What Happens to Farm Animals When Natural Disaster Strikes?

Washington state livestock industry leaders discussed disaster preparedness today in a year that has seen wildfire and floods hit agricultural centers on a scale most religious experts call “biblical.” The response of farmers towards their animals should be a top priority. The primary concern for the Washington state livestock industry, however, was not natural disaster. It was a foreign animal disease spread by the factory farming industry itself.

Wildfires rage in the West, hurricanes hit the East Coast, and (surprise) there are millions of farm animals at the center of it all. The nation’s livestock industry is still counting its losses, but farmers might not be concerned about their animals for the right reasons.

“A natural disaster would be a lot easier to work through than a foreign animal disease,” the executive director of the Washington Cattle Feeders Association told Capital Press.

There is some truth to that statement. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease would cost the U.S. cattle industry $128 billion over 10 years, compared to more than $1 billion in crop and livestock damage dealt by Hurricane Florence. Arguing about whether to prepare for natural disaster or foreign animal disease is moot. It’s like arguing whether or not the chicken came before the egg.

Livestock growers should be prepared for both outcomes because, either way, animal lives are at stake. But farm animals are too often associated with a dollar sign. They are costs that are easy to let sink, instead of lives that are in need of saving.

Farm animals are considered disposable. That should make you mad.

During any natural disaster, there is an inevitable outpouring of support from around the world. The messages attached to selfless gifts and volunteerism say things like: help, rebuild, get back to normal life. But they’re almost always referencing to human lives, not animal lives.

Animals are farmed in the billions. The normal life they have to get back to will see them slaughtered for food within a year. There is no rebuilding when it comes to their quality of life on factory farms. They have none. The only rebuilding farm animals will ever feel is the rebuilding of the industrial farming system. The same one that strips animals of their livelihood, we call normal.

Livestock animals are quite literally being farmed to death. If that isn’t enough, when disaster strikes, farmers leave animals without access to food. Most often they batten down the hatches, meaning animals cannot leave wherever they are being sheltered. There’s no escape and no often high ground.

Farm animals are considered disposable. That is not to say they don’t have value. Farmers value their livestock like any other asset—and therein lies the problem. Sometimes, farmers have to cut their losses. When Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina in September, farmers left millions of animal behind to drown. The state was swimming in sunk assets.

Hog country flooded—and all we could talk about was poop.

Four thousand clay lagoons full of manure runoff from North Carolina’s hog industry were at risk of overflowing after Hurricane Florence dumped more than 30 inches of rain across the state.

The Black River, Northeast Cape Fear River, and Cape Fear River—which flow through the three most swine-farm concentrated counties in the state—all crested at historically high levels. Together, they represent the most swine-farmed watershed on Earth.

“[North Carolina’s] literally the cesspool of the United States,” Rick Dove, an adviser to the Waterkeeper Alliance, told the New Yorker. “You can’t describe it any other way. And flooding from this hurricane is making it even more obvious.”

Tom Butler, who has run a concentrated animal feeding operation in Wilmington, NC, for 23 years, placed plastic covers on his hog waste lagoons. He told the New Yorker that only seven or eight farms of about 2,000 across the state do that. Butler said he’s one of the good hog farmers. He’s responsible for about 8,000 pigs.

Before the storm, he told the New Yorker, “We have no idea what’s gonna happen with the residual flooding from this storm. Most folks are just praying, as far as controlling the lagoon problem. Even if a grower had his lagoons pumped down to the regulatory amount of nineteen inches, it would still overflow when you have twenty to thirty inches of rain predicted. That amount of rain is a real problem. Fifteen inches many can get by with. Twenty inches is a real problem.”

3.4 million animals died in the aftermath.

All told, about five hog waste lagoons flooded during Hurricane Florence. During Hurricane Floyd in 1996, 46 lagoons flooded. As recently as 2016, 14 lagoons flooded during Hurricane Matthew, according to Environmental America.

As the New Republic points out, CNN, Vice News, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal all reported on the poop lagoon crisis. But why, after seeing how flooding from Hurricane Florence compares to recent disasters, are we still talking about hog waste?

“Americans are eating more pork now than they have in decades,” according to the Washington Post.

Pork dollars are flooding the state, now home to nine million hogs, more than 2,000 hog farms, and concentrated animal feeding operations full of more than 1,000 pigs at any given time. Billions of pounds of pig (and billions of dollars) move through the state every year, making it hard, maybe even impossible, for factory farmers to look at these animals as anything other than dollar signs with legs.

After the storm, the official numbers released by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services put the death toll at 5,500 pigs and 3.4 million chickens and turkeys.

The devastation of North Carolina’s livestock animals is just one example of a systemic problem. Farmers trade animals for dollar bills everyday, and suddenly their lives become numbers on a balance sheet.

“And unlike companion animals, who by law must be included in government evacuation plans during natural disasters, farmed animals are afforded no legal protections,” writes Julie Cappiello for Mercy For Animals. “So while floodwaters rush into factory farms, animals drown in cages and crates with absolutely no chance of survival. Meanwhile farmers flee with companion animals for safety.”

Matthew writes Sentient Today and is a reporter with Sentient Media.

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