Midwest Flood Rescue: Ambitious Operation Saves 69 Pigs

Since 1986, Farm Sanctuary has performed hundreds of rescues. During the summer of 2008, we faced one of our most daunting.

As floods ravaged the Midwest that June, farm owners abandoned their facilities, surrendering their animals to the advancing waters. In southeastern Iowa, the nation’s largest pork-producing state, thousands of pigs were caught in the floods. Many were confined in gestation crates, 2-foot-wide metal enclosures that keep breeding sows immobilized throughout their pregnancies, preventing them from turning around or lying down comfortably. Hundreds drowned still trapped in these devices; others were released from the crates only to be swept away by rapid currents. Those who reached land or levees faced a fight to survive in the hot sun without shelter, food, or clean water.

Mobilizing in coalition with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the American Humane Association, and the Animal Rescue League of Boston, Farm Sanctuary dispatched a team to Iowa for one of the most ambitious farm animal rescue efforts ever undertaken.

Over about two weeks in late June and early July, rescue workers implemented a three-phase operation to aid stranded pigs in the Oakville, Iowa, area. In the first phase, rescuers visited a 16- to 20-mile stretch of levee, by both land and water, to find surviving pigs and assess their conditions. The next phase involved bringing food and water to all of them. The final phase was to round them up and transport them to a holding facility, from which they would make the journey to our New York Shelter in Watkins Glen.

The work was treacherous at times and emotionally draining. As our team members headed toward the river to aid survivors day after day, teams mobilized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture were driving away with truckloads of dead pigs. Dead and dying pigs lay everywhere, and rescuers had to euthanize some survivors who were beyond aid. The pigs we were able to rescue were severely dehydrated and emaciated. They suffered third-degree burns from the sun and lung damage from taking in contaminated water as they swam to safety. Many were injured, and all were terrified.

In the midst of such suffering, it was the pigs themselves who kept up our spirits. We were moved not only by their tenacity but also their camaraderie. A group of particularly ailing and exhausted pigs we brought to safety at the end of June bonded within moments of their rescue, gathering together in a pile for comfort and warmth. Another pig came to be named Doctor because he would follow caregivers on their healthcare rounds and “talk” in the ears of the pigs receiving treatment. He was good at making people feel better, too. As National Shelter Director Susie Coston recalls, “When I was exhausted and lay down on the ground to rest, he would come lie across my body and talk in my ear. He really kept me going.”

A source sometimes of joy, occasionally of heartbreak, but always of admiration were the mother pigs we encountered. In addition to keeping sows in gestation crates during their pregnancies, pork producers confine them in farrowing crates during the period when they are nursing their young, with mothers and babies separated by bars. Industry sources argue that this measure is necessary to prevent sows from injuring their piglets. The solicitude and devotion displayed by the mothers we found during this rescue puts such reasoning to shame. One sow continued to guard a barn containing her piglets even though they had not survived the flood. This sow remained in deep mourning for days after her rescue, crying out for her young ones.

Another sow, later named Nikki, gave birth on a levee. Though she had known nothing but a series of barren pens and crates her entire life, Nikki kept her babies safe as her wild ancestors would have, building two nests and teaching them to hide from strangers. Today Nikki’s family remains inseparable, even with the young ones grown and bigger than their mother.

By the conclusion of the rescue operation, the team had brought 69 pigs to safety. On July 10, the last group arrived at our New York Shelter, but there was no time to rest on our laurels. As the rescue effort ended, the massive rehabilitation and placement effort was already underway. A call for additional hands on the shelter mustered volunteers from across the country to support our staff.

While many of the new arrivals required critical care, ongoing treatments, and surgeries, and the expectant mothers were monitored 24/7, those pigs well enough to go outside began reveling in their new home at once. Industrial pigs, whether used for breeding or raised for meat, are confined their entire lives. To see how cruel and unnatural such an existence is for them, one need only watch the pigs we rescued from the Iowa floods, some still at our shelter and others living in loving adoptive homes. These pigs relish the outdoors and spend as much time as possible rooting in the dirt, wallowing in the mud, and even frolicking in the snow —clearly born for freedom and fresh air.