Most people can understand why an animal lover might give up eating meat. We all realize that an animal has to die for a piece of meat to end up on the table. But what nobody would ever know, without doing a lot of questioning and connecting all the dots, is that animals will just as inevitably be slaughtered in order to put milk and eggs on the table. What’s even more counter-intuitive is that the animals of the egg and dairy industries will probably suffer a lot more than those raised solely for their meat.
Before I became vegan, I can remember asking vegans I knew questions like: “Don’t hens lay eggs naturally anyway? So what’s wrong with eating them? Why is that cruel?” These are the questions people ask me now with a skeptical raised eyebrow, like veganism can’t make sense because there’s no harm to be found. I’m so excited when people ask me these questions now because here’s the thing. Vegans are thoughtful. Nobody goes vegan without giving the issues a lot of deep reflection and introspection. And these are essential thoughtful questions. If you’re asking these questions, you are practically already vegan because once you understand the answers, the whole game (and by that I mean your whole understanding of the world) will begin to change.
Yes, it’s true. Female chickens, hens, will lay eggs regardless of what we do. Collecting their eggs and doing whatever we want to do with those eggs, including eating them, would not be a problem if it were not for two facts.
For one, all egg laying hens, whether they are on a large scale commercial industrialized farm (a.k.a factory farm) or an organic, free range, “humane” farm, or even the backyard chickens your favorite aunt has named and built a heated shed for all come from a hatchery. The hatchery is where egg layers are produced. The chickens who are raised for meat (“broilers”) are selectively bred to produce as much meat as possible. Egg layers are not. Therefore animal agriculture has manipulated two entirely different breeds of chicken, one for laying eggs and one for meat consumption. Therefore, when, at the hatchery, chicks hatch, they are immediately “sexed.” That is, some worker at the hatchery checks the sex of the chick. If that chick is female, she becomes a layer. But a male born to the egg industry cannot be used for meat, (he’s not been bred to fatten up enough), and is equally useless to the egg industry because he can’t produce eggs. So if that chick is a male, point blank, he is killed.
260 million male chicks are killed at egg hatcheries in the US every year. The most common industry methods for killing them are maceration, which means they are ground up alive in large machines, and gassing. As horrible as it is to grind up baby chicks alive, in many ways these males are better off than the females because the females will now likely endure years of pain and misery if they are one of the 99% who are shipped off to an industrial egg producer. But whatever the fate of the females is at this point, whether they go to industrial agriculture, become “free range” hens, or end up in some nice lady’s back yard, all those females come from a hatchery that has just killed 50% of the newborn chicks, a practice which we directly support whether we purchase these layers ourselves and take them home and give them names and knit them sweaters or purchase the cheapest eggs we can find at Walmart. In both cases we directly support the killing of the male chicks. All hatcheries kill the males. They could not stay in business any other way.
The second problem with eating eggs is that 99% of the hens leaving the hatchery will go into commercial egg production. Less than 1% of chickens nationwide are raised as “free range,” according to the National Chicken Council (NCC). And oy vey, free range is a whole other issue. And another blog post, another day. Suffice it to say for now, free range hardly means they are free. In any case, 99% go straight to industrial sheds anyway, where they are kept in what are known as battery cages.
Battery cages are small wire cages so small that a hen will never in her entire life be able to spread her wings. She will be packed into the cage with as many as 10 other birds. This close confinement may lead her to peck at the other birds in her cage, (if I were trapped in an elevator with 20 people for my whole life I’d probably start shoving too), so the industry “debeaks” the birds. Debeaking is a euphemism for searing off their beaks with hot iron without using anesthesia.
The floors of battery cages are made of wire, which is painful to the tender feet of the birds and routinely causes them to develop sores that are typically left untreated. Birds also try to spread their wings (can you imagine not being able to raise your arms for your entire life?), which then frequently become caught in the wire of the cages. It is not economical to treat injured birds. So their injuries are not treated.
If you’ve ever driven through the countryside and seen long rows of unmarked windowless sheds, those are probably hen houses, holding row upon row of battery cages, stacked one on top of the other so all the birds except those on the top row are constantly urinated and defecated upon. The stench of feces and ammonia is overpowering and disease and sickness unavoidable in such conditions. Many birds die from injury and disease. Undercover investigations almost always reveal the carcasses of dead birds left in cages with live birds.
Though the natural lifespan of a chicken is about fifteen years, by the time industrial egg laying hens reach between 18 months and 2 years, their bodies are spent, wrecked from abuse, and their egg production declines. In one last ditch effort to squeeze out a little more profit, egg producers commonly use a practice called forced molting which involves starving the birds to shock their system into laying out of cycle. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that at any given time, over 6 million hens in the U.S. are being systematically starved in their cages. After 2 years of this misery, they are sent to slaughter. By this point, their bodies are so beaten, and their flesh so bruised, it can only be used as scrap meat for canned chicken soup, frozen nuggets, or pet food.
Science tells us that chickens have communication skills that rival those of primates. Recent studies indicate that in many ways such as counting, and understanding that objects exist even when they are out of sight, chickens may even be more intelligent than human toddlers. They exhibit empathy, and with complex central nervous systems, we know they experience physical pain the same way human beings do.
Maybe now is a good time to point out that birds, all birds, egg laying hens, chickens raised for meat, turkeys, ducks, geese, and others are exempt from federal welfare laws including the Humane Slaughter Act. So in case you’re thinking none of this could be true because these practices must be illegal (as of course they should be, and that is a very natural assumption for us to make), they are not. They are legal, standard industry practices, which in some very circular reasoning is exactly what makes them legal. There are no federal protections, and standard industry practices, as such, no matter how much suffering they cause, are exempt from state cruelty laws.
Because birds are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act, they are not required to be rendered unconscious before they are shackled, dragged through an electrocution bath, have their throats slit and are then dropped into boiling water. According to the USDA, an estimated 1 million chickens and turkeys are boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses, because the speed of the kill line (the faster the kill line, the higher the profits), makes it impossible for workers to ensure that the birds are dead before they are dropped into the scalding water.
The pain and suffering that comes in an egg is not obvious, but once we pull back the curtain and peek into those windowless sheds, into the hatcheries, the battery cages, the slaughterhouses, we realize that as harmless as an egg seems, it represents unconscionable cruelty that we support every time we buy or eat an egg. Giving up eggs does not seem so difficult or so radical once we understand the immense suffering involved in their production.
In the next post, “Vegans are So Extreme” Or “What Could Possibly Be Wrong with Eggs and Dairy?” Part II, we’ll look into the shadow side of the dairy industry and continue to demystify the compassionate logic of veganism.
Photo of Mikey the rescued dairy calf courtesy of Deb Durant. Taken at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary.