Helping Hens
May 1, 2012

As I’ve previously mentioned, Jupiter, or JsuJsu as I lovingly call her, is a pretty skinny pup. One or two mornings a week, I stretch my culinary talents and take out the skillet to scramble up some eggs to supplement her diet. The nutrients that eggs offer her are helping to make her healthier inside and out. But when shopping for those eggs each week, I am careful to read labels and only choose eggs that appear to be from the most humanely raised chickens. You might say: It’s only an egg! It’s not like any animal was killed! C’mon, do we have to care where our eggs come from?! I would respond by saying that an egg doesn’t magically appear in your local grocery store. Our feathery friends work hard to produce those eggs.

In an ideal world, I envision eggs coming from hens who roam outside all day and live on beautiful grassy farms.  These beauties would experience sunlight and be able to flap their wings and feel the ground beneath their feet. They would be well cared for with plenty of available food and water and would have a quiet place to nest and perch. These hens would also be able to interact naturally with other chickens and animals. At night, they would safely return to a protective shelter in a coop or barn.

But today’s egg-laying hens lead a much sadder existence than in my idyllic world. Beginning at chick hatcheries, male and female chickens are sorted—the females sold to egg producers and the non-egg-laying (and, thus, non-money-making) males slaughtered.  When the female chicks grow up into hens, millions of them are housed in wire “battery cages,” which are hard metal cages that usually house four to eleven hens. Each hen is allotted a size approximately the dimensions of a standard piece of notebook paper. That’s it. Can you imagine having three to ten other roommates sharing one small room? This intensive confinement doesn’t allow the hens to spread their wings, have normal relationships with other hens, see the sun, or breathe fresh air---let alone find a comfortable space to lay an egg every one to two days. Animals living in such tight indoor confinement can’t be healthy either physically or mentally. Hens are de-beaked early on so that they will not peck at other hens. Some egg-producers use unnatural lighting cycles to increase egg production.  The toll that all of these stressors take on the animals ultimately results in early deaths at slaughterhouses. It is a horrible existence, and this is where the great majority of the eggs in America come from.

In the past few years, a better, more humane approach to raising hens has gained popularity. “Cage-free” eggs are gathered from hens who have more room to roam. Because they are not constrained by the small battery cages, they can actually spread their wings. But while cage-free is a great improvement in the animals’ welfare, it is still far from perfect. Neither means of captivity allows for much time outdoors—if any—and hens do not have the abundant access to fresh air and sunlight that we might hope. Because of the great numbers confined together, the congestion amongst the birds causes much stress and little healthy interaction.

So, what is the solution?   The idea of “free-range” hens is appealing and ultimately may be the most humane model for raising egg producing birds. Free-range allows for animals to be outdoors, sustaining themselves naturally on the land, just like that idyllic farm I previously mentioned. Portable houses for them are moved around by tractor to fresh areas that haven’t been overused or polluted. To me, this may be the closest way for the animals to live natural lives, with eggs as a benefit to the farmers. The problem with free-range, though, is that, for it to work best, numbers of hens on one farm have to decrease. There can’t be hundreds of thousands of birds on a farm---maybe just hundreds. Also, it doesn’t allow for the natural interaction of males and females, as in nature.  Free-range may be the best solution for raising hens, but it is not perfect.

Today, we are moving towards a more humane society. When we choose cage-free or free-range eggs, we are demanding better animal welfare for hens. Just this past month, fast-food giant Burger King declared that they are only going to be serving 100% cage-free eggs beginning in 2017. This is HUGE news! It is not the ultimate solution, but it is moving our world in the right direction. We must remember that animals are not machines. Just like you and me, hens are living, breathing, feeling creatures and are entitled to live their lives without cruelty from or purpose for humans.

Three things you can do to help:

1.    Purchase only the most humane eggs available. Remember cage-free are better than traditional (non-labeled) eggs, and free-range eggs are even better! If your grocery store doesn’t have cage-free or free-range, please ask for them! And better yet: if you have a local farm or friend with chickens, ask to buy their eggs and check out how they raise their hens. Also, thank managers of restaurants who use cage-free and range-free eggs.

2.    Teach others about the lives of hens. Help spread the word for better animal welfare. Tell others what you have learned about making the world a more humane place for animals. Most people don’t know that their breakfast eggs come from animals who lead miserable lives.

3.    READ. There is a ton of information online about egg producers. Keep up to date by reading about current events in the news. Things are finally beginning improve for our animal friends, but there is still much more work for us all to do!

Read more:

All Creatures

Choose Veg

The Humane Society of the US


NY Times

United Poultry Concerns

USA Today