Humans use the eggs from a number of different species of birds, including chickens, ducks, quail, guinea fowl, pheasants, rhea, ostrich and geese although by far the greatest number of these are chickens. The consumption of eggs is widely but mistakenly regarded by many as a practice where animals are not killed or harmed. The popular myth runs along the line that using egg laying birds, particularly hens, is ‘harmless’ and that providing they are not confined in ‘battery’ conditions, it is acceptable to take their eggs. This ‘justification’ has spawned spirited defences of ‘back yard’ production and I have lost count of the number of posts that I have seen, seeking to justify the use and consumption of eggs in this way. I have even, unbelievably, seen cases of ‘vegans’ seeking to justify and defend giving away or selling eggs from rescued (!) hens to nonvegans, justifying this seal of approval for exploiting hens on the basis that this prevents these nonvegans creating consumer demand for eggs in the shops. A further confused claim is that the eggs would simply be *’wasted’ if humans did not use them. And as if all this wasn’t bad enough news for hens, the fairy tale of ‘free range’ egg production is yet another fantasy supporting a popular myth of ‘humane’ predation.
First, it should be noted that all the birds on whom we inflict our unnecessary obsessions are sentient, unique individuals. It doesn’t matter how ‘cute’ or ‘intelligent’ they seem in our eyes. Like us, they seek to avoid pain, they have a rich emotional range and they experience life as we do, through our senses, through our environment and through our interactions with others. That, in itself, should be sufficient for us to recognise their rights to their own bodies and their own lives.
However, the deceptions that we have been raised to embrace as fact are deep rooted and pervasive. We have been taught not to question our superiority and entitlement to help ourselves to the property of nonhumans especially if they are too vulnerable to stop us while we cling to elaborate childhood fantasies. These fantasies often involve imaginary victim consent and mutual benefits where animals ‘give’ to us in return for our ‘care’.
For the sake of clarity, the issue that we need to address is the fact that we have unnecessary victims; it is not how we treat those unnecessary victims. There are serious health and environmental consequences of all our use of nonhuman animals but when we focus on these, we’re making the issue about ourselves. We need to stop hurting, harming and killing other individuals because it’s just plain wrong, not because there’s something in it for us.
Animal Rights is NOT Animal Welfare
Animal Rights do not equal Animal Welfare and I cannot stress this strongly enough. Upholding Rights means that we do not accept that nonhumans should be our victims under any circumstances. Promoting Welfare means that we accept that they should be our victims but we think they should be harmed ‘in a nice way’.
No one would ever suggest that ‘less’ harm is not preferable to ‘more’ harm. However, when all harm is unnecessary, it is our responsibility to speak up for the right of our victims to have no harm done to them. Those who promote ‘less harm’ are still promoting harm, however it is disguised. To hear the pro-backyard, pro-free range proponents, and of course the outright lies of the industry funded advertising campaigns, one might be forgiven for thinking that the majority of egg laying birds have great lives and that anyone who finds fault is being hard line and extremist.
As a former egg consumer, I am all too well aware of the internal dialogue we use to justify our own behaviour. It all boils down to deluding ourselves that the eggs we use have been produced by happy, well cared for hens who just can’t ‘give’ their eggs away fast enough.
The scale of the problem
So, bearing in mind this isn’t about Welfare, it’s about Rights, it’s perhaps useful to get an idea of the scale of this atrocity. Out of a total of more than 50,000,000,000 (50 billion) chicks hatched in hatcheries each year, 12,000,000,000 (12 billion) chicks are brought into the world to allow for 6,000,000,000 (6 billion) to be used by the egg industry, and incidentally, to provide also for the majority of ‘back-yard operations. Because they cannot lay eggs and are not the same breed used for ‘meat’, approximately 6,000,000,000 (6 billion) male chicks, each one of whom is a unique, sentient infant, are killed shortly after hatching every year. They are disposed of by being gassed or thrown into bins/ bags where they suffocate to death or alternatively they are ground up alive in large industrial macerators and their remains used for such substances as fertiliser and pet food. In the UK the approved method is apparently gassing although each plant where eggs are hatched and the newborns are ‘sexed’ is required by law to have a macerator which they apparently don’t use. Go figure.
These 6 billion are deliberately bred to replace the 6 billion former egg-laying hens aged approximately 72 weeks (16 – 18 months) who are killed annually for cheap ‘meat’ because at that age, their production rate is falling because their bodies are simply worn out. As a result of selective breeding, artificial stimulation with lighting, and in some countries such practices as ‘forced moulting‘ (currently not allowed in the EU ) the industry ensures that they lay eggs for approximately 300 out of every 365 days. As a result of this extreme overproduction, hens suffer a range of distressing, painful and disabling conditions including osteoporosis, infection, internal laying, egg binding, ascites, Marek’s Disease, prolapsed cloaca, heart and liver disease, and reproductive cancer that is so prolific in egg laying hens that they are now considered a model for the study of similar cancers in humans. In the wild, a hen would produce a clutch of about 12 eggs, once or twice a year, for the purpose of producing offspring. The natural lifespan of a chicken living without the burdens placed on her body by human exploitation, would exceed 10 years and may sometimes be as much as 20 years.
Free range and other fantasies
Many of us cling to the term ‘free range’ as if it were a talisman. Even processed products containing eggs will frequently state – and highlight – that their product contains ‘free range’ eggs. Why do you think that is? Think about it. It’s because EVERYONE knows about battery conditions. EVERYONE knows that it’s wrong to inflict this barbaric practice on any living being. EVERYONE wants to dissociate themselves from being complicit in it by spending their cash on anything that comes out of these hells.
An estimated 95% worldwide including 58% in the UK of egg laying hens spend their entire existence in battery conditions.
An estimated 95% of egg laying hens spend their entire existence in battery conditions. Yes, I repeated that. That’s 5.7 billion annually. This leaves 300 million individuals being used in ‘free range’ facilities and back yards each year. I don’t have the statistical breakdown of these but as ‘free range’ exploitation is big commercial business with huge numbers of supposedly ‘vegetarian products’ being sold in supermarkets on the strength of the ‘free range’ eggs they contain, I’m sure the reader is as able as I am to make a reasonable guess. Even if the argument about humane exploitation was valid, it is not and never can be, reproducible on a commercial scale.
I have lived all my life in an area famed for the production of ‘free range’ eggs and birds. And you know something? Given the sheer numbers of individuals involved – about 20 million birds killed every week in the UK – and given that everyone likes to claim that they care about their victims and always buy ‘free range’, if the term meant anything at all we should be knee-deep in chickens everywhere we go. Yet although I live rurally I have never in my life seen a single bird in the outdoors. I have passed thousands of silent sheds reminiscent of concentration camps where the smell stings the eyes and it’s hard not to vomit. All we need is to let go of our childhood delusions and use our common sense. ‘Free range’ is a marketing ploy, a technicality that means nothing to our victims. It does not mean they all live a happy life in the sunshine, dustbathing with their friends and scratching in dappled yards.
Please look back up the page to check the scale of this issue, if these numbers are not seared into your brain as they are for me. Every single time that we purchase eggs or any product containing eggs, we are saying that it’s perfectly fine for this vile industry to continue. As advocates, when we promote or endorse anything less than the complete end to this unnecessary practice, we are utterly failing over 50,000,000,000 individuals every year. We don’t need for them to speak to know what they would ask of us. We know.
The essential thing to stress is that all use of eggs, wherever they come from, perpetuates the false notion of eggs as human ‘food’, and thus ensures the continuation of the abhorrent practices involved in all egg production, with the billions of deaths that this entails.
Far from harmless
This is far from a ‘harmless’ industry. It is an industry founded in the darkest corners of our delusions of necessity and entitlement; an industry that thrives because we refuse to take seriously the consequences of our actions as consumers, and ultimately as human beings who believe in justice and respect for all sentient life.
We can stop being part of it today. Be vegan.
*The concept of ‘waste’ as we apply it to the secretions, eggs and body parts of deceased individuals will be the topic of a future blog.
Links for further information:
- A handy guide for vegan advocates discussing chickens and eggs
- What’s Wrong with Backyard Eggs
- A Hen’s Relationship with her Eggs
- Backyard Chicken Farming Leads to Abandoned Hens
- Cage-Free? Not free enough
- Backyard chickens: Expanding our understanding of ‘harm’
- 12 Egg Facts the Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know
- Enriched Cages and Embodied Prisons, A Report on the EU Directive Banning Battery Cages for Egg Laying Hens
- Peaceful Prairie: The Free Range Myth