While it could be argued that wild animals should never be put in cages, it is undeniable that the enclosures used today are much more humane. Similarly, when compared to a battery farm, a free-range farm must seem a few streets from heaven.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Chicken jokes abound. So do chicken stories, anecdotes and tales about the funny and endearing behaviour of chooks. In America, there is the well-documented and celebrated case of a chicken called Mike who, in the 1940s lived for 18 months without a head; being fed by means of an eyedropper through his open oesophagus. Chickens are considered by some people to be as intelligent as dogs or cats and those people who have spent a lot of time with them have observed individual traits, qualities, likes and dislikes. It seems that chickens are rather fond of television and have different tastes in music.
Chickens are sociable and curious and have more than 30 distinct calls to communicate with one another, including separate alarm calls to signal the approach of a predator. In its natural environment a chicken will exhibit sophisticated social behaviour. It will stretch, preen and flap its wings. It will perch and dust bathe. A mother hen will seek a private place to make her nest and will often forgo food and water in order to ensure this privacy. She will turn her eggs as frequently as 5 times an hour and will cluck to her unborn chicks that will answer her calls and communicate with each other.
How different the life of a battery hen!
She cannot make a nest; yet the urge is so strong that she will make pathetic attempts to do just that. Although there is no straw or grass within her reach she will go through the motions of building a nest with invisible material. Caged hens have been observed to frantically jump at the bars of the cage in an effort to escape; right up to the moment of laying their eggs.
In a battery-farm, chicks destined for egg production are incubated in enormous hatcheries. The newborn chicks are kept warm under lights and have no contact at all with the mother hen. Male chicks are quickly destroyed. Most commonly they are gassed, or macerated with a high-speed blade. The females are kept, on average, for 12 months before their miserable lives are brought to a similarly miserable end.
Hens are taken to the battery houses at about eighteen weeks of age, just before the time they will be ready to lay. Battery houses are huge windowless sheds containing row upon row of wire mesh cages. These cages, in which the hens spend their entire lives, are about 40cm high with a floor area of 450cm squared. Perhaps you can visualise this more accurately if I say that it has been compared to ¾ the size of an A4 sheet of paper, or a small microwave oven. It is estimated that in Australia, at any one time, there are 10.5 million hens being housed in battery cages.
Battery hens, descended from the small Leghorn, have been bred to produce an abnormal number of eggs; ten or more times the amount of eggs laid by the wild fowl.
Deprived of fresh air, exercise and the opportunity to forage and to nest, the female birds develop afflictions such as prolapsed uterus and inflamed ovaries. Battery hens develop severe osteoporosis because of calcium depletion, which is the result of having to produce so many eggs. They can become paralysed and die of hunger and thirst simply because they cannot reach their feeder dishes.
Many battery hens are de-beaked. This means that they will have up to one third of their beaks sliced off with a hot blade, to prevent feather pecking, and that is an indication of the severe stress that these birds are subjected to. The operation itself is painful and evidence suggests that the damage it causes to the nerves in the bird’s beak makes the pain permanent. Some hens have much difficulty eating as a result.
Imagine a dog was kept in a cage that was so small that it could not turn around. Imagine this dog was never let out, but kept in the cage for its entire life and fed by means of food and water dishes just within reach of its head. The person responsible would be charged with cruelty to animals. Other livestock is kept in unnatural and unsavoury conditions but none, with the exception of the farmed pig (another terrible story), is treated more intolerably than the battery hen. Is it permissible to ignore humane impulses when commercial profits are at stake?
In Switzerland the battery cage has been prohibited since 1992. Other European countries are also taking steps to abolish it. In Australia, after animal liberationists in Tasmania brought about the successful prosecution of a battery farm operator for cruelty to animals, the government simply changed the law to exclude livestock.
One term used to describe battery hens that have been exhausted and no longer efficiently produce eggs is ‘spent’ hens. Battery hens are removed as spent hens at around 72-76 weeks of age and are slaughtered. In natural conditions, healthy hens can live for 6-10 years, or even longer.
Even when being removed from their cages, once their worth as egg producers has come to an end, they are treated badly. Handled roughly, they are crammed into travelling crates, often with their legs and their wings protruding and consequently damaged. Many already have broken bones due to brittleness caused by spending their entire lives in small cages.
It is usual for the hens to be transported long distances and, in accordance with the way they have been treated up to this point, not the slightest thought is given to their comfort. It might be freezing or extremely hot. Many suffocate on the way to slaughter. When they arrive at the slaughterhouse they are hung upside down on a moving conveyor belt, stunned with an electric stunner and then have their necks cut. They are then immersed in a scalding tank. Some, who somehow miss being stunned or having their throats slit, go into the scalding tank alive.
These hens are used for pet foods, baby food, convenience foods, soups and stocks. The state of battery hens, by the time they reach their sorry end has been described thus:
At slaughter the hens are a mass of broken bones, oozing abscesses, bright red bruises and internal hemorrhaging making them fit only for shredding into products that hide the true state of their flesh and their lives, such as chicken soup and pies…
Mmmm! Good eating?
When you eat these products do you, as some vegetarians would describe it, consume death? Do you become a perpetrator of the prolonged and unnecessary suffering of defenceless animals? In some cases of animal activists’ investigations, dead hens have been found in various stages of decay, with the living hens nesting on their corpses.
Some people believe that a solution exists for every problem; the difficulty is in discovering that solution. In this situation there is a small but simple action that can be made. The act of taking a stance, as a consumer, is so obvious and has been so often invoked with regard to other social ills, that to state it seems faintly ridiculous. Here, it means turning to an alternative that has become increasingly available; that is, free-range eggs. So, to be a cruelty-free consumer, do you just buy eggs and poultry that are labelled as free-range? Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
A number of unofficial claims, that barn laid and battery eggs are being substituted for free-range, show that commercial considerations rule. This has been attributed to a growing demand for free-range produce as well as the lure of higher profit. Even the RSPCA has been the focus of protest, due to its association with a major egg producer who was found to be in contravention of the standards set for accreditation as a barn-laid.
Even though free-range production is self-regulatory, choosing an accredited producer is a much safer option. The Free Range Farmers Association, with the pecking hen logo, has an accreditation scheme. Another accreditation body is Frepa (free-range egg and poultry Australia), which was formed in Victoria after deregulation of the egg industry. Produce that has been certified organic or biodynamic is usually considered to be most trustworthy as these classifications are, by definition, free-range.
Practices such as beak trimming are prohibited. Hens have permanent access to weatherproof houses and open-air runs in daylight hours. They have space to forage in natural vegetation. They are provided with perches and litter and nest-boxes. And they have room to stretch their wings.
If you are a vegan, of course, you will find concept of free-range still to be unacceptable, as animals are being used for human consumption. However, most people who want to eat eggs and poultry, and even those who believe that animals have a feeling capacity inferior to humans, are almost always repelled by cruelty. In this case, the moral dilemma is not with the consumption of animal products, it is simply the connection it might have with the ill treatment of other living beings. In zoos, thirty years ago, wild cats paced up and down in a space so small that it is now quite shocking to think that it was ever acceptable. While it could be argued that wild animals should never be put in cages, it is undeniable that the enclosures used today are much more humane. Similarly, when compared to a battery farm, a free-range farm must seem a few streets from heaven.
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