Q&A with Alexis Hinson
Meet Alexis: Alexis Hinson is a student at Michigan State University where she is majoring in psychology and double minoring in cognitive science, and environmental studies and sustainability. She is president of Protecting Animal Welfare, a student organization that educates the public about animal welfare issues, and welfare manager of the Student Organic Farm Pastured Pig Project, which brings gestating sows out of confinement to give birth on MSU’s Student Organic Farm. She also volunteers at Ingham County Animal Shelter and hopes to earn a master’s degree in animal behavior.
When did you learn about the plight of farm animals used for food?
The first realization I had was in my senior year of high school when I was around 18 years old. I had toyed with the idea of becoming vegetarian for a couple of months — and it had occurred to me throughout my high school career — but since I wasn’t the one who did the cooking in the household and really had no idea how to prepare strictly vegetarian meals, I never actually tried a vegetarian lifestyle.
For some reason, in March 2012, I began looking into it a little bit more. I was struck by the video “Glass Walls” narrated by Paul McCartney, who said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegan or vegetarian. McCartney tells a story about a fishing trip he took years before becoming vegetarian. He said his moment of realization was as he was reeling in a fish and thought, as it was fighting for breath, that the fish’s life was “as important to him as mine is to me.” That quote really stuck with me. I looked through more on Meat.org, which featured the “Glass Walls” video, and the next day I became vegetarian. I couldn’t bear the thought that some of the most intelligent animals on the planet were being treated so unethically.
What made you decide to become involved in animal advocacy?
My initial interest in anything to do with animals actually had nothing to do with factory farming or the ethics of eating meat. It was reading “The Lost Dogs,” a story about the rescue and rehabilitation of the dogs involved in Michael Vick’s fighting ring in 2007. This story got me interested in animal rescue, and I began volunteering with a pit bull-specific rescue in Rochester, N.Y. (where I am from), called Pitty Love Rescue. I handled dogs at adoption events and trained foster dogs on the weekends through positive reinforcement. This was in December 2011. I also adopted two rescue cats that month who completely stole my heart. They helped me to see how helpless animals really are when it comes to neglect. It brings me to tears thinking my two boys, Moo and Taz — some of the most personality-filled cats you will ever meet — could have been put down due to a lack of shelter space.
In March 2012, I became more interested in the plight of animals in factory farms. At Michigan State University, I was able to expand my animal welfare interests to working with and learning about farm animals through the Student Organic Farm Pastured Pig Project and by beginning the undergraduate group Protecting Animal Welfare, or PAW.
In what ways do you volunteer your time to help animals?
I am an advocate and educator of MSU’s Pastured Pig Project. Each year, we bring two gilts (first-time moms) out of confinement and onto the Student Organic Farm, on the southern edge of MSU’s campus. Per organic certification regulations, they must be on our organic land for the last third of their gestation. A pig gestation is three months, three weeks and three days. We usually bring out our pigs a month and a half before parturition (giving birth). It’s one of the most beautiful things to see our gilts begin rooting in the soil within moments of stepping off the trailer. These animals have never been outdoors, never seen sunlight or dirt. Pigs are such curious animals, and it is incredibly joyous and rewarding to see them carrying out their natural behaviors of rooting, nest building and socializing with one another within minutes of being on our farm.
They then give birth in deep straw bedding. The farrowing process is an important learning experience for vet students, future farmers and animal welfare advocates like myself who are present for the farrowing and see ourselves working with animals in the future. The piglets nurse for about a month and a half before we begin to rotate them through our organic pastures. The best part is, while the land provides incredible, natural enrichment for the pigs, these animals also root up the soil and perennial weeds, as well as fertilize the fields in the process.
In the meantime, doing this gives students, Community Supported Agriculture members and anyone else who is interested, the opportunity to interact with these animals and observe natural pig behavior. I am currently doing a study on pigs that looks at nursing patterns and behaviors, as well as social contact between sows on pasture.
In addition to this, I began PAW in 2013. PAW is an undergraduate group dedicated to promoting animal welfare and awareness on campus as well as volunteering with animals. We volunteer at Ingham County Animal Shelter walking dogs, socializing cats and handling animals at adoption events. We also hold movie screenings on campus each semester; we’ve shown the documentaries “Earthlings” and “Black Fish.”
Why do you, a vegetarian, support a project that encourages eating animals?
I support a project that works toward raising animals ethically and provides an alternative narrative to the current way industrial agriculture functions. I think if you’re going to eat meat, it is your responsibility to be sure the meat is raised in a humane way. It is important for consumers to know where their meat comes from, how it is raised and all of the effort that goes into it. One of my favorite quotes by a hero of mine, Temple Grandin, sums this up very well. Grandin said, “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life, and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.” While I don’t eat meat, I think that is a solid quote that really helps represent what our Pastured Pig Project stands for. I support a welfare-based livestock system and small-scale organic farmers who are working to bring farming back to its roots.
What is your advice to others who want to work to benefit animals?
My best piece of advice is to keep an open mind and to try to see the good in every situation. I came to MSU very weary of joining the Pastured Pig Project because I didn’t want to be involved in a project that supports the consumption of meat. It wasn’t until I toured a factory farm that I realized the incredible importance of our work at the Student Organic Farm and with the Pastured Pig Project, and our responsibility to show students and consumers alternative methods of agriculture.
At the same time, though, there has to be communication between both sides. There is an understandable, yet impeding divide, between intensive and extensive farming that separates the two into different worlds. And yes, it could go on this way, but doing so is only going to create a more divided pathway, when in reality, we could accomplish a lot more if there was communication between disciplines. No system is absolutely perfect, and we can learn from one another.