Vegan Life writes about why swimming with pigs in the Bahamas is not the harmless paradise that people expect.
Photographs have permeated our everyday lives so much that many people experience the best moments of their lives from behind the screen of their iPhone 7 and it seems as though nothing’s worth doing unless there is a great photo opportunity.
We are saturated in digital media, although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our ability to share, upload and download data from afar has, undeniably, got its benefits.
However, this digital media explosion has had an unexpected side effect. The need for unique, comment-worthy photographs has led to a significant growth in wildlife tourism.
An incalculable number of photographs documenting camel rides across the desert, tigers in Thailand and swimming with dolphins in glittering blue pools clearly show that people feel the need to interact with animals. In fact, a recent study found that a love of animals is the prime motivator for tourists visiting wildlife attractions, yet the majority of these tourist hubs have been found to have negative welfare impacts. This is estimated at around 550,000 captive animals around the world.
By far the most common animal used in wildlife tourism is elephants, mostly in Asia. Over 75 per cent of elephants are living in unacceptable conditions according to World Animal Protection. Their report found that elephant tourism is having a significant impact on the welfare of thousands of animals across Asia. Travellers hoping to get an elephant selfie or to cross an elephant ride off their bucket list are frequently unaware of the damage that their activities are having on elephants behind the scenes; this is especially true in Thailand which has twice as many elephants used in tourism than all of the other Asian countries combined.
Recently, a new animal attraction is emerging as a must-do on people’s bucket lists…swimming with pigs.
Following celebrity visits from Kourtney Kardashian and Wayne Rooney, the number of people visiting Pig Island has rocketed and, consequentially, the welfare of the twenty or so pigs living on the apparently utopian island has suffered.
Pig Island is officially named Big Major Cay and is one of over 360 islands which make up the Exuma district of the Bahamas. It has become a unique destination for people who want to see the, now famous, swimming pigs. Imagine the glittering brilliant-blue ocean, twenty or so friendly pigs accompanied by adorable, happy tiny piglets, a deserted beach and a cloudless sky. Sounds like paradise? Some things sound too good to be true because they are.
The swimming pigs are no different to the 10 million or so pigs which are killed each year in Britain in slaughterhouses, except for the fact that they live in the Bahamas. Tourist boards may give the impression that these animals live a very different life, without a worry, chilling on the beach. However, if people think that these animals are not exploited, live in paradise and die of natural causes, they would be grossly mistaken.
In spring this year, seven pigs were found dead on the island. The cause is unknown, though Humane Society inspector Ventoi Bethune told National Geographic that vets who had visited the site found large quantities of sand in the pig’s stomachs. He attributed the large amount of sand consumed by the pigs to food being thrown on the beach by the hordes of tourists visiting the bay.
The island has little natural vegetation for the pigs to eat and therefore, the animals have begun to rely on food brought to the island by tourists. These foods can range from healthy fruits and vegetables to junk food and some may even contain pork products.
Another contributing factor in their deaths is thought to be dehydration. There are three freshwater springs on the island but, as global temperatures increase, reports that these springs have dried up are becoming increasingly common. This lack of water is thought to have contributed to the pig’s deaths.
Ventoi Bethune, the Humane Society, said: “We found their natural source of water had dried up, so there wasn’t much fresh water on their island to drink. We believe it’s a combination of factors that lead to the death of the pigs.”
As such, visitors are encouraged to bring water for the pigs to drink. Many tourists do but, there have also been multiple reports that tourists are also feeding the pigs alcohol to try and get them drunk.
Similarly, tourists have been spotted riding on top of the pigs.
The crux of this issue is that nobody regulates the welfare of these animals, looks after them or ensures that tourists are treating the pigs with respect and dignity. On an uninhabited island, who looks after the pigs when all of the tourists have disappeared with sunset? Who ensures that the people visiting this wild population are adhering to the rules? Are there any rules?
After the death of seven pigs earlier this year, the Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources, V Alfred Gray said: “People will be able to take photographs and see the pigs swim… but they will not be able to feed them things.” However, we found no evidence to suggest that this has been put in place by the Bahamas Tourism Office and their website (at the time of print) continues to encourage visitors and promotes companies which include feeding the pigs as part of their experience packages.
The pigs are not native to the island. There are several theories in circulation explaining how the animals came to live on Big Major Cay. According to some, sailors marooned the pigs on the island in case they needed food on their return journey whilst some think that the pigs swam from a shipwreck offshore. Others believe the story of a man called Wayde Nixon who claims to have brought pigs to the island in the 1990s.
As non-native species, the pigs encounter several, potentially life threatening issues by living in the Bahamas. Firstly, pigs do not regulate their temperature in the same way as humans do. Our sweat glands allow us to expel excess heat from our bodies through evaporation. Although pigs do have sweat glands, they have very few and therefore they cool down by rolling in mud. With no mud on the island, bathing in the surrounding ocean is the only way for the animals to sufficiently regulate their body temperatures.
Rolling in the mud also allows them to coat themselves in a protective layer which will stop damaging UV rays from burning their delicate skin. This is particularly important for white, non-pigmented pigs. The unprotected animals can develop sores, burns and red raw skin; there is even a chance that this can lead to the development of cancer cells. This is undoubtedly painful for the pigs, whose only choice is to soothe their sores in the salt water.
World of Vegan founder Michelle Taylor Cehn visited Pig Beach in 2016 and asked the locals some questions about the population of pigs. With ample visitors and no restrictions on breeding, you would expect a far greater population on the island, so she asked where the rest of the pigs were kept. World of Vegan wrote: “Finally I got a more upfront answer from one of the locals who grew up on a neighbouring island. With confidence, she said, “Oh, they have to kill the pigs or there would be too many — especially when they get aggressive. They can be a danger to the tourists, so they have to go.”
The population of pigs is kept low by systematically killing the pigs, which are eaten by the locals.
So what is the solution? The pigs are not able to live without support from humans on the island and therefore they cannot be left on the island completely alone. Spaying the pigs to reduce further pigs being born would allow the population to naturally decline but procedures need to be put in place to ensure the welfare of these creatures in the meantime.
Pig Island may not seem to be as obviously exploitative as Seaworld or caged tigers in Thailand, but, don’t be fooled, it is no different. All animal tourism comes down to money. A report found that wildlife tourism accounts for 20-40 per cent of all tourism worldwide and therefore, travel companies, tour operators, wildlife parks and ultimately, local governments, are making big bucks from the exploitation of these animals.
Indeed, Tourism Director, Joy Jibrilu, said: “As a destination that is world-renowned for welcoming visitors and providing them with the most beautiful beaches, lavish hotels and resorts, and fine dining, and for being a dream destination, the Islands of The Bahamas are very proud to be the Official Home of the Swimming Pigs. Providing visitors with the once-in-a-lifetime experience of interacting with these wonderful animals is just one more thing that distinguishes The Bahamas. We’ve already introduced thousands of visitors to ‘Pig Beach’, and we look forward to welcoming thousands more in the years to come.”
It appears that increasing tourism to the Bahamas is far more important than the welfare of these innocent pigs. There are also, alarmingly, reports that the pigs are being spread to nearby islands to allow greater number of tourists to visit the swimming pigs.
Dominika Piasecka, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society, said: “Vegans are opposed to all animal use, including for entertainment, and it’s heart-breaking to learn that there is now yet another awful way in which humans exploit animals.
“It’s unacceptable that pigs on the Bahama beach are kept there in unnatural conditions, fed inadequate food and treated like toys by tourists giving them beer and riding them.
“Pigs are very clever animals who deserve to live freely without human interference and we urge all vegans to encourage family and friends not to take a holiday on the ‘Pig Beach’.”
In these situations, it is easy to feel helpless. However, knowledge and education is one way you can help. Share your information with friends and family so that they know the truth about Pig Island. Encourage people to choose activities where they can interact with animals without negatively affecting their welfare such as visiting national parks, where animals are free to roam in their natural habitats, or animal sanctuaries where animals saved from agriculture or cruelty are cared for compassionately.
People need to put animal welfare above their own selfish needs to find a social-media-worthy photo opportunity.