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ANIMAL WELFARE: Group takes aim at 'divine pig' contests

2013/04/05 09:16:59

Taipei, April 5 (CNA) Oversized pigs lie on the ground, unable to move around the specially designed pen because of their own weight.

Still, they are fed twice a day, often forcibly, by professional farmers looking to raise the largest pigs possible.

These animals often suffer twisted bones and even total paralysis.

Each of these "shen zhu's," or "divine pigs," is used to enter a contest often associated with temples and religious festivities.

Worshippers with the largest pigs are rewarded with cash and other prizes.

The "divine pigs" are weighed and are later slaughtered by slitting their throats.

After that, they are gutted and presented as sacrifices in a religious ceremony near the temple.

Images of the gory ritual can be seen in a video produced by the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST), a Taipei-based animal rights group.

The group shot the video over a 10-year period, visiting pig farms in northern Taiwan that specialize in raising divine pigs.

Its efforts to highlight the issue are aimed at ending divine pig contests, which the group says encourages animal abuse.

During the Lunar New Year holiday in February, some EAST members took a mock divine pig made of styrofoam to an area near the Sanxia Zushi Temple in New Taipei in protest against a ceremony that was taking place there to honor the person with the heaviest pig.

The Sanxia Zushi temple is the only one in Taiwan that still facilitates a divine pig competition to celebrate the birthday of a folk deity known as Chingshui Master, EAST Chief Executive Officer Chu Tseng-hung told CNA in a recent interview.

The heaviest pig presented at this year's ceremony weighed some 860 kilograms, according to the temple. Chu said this is about seven times the normal weight of a pig.

He said temple worshippers should use normal sized pigs or goats, or fruits and vegetables as sacrifices to their gods. "These are the items used by some 90 percent of temple worshippers," he said.

"The divine pig contest does not have a religious origin," Chu pointed out.

The history of the divine pig ritual dates back to the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945), when farmers were encouraged to raise big pigs as part of an effort to improve breeding techniques, Chu said, citing EAST research.

At some religious celebrations, the Japanese authorities would give recognition to people who had raised the heaviest pigs, he said.

Gradually over the years, the contest became associated with religious ceremonies at temples, which led to the practice of producing super-heavy pigs by any possible means, Chu said.

Under pressure from activists, the Sanxia Zushi temple is now taking measures to improve its image.

Liu Zin-ta, a temple official, said the Sanxia Zushi temple is opposed to the practice of force-feeding pigs, but will not interfere in how followers worship their deities.

The divine pig contest is not organized by the temple but by the followers themselves, Liu said. The temple simply presents the prizes to the winning contestants, he added.

"We respect the animal rights groups that call for an end to animal abuse," Liu told CNA.

The temple hopes to spread the word among its followers that the inhumane practice of force-feeding pigs is not encouraged, he said, adding that competitors usually buy divine pigs from professional pig raisers.

In recent years, the temple has been encouraging followers to bring fruits and vegetables to the ceremonies, he said.

The temple has also decided that with effect from 2017, it will stop giving prizes in the divine pig contests, Liu said.

What the temple is doing appears to reflect a trend that Chu and other activists hope will culminate soon in an end to all such contests.

Although the contests are still held during the annual Hakka Yimin Festival in northern Taiwan, the number of entries has decreased over the years.

There used to be as many as 50 enormous pigs per contest, but in recent years, the number has dropped to between 5 and 20 at the Yimin temples, Chu said.

Moreover, Chu said the competition now takes places at only eight of the 20 larger Yimin temples in Taiwan.

This trend is attributed to years of effort by the EAST to stop animal abuse, and a government campaign that encourages alternative ways of worshipping deities.

The Cabinet-level Council of Agriculture said it has been in contact with temples where divine pigs are still presented and it is encouraging the alternative use of fake animals made of noodles, flowers or other materials.

"If there are no divine pig contests, then people would not be competing to raise the heaviest possible pigs," the council said.

As of the end of 2012, there were 20 pig farms that specialized in breeding divine pigs, mostly in northern Taiwan, and fewer than 100 such pigs were being raised per year, according to the council.

In 2006, there were 29 divine pig farms that produced 232 animals per year, the council said.

(By Elaine Hou)