pigs, UK

Making new beginnings possible


An interview with Steve McIvor - World Animal Protection's CEO.

“I've gone into industrial farms. And it’s so hard to see the individual animal in those places. But when factory farmed pigs and chickens have been rescued and you’re caring for them, you see their personalities, their senses of humour, their energy and intelligence. They are not just numbers… They’re sentient and no longer part of that global production line that subjects billions of farmed animals to unimaginable suffering…”

As a young animal activist in his twenties, World Animal Protection CEO Steve McIvor dedicated himself to improving the lives of animals in the UK. Then, as now, he was strongly opposed to factory farming. So when given an opportunity to volunteer at a Somerset animal sanctuary caring for animals freed from factory farms, he jumped at the chance.

His first charges were two large pigs – Rasher and Kinki. 

“No one really talked about how they arrived at the sanctuary, but I believe they had basically been taken from a factory farm several years previously. Rasher was enormous and I remember the local vet saying how unusual it was to see a pig so old. Although they can live up to around 12 years old, farmed pigs usually have very short lives – around 7-8 months until they are slaughtered. Most people never see elderly pigs.”

Steve explains how Rasher introduced him to a pig’s sense of fun – something he had been warned about by John the sanctuary manager.

“John had a big twinkle in his eye as he handed me Rasher’s treat – an apple – and said: ‘Make sure you hold it in your hand and stretch out your arm… But watch out! She has a wicked sense of humour’. “I didn’t know what to expect. But Rasher approached me, put her mouth over the apple, then moved it over my whole hand and then further up. I swear she had a twinkle like John’s in her eye as she did it. She then moved back, looked at me again and politely took the apple and walked off.”

Feeding and playing with the sanctuary piglets was also on Steve’s task list and he says how they really opened his eyes to the sociability and fun of young pigs. 

Football fun
“They loved to play chase. This meant chasing me around one way in a circle as a group, then turning around and chasing me back the other way. Persuading me to play football with them also gave them great entertainment. Outside factory farms, piglets are able to use their natural energy and fulfil their incredible sense of fun and mischief. Inside is a very 
different story.”

Steve explains there were also egg-laying hens from industrial farms at the sanctuary, and that they always arrived in a sorry state. 

“They had been squashed into barren battery cages [phased out in the UK and Europe by 2012]. They were emaciated, battered, usually anaemic and lacking in feathers – some were nearly almost bald from rubbing against their cages or pecking each other. Also, the battery system deprived the birds of food and water for several days and kept lights on to make the hens think it was the right time to moult – shed their feathers. This in turn stimulated egg laying.” 

He describes how he enjoyed watching the rescued birds enjoying the sanctuary’s fresh air and sunlight, regaining their strength and then seeing their playful spirits starting to shine through. The sight was also sometimes quite eccentric, thanks to the support of keen knitters in the region. 

“When word got out about the chickens’ baldness and how they were feeling the cold, local people started knitting woolly jumpers for them… It took two of us to get a chicken into a woolly jumper, but the warmth certainly helped them recover and they wore them quite happily,” laughs Steve. 

Living naturally
The experience at the sanctuary inspired Steve to care for rescued broiler chickens and egg laying hens as soon as he and his partner had available land. A step-by-step approach was needed to get the birds back to their natural lives. This involved a quiet first few days indoors in a warm outhouse with lots of food and water and then they were introduced to the outside world.
“It was always so good to watch them regain their natural behaviour and to see their personalities emerge,” says Steve. 

“Feeling the sun for the first time, they would push their faces up to it and spread their wings…And although they had never been able to forage for food on factory farms or feel soil and grass beneath their feet, their natural instincts soon kicked in. It was wonderful to see them exploring, pecking, searching for insects…”

He explains that another sign of the birds’ adaptation to a life of freedom was conversation and play.

“At first the rescued chickens would be quiet, recovering from their trauma. But then I could hear them beginning to communicate… murmuring, clucking, and calling to each other. Watching them start to play was great fun. A favourite game was running around with a bit of food or an insect in their mouth and encouraging others to join.
I also learned that just like us they like to make friends and hang out together in groups.”

Remembering Big Ben
Steve says that one of the most memorable characters he cared for was a broiler chicken he named Big Ben.

“He was the gentlest of birds and absolutely enormous because he had been bred to grow so quickly. He was very  soothing company, and he liked to come and just sit beside me. He was never pushy with the other chickens for food – a true gentle giant. When he sat with me I felt like he was so grateful for his freedom and the joys he was having.”

Unfortunately, Ben was only with Steve few months.

“Sadly, the life spans of rescued broiler chickens are short compared to those of laying hens who have a better survival rate. This is because broiler chickens are bred and fed to grow quickly which puts a great strain on the hearts, lungs, and legs. Just a few months after we rescued him Ben died suddenly of a heart attack – it was terribly sad. The vet told us there was nothing we could have done to save him.”

Steve gave sanctuary to factory farmed animals for years. He then turned his attention to full-time campaigning to improve their lives; first in the UK with Compassion in World Farming and now globally with World Animal Protection. 

Making change happen 
Steve says he is proud to lead our organisation’s campaign to change global food systems which cause horrendous  suffering to billions of animals while simultaneously destroying our planet. He explains why over the next years the 
world’s largest meat production companies will be our targets. “They’re responsible for the industrial scale use of animals like Big Ben. They are also responsible for overuse of our world’s resources – clearing land for the soy and grain needed to fuel factory farms – and an enormous carbon footprint.

“We will get them from every angle to move them away from the sort of industrial farming that they're involved in. But always at the centre of our calls for change will be animals like Ben and the need to protect their welfare and we know we can depend on our incredible supporters to help us.”

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