The U.S. military is one of the top spenders in Hawaii’s economy, and sometimes its cash ends up in unexpected places — including Hawaii pig farms.
Since 2016, the Army has spent approximately $65,400 on contracts for “live animals, not raised for food.” The locally grown Hawaii hogs are for medical research and training health care providers at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.
“Research is accomplished to better understand ways to address medical issues and disease processes,” Tripler spokeswoman Kayla Overton said in an email. “Pigs are used to help physicians understand and appropriately incorporate the latest technologies and techniques before first attempting these advances on human patients.”
Health care providers and researchers have long used animals to conduct experiments and practice their skills on a living body without putting any people at risk. Pigs and goats are popular for these tests and procedures because their flesh most resembles that of humans.
Animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have condemned the use of animals for medical research and training, and have been particularly critical when it comes to the military.
Beyond training doctors in labs, the military has used pigs and goats to conduct what it calls “live trauma tissue training,” to prepare enlisted medics for combat conditions, according to the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health.
Those exercises have involved inflicting the animals with bullet, knife and explosive wounds and tasking medics with treating the bleeding wounds. The animals were anesthetized before the injuries are inflicted and euthanized before regaining consciousness.
Army officials said the 25th Infantry division hasn’t repeated that training in Hawaii since the Iraq deployment. Division spokesman Lt. Col. Adam Hallmark said he couldn’t find records to definitively determine if the pigs used for that pre-deployment training had been raised locally.
Some critics say that anatomically correct mannequins and simulators the military usually use provide superior training. But combat veterans have argued those devices are insufficient to replicate the experience of handling the real blood of a dying body in preparing soldiers psychologically for the reality of combat.
Army officials insisted that the continued use of pigs at labs at Tripler is heavily supervised. “All procedures are humanely carried out under the close supervision of a board-certified veterinarian,” said Army spokeswoman Heather Hagan.
From 2014 to 2019 the Army got its pigs from Oahu’s Oshiro Farms in Waianae. But this year it began buying from 2 Lady Farmers, allocating $9,700 for organically raised pigs from the Leeward side farm in this year’s defense budget, according to a state website that tracks defense spending in Hawaii.
Hawaii’s pig farms have struggled over the years, with the numbers declining sharply since 1978, despite the fact that pork is a staple in the cuisine of Native Hawaiian and many immigrant communities in the islands. Competing with imported meat from factory farms has been a challenge.
“We appreciate their business,” Stacy Sugai, co-owner of 2 Lady Farmers, said of the Army’s contract with her farm. She said that even a small contract can make a big difference for Hawaii’s farmers.
“As a farmer in Hawaii it’s very difficult, it’s hard work. We can’t compete with farms on the mainland for contracts,” she said.
“It’s a cumbersome process,” Sugai said of working with the federal bureaucracy.
The Army spokeswoman said that additional requirements were driven by the procurement of live animals.
“The vendor’s facility and husbandry program need to be certified and inspected by a Department of Defense veterinarian,” Hagan said.
Economists and lawmakers have described Hawaii’s economy as a “three-legged” stool that’s largely dependent on tourism, construction and defense spending.
As the pandemic has decimated the tourism industry, defense spending has taken on an even more prominent role as Hawaii’s economy continues to struggle to recover and diversify.
During the 2018 fiscal year, Pentagon spending pumped $7.2 billion into Hawaii’s economy through contracting, making up about 7.7% of the state’s GDP. That put Hawaii at second place for the state with the the highest defense spending as a share of state GDP, according to the Pentagon Office of Economic Adjustment.
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Kevin Knodell reported on the military and veterans for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported topics.