It seems incredulous to me that someone has to even ask this question. If we were put in a small cramped metal cage and denied all natural light and opportunity to go about our normal activities of daily living, would we suffer?
The average New Zealander consumes 230 eggs each year and 89% of these eggs are produced by caged hens. As a western society we may abhor animal cruelty, but we fund it daily in the supermarket. Our desire for high quality, low cost protein food ensures that millions of hens live in an environment that I believe is a living hell.
Many people may think ‘It’s only a silly chicken’, but at a recent conference, American biologist Dr Balcombe argued what many of us already know. Chickens feel pleasure, joy, pain, aggression, anxiety and boredom. If you have ever observed a chook having a dust bath, spreading her wings out in the sun, scratching for insects, running for cover when they spy a hawk or fighting over food, you will know what he means.
Who are we to say that chickens don’t have a life worth living?
Battery farmed laying hens live in grossly abnormal and cruel conditions. In NZ, hens can be kept in cages with 550sq cm of space each. This is slightly smaller than the page these words are written on. The law is currently being reviewed with the proposal to allow them 750sq cm of space each, slightly larger than an A4 page. Whoopy do!
What difference is that going to make to their miserable lives? A life where their beak is cut so they can’t peck their cage mates out of boredom, a cold sloping wire cage to lay their daily egg, long hours of artificial light to keep them laying, the stench of ammonia created by the other tens of thousands of birds above them and below them in similar wire cages in a windowless shed. Nowhere to perch, stretch their wings or scratch and dust bath. Times when they are withheld water and food for a number of days until the stress causes them to moult which can jolt them back into another relentless cycle of laying.
And after all this, when their production of eggs drops below a profitable level they are killed at just 18 months old. Still just babies in the chicken world, as a normal, healthy chicken can live for up to seven years.
What can we do as consumers? We use the most powerful thing we have and it is inside our wallets and purses!
A Colmar Brunton survey of New Zealand consumers in 2002 found that nearly eight out of ten New Zealanders would be prepared to pay more for eggs if battery cages were banned. As a province which prides itself on “unique food, by producers driven by a passion for quality, and made with an uncompromised dedication to authenticity and craftsmanship” (www.foodhawkesbay.co.nz), my challenge to our Councils is to be at the forefront of chicken welfare and to ban all caged poultry systems.
Imagine if Hawke’s Bay becomes the first area of New Zealand where all locally sourced eggs are from happy, free range chooks who have been given the kind of considerations that we accord our own species. It is time to stop treating them as little more than food producing units, treated as machines rather than a living animal. Why don’t egg producers get on the ‘Brand’ wagon as many vineyards do and market their free range eggs with a ‘Hawke’s Bay terroir’? Hawke’s Bay sun filled eggs, full of minerals and vitamins gleaned and naturally processed from the fertile Heretaunga Plains, generously shared by happy Hawke’s Bay hens.
Want to do more? Why not keep your own happy hens in your backyard? My next article will discuss what you need to know and how fun and simple it can be.