Battling Battery Cages
There was a great piece by Bruce Friedrich today drawing attention to the horror of battery cages for laying hens. He writes,
Battery cages are small wire cages where about 95 percent of laying hens spend their entire lives; each hen is given about 67-76 square inches of space (a standard sheet of paper measures 94 square inches). To get a sense of a hen’s life in a battery cage, imagine spending your entire life in a wire cage the size of your bathtub with four other people. You wouldn’t be able to move, so your muscles and bones would deteriorate. Your feet would become lacerated. You would go insane. That’s precisely what happens to laying hens.
Having asked us to see matters from such a perspective (our own), he offers this comparison:
After decades of consumer outcry, the veal industry recently took the important step of announcing that it will work toward eliminating the crate confinement of calves. And as discussed previously, gestation crates may also be headed for the dust bin of history. While this is positive news for pigs and calves, there is currently no clear end in sight for battery cages, with roughly 95 percent of all eggs in the U.S. still coming from caged hens. There are roughly 4.5 million mother pigs and fewer than 500,000 calves in crates, and approximately 250 million hens in battery cages. So for every caged calf or pig, there are roughly 50 caged hens.
Pieces such as these—which are essentially designed to go after low-hanging fruit— always raise an important question for me. While it’s critical to draw attention to the inherent atrocities of factory farming, it’s equally critical to stress that the popular alternatives to this sinister form of agricultural production are also deeply flawed. I make this point because so many consumers who are already aware of what Bruce is talking about are willfully clueless about the problems with the small scale, free range alternatives, alternatives that they eagerly support. To be sure, Bruce is ahead of my concern on this one, as he usually is:
At Farm Sanctuary, we spend our lives with farm animals, and we wouldn’t eat them or their eggs under any circumstances. We recoil at the abuse of hens in all systems, including cage-free and colony cage conditions. But we also work to abolish the very worst abuses of farm animals, and it’s hard to imagine anything worse than the tiny, barren, cramped battery cages where 250 million hens currently are forced to spend their lives.
I’m very pleased to see this qualification, as it rarely appears in articles such as this one (um, HSUS). But I think the sentiment needs to be even stronger. In particular, I think opponents of factory farmed animals need to highlight the point that, as consumers, when we eat animal products from any source we commit an act of cultural affirmation. That is, when we eat animals—even animals we have raised ourselves—we say its okay to eat animals. And as long as it’s culturally okay to eat animals, Bruce will be writing the incisive stuff he’s writing until he’s blue in the face, because the factory farms will be going nowhere.
UPDATE (Jan. 15): HSUS—albeit referred to here parenthetically—came calling. The following excerpt is from its literature, and it does indicate that HSUS comes down on the alternatives.
Cage-free hens are spared several severe cruelties that are inherent to battery cage systems. But it would nevertheless be a mistake to consider cage-free facilities to necessarily be “cruelty-free.” Here are some of the more typical sources of animal suffering associated with both types of egg production:
- Both systems typically buy their hens from hatcheries that kill the male chicks upon hatching—more than 200 million each year in the United States alone.
- Both cage and cage-free hens have part of their beaks burned off, a painful mutilation.
- Both cage and cage-free hens are typically slaughtered at less than two years old, far less than half their normal lifespan. They are often transported long distances to slaughter plants with no food or water.
- While the vast majority of the battery and cage-free egg industry no longer uses starvation to force molt the birds, there are battery and cage-free producers alike who still use this practice.
So, while cage-free does not necessarily mean cruelty-free, cage-free hens generally have significantly better lives than those confined in battery cages. The ability to lay their eggs in nests, run and spread their wings are tangible benefits that shouldn’t be underestimated.