of that, the stakeholders in this matter will continue to flounder, attempting to write standards that have no measure to reveal whether we are on the right track.