Pregnant pig protection makes headway
Author: Michael Peltier
By a unanimous vote, the state's highest court ruled that a proposed constitutional amendment protecting sows from immobility is succinct and accurately portrayed, two criteria necessary to put the issue before voters in a referendum.
At the center of controversy are gestational crates in which the animals are housed for much of their lives. Farmers say the crates allow them to keep more pigs in smaller areas, increase production and reduce the cost of labor and feed.
Research cited by opponents of the practice say the crates prevent pigs from turning around, causing psychological and physical problems ranging from chronic stress to urinary infections.
With court approval in hand, backers of the petition led by Pompano Beach-based Floridians for Humane Farms, a coalition of animal rights groups, need 488,722 signatures to put to the issue to voters in November. So far, backers say they have 235,000.
While approving the ballot language, three of the seven justices wrote a separate opinion calling on lawmakers to make it tougher to change Florida's constitution.
In recent years, the constitution has been amended to ban commercial net fishing and to require the state to build a high-speed train, issues critics say should be left to lawmakers.
"I cannot help but observe that the issue of whether pregnant pigs should be singled out for special protection is simply not a subject appropriate for inclusion in our State constitution," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote.
"Rather it is a subject more properly reserved for legislative enactment."
Backers of the proposed amendment said they are well on their way to putting the issue before voters in November. Florida would be the first state to constitutionally bar such practices.
"We only resorted to the initiative process after the legislature failed to deal with this issue of cruel and unusual treatment to animals on factory farms," said Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.
Agricultural groups opposing the amendment say that only two small hog producers in Florida use gestational crates. But the state's lax laws allowing for public initiatives made it a perfect target for groups that have been unsuccessful advancing similar protections in other parts of the United States.
"The reason why we're the first is that Florida allows for such trivial things to be put on the ballot," said Frank Hall, spokesman for the Florida Farm Bureau. "Their feeling is if they can get it passed in Florida, there will be a domino effect and they can move into bigger hog producing states."
The ballot title reads simply: "Animal Cruelty Amendment: Limiting Cruel and Inhumane Confinement of Pigs During Pregnancy." Given the emotional nature of the issue, Hall said farm groups hold out little hope of defeating it at the polls.