TAOYUAN COUNTY, Taiwan (Reuters Life!) - The temperature is set at a comfortable level. The drinking water is purified. Pop music plays overhead. And every weekend the host organises a stroll in the woods and encouraging words.
But this is not a hotel, or even a weekend spa -- this is a Taiwanese pig farm whose livestock is destined for slaughter.
Veteran pig farmers Liang Chian-he and son-in-law Liang Hsin-lang raise 2,500 swine in Taoyuan county, an hour's drive from Taipei, with what they describe as "unusually compassionate care" to produce pork soft and fragrant enough to command three times the normal price.
"I understand how pigs think," said Liang, 42, manager of the 53-year-old family ranch. "Every pig must be slaughtered, but in those months they're given every comfort."
"We find it hard to part, but I talk to them, telling them they're going to do their last duty," the younger Liang said.
The 1.2 acre Hsin Hsiu Pig Ranch has been visited by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and delegates from a private U.S. agricultural organisation. The pork won a contest sponsored by a local TV station in 2005.
This pig paradise bloomed about seven years ago. The elder Liang, 70, said he used techniques from Denmark and Japan and his own observations of pig behaviour to plan a care routine on the theory that happy animals yield the best meat.
FOR THE LOVE OF SWINE
At the farm, mother pigs get their own pens, while piglets live 15 per unit. Some pens have toilet troughs, which helps keep the floors clean. The pigs also eat a special feed, not slop.
Visitors must wear barrier suits and disinfect their shoes before entering a sty. Only the younger Liang and an assistant contact the pigs regularly.
"The pig naturally is a wild animal," Liang Hsin-liang said. "When they see people they're nervous and should be that way."
Such "meticulous" swine care stands out among Taiwan's 12,671 pig farms, which have been active as long as 300 years, said Chu Ching-cheng, a livestock department head with Taiwan's Council of Agriculture.
But an animal rights specialist in Taipei said the pigs might actually be happier if they had pools of mud to wallow in and if piglets could stay with their mothers.
"It's worth noting that this farmer has a good heart, but that heart should come from the animal point of view," said Chen Yu-min, office manager with the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan.
"What they're doing is not from the animal perspective. I've never seen anything like that done for animals."
Chen and the Liangs agree that because land is limited in Taiwan, pig farmers must seek to earn money without expanding.
A Taiwan supermarket chain and a Taipei hotpot restaurant buy Hsin Hsiu's pork today, and the farm plans to sell it to more supermarkets around Taiwan.
Wining and dining swine, the younger Liang said, "is a small love, but to give citizens healthy pork is a big love."
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