Midwest Flood Rescue: Ambitious Operation Saves 69 Pigs

Nikki and piglets at Farm Sanctuary

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.

Midwest Flood Pig Rescue 2008

VIDEO 5:54

Midwest Flood Pig Rescue 2008

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In the town we were around-- it was called Oakville, Iowa-- seemed to be a very large pork-producing town. And the pigs literally had nowhere to go.


Everything was gone. All the cornfields around there were just gone-- were covered in water or were just mud fields. So the only high ground that the pigs had to go were the levees and the woods.

The levee itself, it spanned about 15 miles. Going up and down the levee, we saw hundreds of dead pigs that had died from gunshots or died from mainly the elements. We would be out there from 8:00 or 9:00 and trying to catch pigs until sundown, which was 9:00 or 10:00. And whatever pigs we caught we would take back to the holding area that we had for them. And you wake back up again at 6:30. And it was very long, long days.


Come on, piggies.


There they come.


Come on, big girl.


There we go.

When each of the pigs arrived, we had them in groups, as they did the rescue. So when I first came in to take care of the pigs, they were all skin and bones. Like everybody was very skinny. And their skin was bad. So my main thing was to get them back into shape.

Hi. Four legged mama. You're so beautiful. [LAUGHS] Tippy. Such a big piggy. [LAUGHS]

She's very playful. She's a very young mother. I'm guessing this is her first litter. And she actually likes to play with the piglets, and they'll run and play. And she is so obsessed with being outside and being in the mud. So she's a great mother. She's teaching them all these great habits. But yeah, see, she's covered with mud.

And again, she's a gestation sow, so she would have spent her entire life-- like the entire three years they would have kept her in a crate and never gone outside. And they're on concrete, and so a lot of these guys came in with abscesses on their shoulder bones and on their legs. Without the floods, they wouldn't be here, which is kind of creepy and scary that that kind of a tragedy has actually made their life better. But we're happy that their life is better. And they're happy their life is better.

But again, gestation sows never even see their babies because they're not allowed to touch them. They say that they'll kill them if they're with them-- that they'll smash them. And as you can see, she hasn't killed any of her babies. She's had them in the worst conditions possible. She had them on the levees, she had them out in that sun, and she took great care of them.

It's definitely putting a burden on our shelter budget. Besides the pigs being really emaciated when they came in, most of them had very severe sunburns. We have some pregnant sows. We're also dealing with hernias. A lot of the male pigs have hernias.

The other thing we're dealing with is really severe pneumonias. They had a lot of water intake. Some of them required going to Cornell and being on oxygen. Most of them have required really heavy-duty antibiotic treatments, like repeat treatments.

The other things we're dealing with are foot infections, which is very common in pigs, especially the gestation sows, and those are the ones we're seeing it in. That's from being on concrete too long. They get it as they age anyway. Pigs are bred to be very large. But these sows had really serious foot infections that are going to require surgeries to remove claws because the infection's up in the foot, in the bone.

Basically, everyone's starting to get better. The medical costs are still going to be happening because Cornell can only take in so many at a time. So it's going to be a constant trip to Cornell.

They were there because people put them there in those factory farms. They had no control of where they were. So we were going to do anything we possibly could to help them survive. Helping those pigs, putting them on the trailer, getting them back to somewhat of a healthy state in order to transport them back here, that was a lot of hard work, but I think we have a lot more hard work ahead of us here at the farm now. Just with all the healthcare, the day in and day out healthcare that we have to do-- just with those pigs, let alone the farm itself-- it's going to be a long haul for us and for the pigs.

VIDEO 5:54

Midwest Flood Pig Rescue 2008