The Hidden Violence Behind a Farm Fresh Egg

» April 17th, 2013

When you deem yourself in charge of an animal for the primary purpose of consuming some part of that animal you are automatically establishing the preconditions for some level of abuse. I can already see some of you squirming, sighing, sputtering, thinking, “yeah, McWilliams, but I do it right.” No you don’t. My axiom still applies because what might appear to be innocuous or even beneficial arrangements—such as keeping hens for their eggs—are in fact quietly exploitative in ways most of us never see. Forget for now that no contractual arrangement could ever makes those eggs your eggs, and forget that humans can never know what’s “right” for chickens. The deal is this: when you want the eggs you will play chess with “nature” to maintain access to those eggs. And when you do that, animals become a pawn to your palate.

I was reminded of the darker side of this truth while spending time (what seemed an eternity’s worth) at a website called backyardchickens.com. The site is like a ad-hoc hootenanny for small-scale chicken owners who, do not doubt it, love owning chickens. Spend enough time reading about the quotidian tribulations of poultry proprietors and you quickly learn about the centrality of violence in chicken ownership. In point of fact the chickens, so long as they are pumping out eggs with sufficient speed, are typically treated with a measure of decency, but woe to any creature that comes between a chicken owner and her precious eggs.  ”Farm fresh eggs”—I hate that term—is a reality brought to you by the systematic extermination of raccoons, hawks, snakes, and opossum.  Anything that moves too close to the egg source is ultimately bound to be sighted in the crosshair’s of some chicken owning lunatic or other.

Even dogs. Pet dogs. Neighbors’ dogs. Behold:

Has anyone killed a neighbour’s dog who was killing chickens? If so, how did it work out between you? My neighbours 2 roads away had a husky that got free. My husband didn’t recognize the dog as someone’s pet (we had never seen it before). I wasn’t home at the time. Apparently it was just running from chicken to chicken killing it and moving on to the next. My daughter was out there in the melee, the horses were going crazy, and it’s hard to give a dog the benefit of being a pet and not a feral beast or rabid thing when it is killing without pause and not listening to commands to stop. My husband shot it.

And witness:

A bull dog came up in my yard, killed 19 of my chickens and I had to take care of one other one because it’s back was split wide open. I killed the dog. Shot it dead. I was so mad I was shaking and crying at the same time. I called the sheriff’s office and filed a report and animal control came to get the dog. The owners met animal control at the end of my driveway and animal control allowed them to have their dog back so they could take care of the body.?I lost 20 birds and I have one other missing that I can’t find the body or the live bird.??

Such are the dispatches from the world of humane, small-scale, local, and non-industrial chicken farming. Defenders of egg exploitation will assuredly contend that nature is nature and dogs eat chickens and chickens eat insects and this is the way of the world, etc., etc. and so on. Sure. But does that mean we have to both set the parameters within which animals go after each other (which is exactly what “pasture based” farmers do when they turn their birds out to free range) and then celebrate the death that inevitably results (often at our hands) by making an omelet and praising our “self-sufficiency”?

30 Responses to The Hidden Violence Behind a Farm Fresh Egg

  1. CQ says:

    I hear you loud and clear, James. The self-gratifying motive of the “self-sufficient” egg-exploiting omelet eaters you describe is obvious, and sad.

    A question for the Eating Plants commenters who are the guardians of rescued chickens.

    Even though your primary purpose in keeping these spared-from-slaughter hens is *not* to eat their eggs (and, indeed, some of you don’t consume the eggs yourselves but feed them to the chickens or to your rescued dog companions), have you ever had to kill (tame or wild) predators in order to protect the chickens? Or do you design the chicken houses and yards so carefully that there’s no possibility of a break-in, whether by cougar or canine or cat?

    I have a feeling you would do anything in your power to avoid harming an interloper — and of course you are devastated (for reasons other than losing an egg-producer) if and when your hens are hurt or killed despite your best efforts to keep them safe.

    • Lori says:

      There is no excuse for killing an interloper, even to protect rescued chickens, IMHO. If one has rescued farm animals, or just companion or “pet” animals, it is our job to make them safe. I never let my small dogs out at night alone even though I’ve not seen a coyote in my yard ever, I’m not taking a chance.

      That said, accidents and mishaps will happen. However, we should not punish a predator because they are just doing what predators do. If we put animals in a situation where they can be harmed, that is on us, not the animal doing the harm.

  2. Lori says:

    James is correct: farms, ranches and small-time operations alike all do a great job of setting up situations for animal clashes. We put animals in harm’s way and then we blame the offending animals for just being themselves.

    This reminds me of all the experiences I’ve had on farms and ranches that involve any kind of animal exploitation. I’ve seen wildlife routinely killed to protect the exploited animals’ products. I’ve seen dogs bred for the specific purpose of protecting animal products. These dogs often lack the love and affection a dog deserves (What dog wants to spend the night out in a cold field?) and their condition of existence is dependent upon whether they are doing their job. I’ve known these dogs to be killed by hunters, neighbors or wildlife as well.

    On the other hand, farm sanctuaries adopt out chickens (and other farm animals) rescued from abusive and/or industrial situations. I’d hate to see this stop. Many chickens need good homes just as shelter dogs and cats do. The key would be to have only a few, so as to take better care of them, and a least not EXPECT the eggs as a condition for having the chickens. I don’t have an issue with humans using eggs (I use some of my brother’s backyard chickens’ eggs in my homemade dog food) as long as using eggs is a side-effect so-to-speak and not a condition of having the chickens.

    Just as with children, when we take on animals in our lives, we owe them the best, safest and healthiest conditions possible. If we cannot do that, we shouldn’t take them on. And as with children and adults, accidents and disease and mishaps will happen. If we are responsible, we can minimize these things, but never end them. Is that a risk worth taking with rescued animals?

  3. Jeannie says:

    I think this is an extremely important point, and perhaps a way to bring pressure on backyard chickens in urban and suburban neighborhoods (since the ethical arguments aren’t very compelling to the vast majority of people) — if you have chickens, your property will become very attractive to all sorts of critters, especially rodents.

    • Lori says:

      Excellent point.

    • Mountain says:

      Our property has become very attractive to squirrels, wild birds, lizards, bees, and many other pollinators. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I would think the fact that we are a much more animal-friendly environment than most of the homes in our area is a good thing.

  4. Mountain says:

    Nice try, James. Totally specious and speciesist, but nice try, nonetheless.

    Quick thought experiment: replace “chicken” with (human) “baby,” and see how the argument falls apart.

    “Anything that moves too close to the [baby] is ultimately bound to be sighted in the crosshair’s [sic] of some [parental] lunatic or other.”

    It doesn’t matter whether the predator is non-human (dog, bear) or human (molester, murderer), if you care about a being (human or non-human), you will go to extremes to protect him/her. So, keeping chickens (or any animal, pet or otherwise) involves “playing chess with nature”, but so does having children. So does having friends and loved ones. So does living.

    • James says:

      Mountain,
      But there’s no such thing as a wild human baby, to my knowledge. I understand many humans seem to have been “raised by wolves,” but human babies must be domesticated by humans. Chickens don’t. Am I being speciesist here or stating a relevant fact? Help me, as I’m always, always, always nicely trying.
      James

      • Mountain says:

        Perhaps I’ve misunderstood your argument, but it seems like the argument boils down to: keeping chickens is harmful to animals because you must commit violence (or the threat of violence) to keep predatory animals from harming those chickens.

        If this is your argument, it is technically true, but it applies to any being that you love– whether an animal, another human, or yourself. Even if you never raise a domesticated animal, even if you never raise a child, you still have to commit to protecting your basic needs from those who would take them from you.

        It seems to me this commitment is present whether we’re talking about backyard chickens or a vegan garden. Everything we value is necessarily in harm’s way, because anything we value will have value not only to us, but to someone/something else.

        • Lori says:

          reductio ad absurdum

          • Mountain says:

            Not remotely.

            I haven’t reduced James’ argument to absurdity, I’ve expanded it to its proper width, which is, essentially: nature abhors a vaccuum. And the only absurdity is the claim that this harm is somehow unique to raising chickens.

      • Mountain says:

        James,
        My apologies if the “nice try” was excessively attitudinal. I’m honestly confused as to what point you are making by mentioning the non-existence of a wild human baby. I’ve tried to wrap my mind around it several times, but I still haven’t figured out its relevance.

        Chickens don’t have to be raised by humans, but as far as I can tell, neither do human babies. Neither is a necessary aspect of human existence, but flow from choices people make. Each is loaded with all sorts of costs and benefits, both to the person(s) doing the raising and to the world at large. In an ideal world, neither would be undertaken unless a person was dedicated to creating a mutually beneficial relationship. But from what we know of farming & child-rearing, we can see that this is not an ideal world.

    • Lori says:

      I wouldn’t leave a baby or a child outside alone, nor would I leave a chicken or dog outside alone either without a good shelter protecting them. I wouldn’t put a baby, dog or chicken in harm’s way.

  5. Ruth says:

    Tend to agree with Mountain. As a guardian you have to protect those that you have chosen to take care of, so I think it would be the normal thing to do, in the immediate situation of an attack, anything you could to save those you love/are responsible for. I don’t have a gun, but if another animal were attacking an animal or child I was the guardian of, I would shoot or do all I could to disable the attacking animal.

    • James says:

      Ruth
      But who made you responsible for the chicken? And why are you justified in saving the chicken over the hawk, other than the fact that you “own” the chicken and not the hawk?
      James

      • Mountain says:

        Who made me responsible for my children? I did.

        Who made me responsible for the chickens on our farm? I did.

        Who made me responsible for the garden on our farm? I did.

        There’s no justification for it other than being a choice we make. When you care enough about someone or something to protect him/her/it, you are committing to violence or exclusion (or violent exclusion) of others. This is all just scarcity and allocation of resources.

        Even perfect deterrence that involves no actual violence (say, a perfect fence or the presence of guardians), still pushes would-be predators into smaller territories where they are more likely to cause harm or be harmed (or both).

      • Ruth says:

        I may not “own” the chicken (I don’t actually have chickens), but I have chosen to be responsible for the chicken—I am therefore the protector of that chicken (or dog, child, cat etc.), and have also formed a strong bond with him/her, it is I’m sure, natural that you would fight the predator, be it a hawk, a dog or a human who was attacking that person you have obligated yourself to protect.
        I quite understand the point that small farms (and large farms) will kill predators to protect their animals, but that is usually to protect their finances, but then, does that really, at a basic level, boil down to protecting themselves ie. their livelihood, their ability to survive. I am not condoning animal farming in any way, but, unfortunatley, those who do it don’t see much wrong with it.
        I know I would have to do something to intervene if someone was attacking someone I was bonded with, but if I wasn’t there at the time of the attack I wouldn’t go looking for the attacker to cause them any harm (unless they were human, and I would involve the police). A predatory animal is just doing what they do in nature, but if I was present I would do all I could to prevent harm, rather than letting the predator carry out it’s natural instincts toward those I was responsible for. (I’m now rambling and going round in circles).

    • Lori says:

      James is correct on this one. They may be animals raised specifically for their products (whether it be eggs, their milk, or their flesh) and there are those rescued. Either way, we’ve chosen to put them in harm’s way by virtue of our having them in the first place. So Ruth, you’d kill a fox or coyote merely going about his own business doing what coyotes and foxes do? Or would you perhaps take the responsibility upon yourself and say, this is my fault not the coyote’s thereby I’m not harming the coyote? Personally, I’d do the latter. And just btw, there are non-lethal measures that could be taken during an attack.

      • Ruth says:

        Obviously I would attempt non-lethal ways of stopping the attack, but I wouldn’t stand by and let the fox carry on with his attack thinking oh, it’s his/her natural instincts, let them get on with it, as with Mountains initial post, would you do that if a fox/dog/cat were attacking your child/dog/cat who you were responsible for? If you could not stop it, and you had a gun, or a heavy object wouldn’t you use it, and also against a murdering psychopathic human, whose nature, although abnormal is to have that inclination of guilt-free violence. (although, with a predatory animal the “violence” is to feed themselves).

        • Lori says:

          Ruth, this where I admit that I do not live by, or believe in, the philosophical principle of “speciesism.” I do not believe that each human, animal or species should be treated the same. I believe they should be treated fairly and with justice, empathy and compassion in mind. This philosophy is the same philosophy that allows for a child with special needs in a classroom to get more help or accommodations. When we treat everyone “the same” we can often hurt them. When we treat them fairly and with justice in mind we can often give them the help they may desperately need. (And no, this philosophy doesn’t allow for humans to be enslaved for their own good. That is not in line with justice.) It’s complex, I admit, and parts of it can be taken to task, just as the argument of speciesism and treating all species with equal consideration can be taken to task. Ultimately, I believe in the principle of trying to do the least harm and the most good in each situation.

          Under this principle, I would not kill a fox or coyote who got to one of my chickens. Chickens (birds) are a natural prey for these animals and I would consider it my fault for putting the chicken in that situation. Unfortunately, it may be the chicken who has to pay for this situation in the end, but I would consider that a lesser harm than killing the fox or the coyote who are merely being the animals they are.

          This is why I would not have chickens unless I only had a few that I rescued and I could take care of them well enough to keep the fox or coyote from getting to them in the first place.

          Now, would I kill a fox or coyote if they were trying to get my dog or a child? I might if I had to. I might consider that if a coyote was attacking a child (not natural prey) there may be something wrong with that coyote, depending on the situation. I would also consider the life of the child probably at a higher level than the coyote. Probably would consider my dog’s life over the coyote’s as well. Yes, speciesist, but honest and realistic. That is not to say that I don’t consider the life of the coyote VERY important. If I could get the coyote off the child without killing him, I would. Since I don’t own a gun, and never intend to, I’d have to beat it with a stick or something, I’d assume. But mostly, I’d try not to put my dog or a child in a situation where a coyote would likely get to them in the first place. From years of experience living around coyote populations, I’ve never encountered a problem with them so far attacking people, not to say it doesn’t occasionally happen, it’s not the norm. Same goes for most predators.

          • Ruth says:

            I cant disagree on any of this. I too would be speciest in this matter, although if a fox were attacking a few chickens, rather than grabbing and running off with one I would try to drive him away. I have had many arguments with fox hunters defending the fox (I am in the UK) and it’s reasons for killing more than one chicken, but I think I said previously something like those that keep animals to sell their products are not going to hold back on killing a predator as they probably have their own animals killed from time to time, so would justify it in that way.

        • Lori says:

          I think trying to drive away a predator is fine. Killing under most circumstances, is not. I’d certainly have no issue with driving away a fox from my chickens.

          I’ve heard stories of foxes “wiping out the hen house” but I think these kind of stories are hard to verify. Often times it was a pack of wild dogs, more than one fox, or just never happened, etc. A fox will usually only take what she can eat or feed her young. She may take a few more and hide them for the future, but wiping out a whole coup seems implausible to me. People who raise animals for products are notoriously unreliable when reporting on predator kills.

          Peace!

  6. Lori says:

    I think we need to stop the hyperbole and admit that predators going for humans is not a usual happenstance, though it can occur. A human child is not the natural prey of most predators, whereas a bird is. If we put the bird there, the onus is on us, not the predator. This is not to say that there may not be certain circumstances where an attacking animal may have to be lethally dealt with, but we shouldn’t take that as a given.

    I think James’s main point here, correct me if I’m wrong James, is that we should try not to put animals (and I would argue ourselves too) into situations where we know there are going to be conflicts.

  7. ingrid says:

    Being immersed in wildlife issues, I see this issue over and over with back-to-the-land “pioneers.” One such writer who left the big city to farmstead (and who also writes for prominent publications) not only engages harmful practices toward wild animals, she presents her understanding as “fact,” in these major venues, despite her gross MISunderstanding of natural history, wildlife behavior, and ecological issues.

    Case in point: she blogged a few months ago about rats in the walls, whereby they had an over-abundance of rodents because poultry feed is an attractant. Rather than find an environmentally sound and humane ways to deal with the problem (they do exist), she decides to poison the rats using off-the-shelf anti-coagulant rodenticide.

    Her piece showed no awareness whatsoever for how anti-coagulants move up the food chain and continue to poison not just the “target” rodents, but non-target animals and predators like raptors. This is also a blogger who entertained suggestions for how best to “dispatch” raccoons, with readers weighing in with “humane” suggestions from “raccoons are damned hard to kill” to a hammer-to-the-head to CO2 to a garotte.

    By the way, these are the same people who — if you engage them on topics surrounding domestic or wild animal slaughter and cruelty — will resort to the “vegans cause more harm to the environment” fallacies. Their entire house of sustainable cards falls down when faced with situations that require true ecological consideration on their part.

    • Lori says:

      Nicely said once again Ingrid! I totally agree. It’s these types who always try to bring vegans to task. Pathetic.

    • Mountain says:

      The farmsteader’s first mistake was feeding the chicken poultry feed, since free chickens can feed themselves just fine. It’s only caged chickens (whether battery cages or a large “cage-free” warehouse) that need poultry feed.

      Her second mistake was in treating the rats as a problem to be dealt with, rather than as one symptom of a larger problem. The problem may have been too much of something that attracts them (like poultry feed), or not enough of something that keeps their population in check (like snakes, cats, or birds of prey). Even if she succeeds in killing all the rodents on her homestead (not likely), her situation will soon attract other rodents from nearby.

      The raccoons are more of the same. I’m not opposed to killing a raccoon if it is an imminent threat, but it doesn’t solve the long-term problem, which is that she is doing things that attract them to her homestead.

      • ingrid says:

        Mountain, I agree with you. In this particular case, I commented at her blog, suggesting exclusion methodologies for the rodents which, as you say, take into account not just where the rodents are getting in the home, but also what’s attracting them to the home. Any wildlife hospital with a “wildlife solutions” department could have told her that and I usually advise people to check with a humane “control” service for those very reasons. But, poison was used in this case.

        With the raccoon, I asked her if she’d be willing to predator-proof her coop, or consult with someone who could help work around the natural behavior of both the birds and the raccoons in order to better understand non-lethal deterrents, at least as a first course of action. I mentioned that certain meso-predators will fill biological niches left behind by the ones killed, perpetuating the problem, sometimes making it worse. She still opted to trap the raccoon(s) and shoot them instead, ostensibly to eat them which she said she was going to do (to be sustainable, you know) but there never was a subsequent blog post about that raccoon meal.

        My point in relaying this one anecdotal account (among many) is to support what James wrote in his first line: “When you deem yourself in charge of an animal for the primary purpose of consuming some part of that animal you are automatically establishing the preconditions for some level of abuse.” I know that’s not a universal truth. You have written here about how you raise your chickens in a different way, and you also engage the topics in this blog. But, I would say it’s too terribly often that people who have no problem with one level of killing or exploitation, quite easily gravitate toward other methods and species. As this particular woman argued about the raccoon, if she was willing to kill her own chickens and turkeys and pigs, how different is it to kill a raccoon?

        • Mountain says:

          I don’t want to judge this woman too harshly without first having her side of the story, but from what you say, she sounds quite thoughtless in the way she goes about her life, and the lives of those around her.

          If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that killing her own chickens leads to killing raccoons (and should, by that logic, lead her to kill humans eventually). It isn’t the sort of thing I can prove, but I don’t believe that is correct. Many people who don’t raise chickens– who may not even have a pet– are more than happy to harm a wild animal that threatens their family, or garden, or property value. Or even a wild animal that poses no actual threat (like, say, a garden snake), but repulses and frightens the person.

          Point being, I see the inner nature of a person expressing itself in their behavior, rather than a person’s behavior changing their inner self.

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