Sunday, December 5, 2010

Laying Hens

I'm going to do my best to describe why laying hens endure the most suffering of any animals as best I can without sounding like a total downer. It certainly is possible to gather some chicken eggs without having to harm chickens in the process, but for any sort of eggs you would buy at the store the process that makes economic sense is far different from the cruelty-free strategy. Egg laying hens and broiler (meat) chickens are not of the same species. There is no demand for male chicks of laying breeds and these are disposed of in whatever is the cheapest way the hatcheries can get away with. Mercy For Animals did an undercover investigation at the United States' largest hatchery just last year, showing one typical process of male chicks being ground up alive.

The laying hens are packed about 5-7 into slanted battery cages. The cages are slanted so that eggs will roll out and make them easier to gather. The current recommendation by the United Egg Producers is to give each bird between 67 and 86 square inches of space, less than a sheet of printer paper. Chickens in the wild naturally form a hierarchy called a pecking order. Chickens will peck at each other to establish dominance and the lowlier chickens will get out of the way when they don't wish to assert dominance. The battery cage conditions prohibit chickens from getting out of the way, so ordinarily chickens in such conditions would peck at each other incessantly causing one another serious bodily harm. To combat this, the beaks of the laying hens are cut off at birth, making it so that the pain the chickens feel when attempting to peck at each other will be a sufficient deterrent to combat their natural social habit.

Producers have also discovered that keeping the lights on for unnaturally long periods of the day increases the amount the chickens lay. Thus the chickens are kept awake in their cramped quarters for the majority of the day, eating and laying for their existence. After a year in such conditions the hens production begins to drop. An ordinary lifespan for a hen might be for around a decade, but once production drops, it makes more economic sense to raise a new hen than to continue to feed and house one that is producing at a lower rate. Yet the producers don't ship them off to slaughter just yet, by starving the chickens for a period of one to two weeks and keeping them in near perpetual darkness (sometimes depriving them of water as well) they can induce the chickens to molt. According the the American Veterinary Medical Association, “Egg production resumes and increases rapidly to a profitable rate following an induced molt.” This gives the producers one last spurt of production before they send the spent laying hens off to slaughter.

Slaughterhouses and factory farms don't typically exist in the same facility, and the slaughter process is designed, like the rest of the process, to maximize efficiency rather than benevolence. Caged chickens are often literally thrown onto trucks and carried at the producer's leisure to a slaughter facility where the spent bird's meat is typically only useful in processed foods or as pet feed. Typical slaughter for these animals will involve hanging them upside-down by their legs and running them down a production line to have their necks automatically slit, allowing them to bleed out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard that in 2008 California passed Proposition 2, banning the use of battery cages by 2015. While this is probably a step in the right direction, it does nothing to address the worst of the suffering the animals must endure. They will be taken from their cages and merely dumped onto the floors. Beak trimming, forced molting, chick grinding, and bleak lives of densely packed confinement will still be all these fellow animals are allowed to enjoy.

This is all assuming that the predictions of the Proposition 2 opponents don't come to pass.

We estimate that 95% of that output and employment would be lost by 2015 as the egg sector gradually contracted to no more than 5% of its current size due to the proposed ballot measure.

Idaho, Nevada, and Georgia have all made efforts to court California's farmers with promises of fewer regulations that drive up their costs.

Buying free-range eggs, while it may sound like the obvious solution, is not what many of us hope it to be. Free-range producers still produce with competition and economic incentives to keep prices low, and this often comes at a cost of welfare in the process. Peaceful Prairie Animal Sanctuary took footage of free-range hens they had rescued shortly before slaughter showing no noticeable differences from their conventional counterparts.

These free-range birds had all outlived their unwanted male counterparts, had all been debeaked, and were obviously debilitated from their short lives of laying.

I know someone is going to try to accuse me of merely picking out isolated cases that are not an accurate representation of the process. They are going to say that clearly it doesn't make economic sense for farmers to abuse their animals, because stressed and hurt animals produce poorer products (these talking points are almost as predictable as Republicans saying “no” these days). These accusations are baseless. None of the clips I show present isolated cases of abuse, but production lines designed in ways that clearly involve great suffering when run as intended. These aren't outdated or isolated production techniques either, but part of the what the industry says is, “approximately 98 percent of all layer flocks in the U.S. [...] housed indoors and in cages.”

So, do you think the pleasure you enjoy from eating eggs is greater than the suffering the birds endure to produce that product for you?