Without a doubt, laying hens are the most abused animals in all of farming, living their lives in a space less than the area of a single sheet of paper.
THE LIFE OF A BATTERY-CAGED HEN
Laying hens are born in commercial hatcheries, hatched by the thousands in industrial incubators. Male chicks, unable to lay eggs and of a different strain than boiler chickens, are killed shortly after hatching. They are typically ground up alive, gassed, or thrown into dumpsters. About 260 million male chicks are killed by the egg industry annually.
Most of the surviving hens are beak-trimmed, a process deemed necessary by the egg industry to decrease cannibalism and other aggressive tendencies, and to reduce feed costs by preventing the flicking of food. Pictures of debeaking were not included here due to their disturbing nature. The procedure, performed without anesthesia, involves the slicing of the beak of a young chick with a hot blade.
The female chicks, called hens, spend their short lives (usually less than two years) confined in battery cages, in one 61 square inch spot. They are unable to nest, to bathe, to perch, or to spread their wings. Each hen is expected, on average, to produce 260 eggs per year.
As the hens age, their egg production naturally slows. To increase production, the hens are forced to molt (shed their feathers) through starvation or the use of low-nutrient food, until 30 percent of their body fat is lost. Then, their original diet is reinstated to restore feather growth, and consequently, egg production.
After their first or second laying-cycle, depending on the use of forced molting, hens are killed. Chickens are not considered animals in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and thus no law dictates their treatment at the end of their lives. Most farms opt not to slaughter the hens on-site. Instead they transport the hens to off-site slaughterhouses. If the hens survive the journey, they are killed without compassion, and often with full consciousness. These painful, premature deaths are the ends to painful lives.
ON THE FARM
The battery cage, the popular choice of American farmers, sentences almost 300 million hens a year to endless abuse. A typical farm contains thousands of battery cages, each housing three to ten hens with an average space allowance of 61 square inches for each bird. 95% of all egg-laying hens spend their lives in battery-cages.
While the United Egg Producers, representing more than 85 percent of American egg producers, encourages its members to increase cage size to a "recommended" 67 inches per hen, that recommendation is far from kind. Hens need 72 square inches just to stand, and 291 square inches to flap their wings, a figure almost five times greater than the UEP's "humane" recommendation. While not always perfect, cage-free farms and other battery cage alternatives can fulfill the basic, natural needs of hens--room to perch, room to bathe, and room to nest.
While the mortality rates for battery-caged hens and cage-free hens are not significantly different, the quality of life for the hens is much improved when they are given the freedom of barns and the outdoors. Barn systems, a type of cage-free housing, allow birds to move freely indoors. They can be either single-level or multi-level structures. The environment of these barns, especially when multi-leveled, provide hens with the means to perch, nest and bathe in dust, behaviors impossible in the confines of battery cages. Free-range hens have both the protection of a barn and the access to the outdoors necessary to advance these natural behaviors. While it is cheaper to produce eggs with battery-caged hens, the costs of cage-free production are only marginally higher than the cost of the United Egg Producers' certification program. Consumers are also willing to pay more than this difference to ensure the humane treatment and cage-free lifestyle of laying hens.
However, while cage-free hens escape the abuse inherent in battery cages, these facilities can not always be considered cruelty-free. The ability of these hens to walk and spread their wings, and to lay their eggs in nests, should not be underestimated, but there are further farming practices that need to be addressed. Cage-free farms still buy their hens from hatcheries that kill the male chicks at birth, and the hens are still subjected to the procedure of beak trimming or burning, performed to lessen the effects of aggression. While most egg farmers no longer use starvation to force molt hens in the hopes of increasing egg production, some still do, regardless of whether their hens are caged or not. Finally, the lifespans of laying hens across the spectrum rarely surpass two years, a number far below the potential lifespans of hens in their natural environment.
Click here to learn about the Future of Battery Cages.
PHYSICAL / BEHAVIORAL EFFECTS
The use of battery cages, and the practice of factory farming in general, causes numerous physical disorders in hens. The inability of hens to move in their cages not only inhibits their natural inclinations toward nesting, perching, and bathing, but also prevents them from living pain-free lives. They suffer from bone weakness, bone breakage, and numerous diseases, including Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome, the major cause of death in laying hens. In normal conditions, hens frequently bathe in dust to promote healthy feathers. On most egg farms, they are forced to "bathe" against the sides of the wire cages, leading to the loss of feathers. Finally, without the space to nest properly, and with the added stress of artificial lighting, laying hens are highly susceptible to uterine prolapse, a condition in which the uterus is pushed outside the hen's body. The average hen produces 260 eggs per year, and without the protection of nests, the birds are completely exposed after each lay.
Psychologically, the worst torture for laying hens is the inability to nest. Unable to find privacy for the laying act in the confines of battery cages, hens will crawl over and under other hens to search in vain for cover and nesting materials. Hens will often pace and throw themselves against the metal sides of the cages, symptoms of severe frustration. The absence of perches in battery cages also interferes with the natural disposition of laying hens to form hierarchies, increasing aggression and decreasing normal social interactions.
IN THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE
Once the hens reach the end of their laying cycle, the "spent" birds are killed, either on the farm, or in slaughterhouses. For those to be transported off-site, the process of catching the hens is both psychologically stressful and physically abusive. Human handling is a known stressor for hens, and the battery cages do not provide for easy removal. Hens are often held seven at a time in the hands of catching teams, and their legs and wings are often torn and broken when they are being removed. Only a few processing plants in the United States accept spent hens, forcing the birds to endure long journeys on overheated trucks. Many die from congestive heart failure due to the stresses of handling and transport.
Laying hens are not protected by federal regulations during slaughtering. They do not have to be rendered senseless before they are killed. In the processing plant, hens are shackled by their legs and hung upside-down. They are stunned through the use of an electric water bath, but the success of the stun is often reduced due to individual differences in birds. Many hens are slaughtered without being stunned at all. The hens' throats are slit on a circular blade before being placed in a scalding tank, meant to loosen their feathers. If they are not properly stunned, they often miss the blade, resulting in the hens being boiled alive and conscious. Many alternatives to these inhumane slaughterhouse practices exist, but the industry is hesitant to adopt any of them.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
More and more producers are raising animals in a more natural setting, allowing animals fresh air and more room to perform natural behaviors. Refining your diet by choosing products from humanely raised animals instead of conventional products from intensive farm operations helps ensure laying hens live a better life. Click here for information on where to find animal products from farms that have higher standards of care for animals.
Grocery stores now have a large assortment of substitutes to replace those traditionally obtained from animals who are intensively confined. These alternatives include egg-free breads and omelets. You can find many of these alternatives in your local grocery store.
If we reduce the consumption of egg products by just one meal a week, we would spare millions of laying hens from the suffering that occurs with intensive confinement operations.