Not a day goes by that I fail to see someone contradicting a post that explains – often at some length – that there is no such thing as a humane egg. As soon as there’s a post about eggs, up pop the comments saying it’s not necessary to be vegan, how lovely it is to keep hens in back gardens and use them there for eggs. ‘Problem solved’, these comments seem to say.
Given that every credible animal rights advocate says the same thing; that egg use can never be ethical, it is astonishing that anyone would imagine for one moment that those who speak against using hens have not carefully examined all the science and the background to a subject about which they are generally extremely well informed.
‘Let’s just take all the hens to a nice place and keep on using them.’ Sorted. If such a quick fix existed, does anyone really think that animal rights advocates would miss something so obvious? Apart from the fundamental violation of rights and individual autonomy that underlies our species’ assumption that we can use the lives and bodies of others for our convenience, why is there is an automatic assumption that either the post is wrong, or that they’ve missed the easy solution? Why doesn’t such a post make readers think, ‘I can’t understand why anyone would say that, maybe I should take the chance to find out more?’
I’ve struggled to find an analogy because an equivalent to the enormity of what humans have done to hens is hard to find – if indeed it exists. To find a comparison in terms that most of us can relate to, I decided to consider dogs as an alternative species.
Hens – an analogy
Dogs. Puppy farms and puppy mills. Light blue touch paper and stand well back! I can’t imagine anyone with any concern at all for other species who will say that these are a good idea. It is customary to see universal and vitriolic condemnation of this practice whenever the subject crops up in social media.
Now, still thinking of puppy mills, imagine you were to discover that certain breeds of dog had been selectively bred so that without being impregnated, they would produce a litter of puppies almost every single day, because that way, the money making potential for the sale of the puppies could be maximised. Most people would be beyond outraged. There would be howls of rage and the internet would reverberate with righteous indignation. True?
To continue this analogy, what about the puppy mill mothers, these defenceless, innocent mothers who were giving birth each day? Can we even begin to imagine the strain that this repeated birthing would put on their bodies? Can we even begin to understand the misery of such an existence, an existence where the only value that is placed on them comes from the sale of their puppies? Their lives would be bleak, their bodies depleted and prone to disease, an endless cycle of wrenching physical turmoil until death claimed them. I think any of us would instinctively empathise with them and know that it is utterly wrong to inflict such an atrocity on any sentient individual.
Humane puppy mills
So on to the final part of this analogy. If I were to post an article, stating that there is no such thing as a ‘humane’ puppy mill, what sort of reaction would it cause? Would there be agreement or would there be a rush of contradictions?
Would we see comments like,
‘That’s not true. Why not rescue some puppy mill mothers and give them a lovely home where they can have their puppies every day?’
‘I have a little dog that I rescued from a puppy mill and I love her like family. She still has puppies most days and I see no problem with using them to make a bit of cash.’
‘Puppy mills aren’t a problem as long as the dogs aren’t living in cages in a horrible environment.’
I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t see anything of the sort. And the reason for that is that quite clearly, although the environment in which exploitation takes place is certainly worth mentioning, the underlying issue would not be the environment, but rather the selective breeding that had resulted in daily birthing and the consequent physical and emotional trauma this would cause.
Some might also go further and appreciate that as long as these genetically mutated dogs existed and as long as there was a market for the puppies, there would be those who would exploit the situation for profit at the expense of the health and well being of the dogs. There might even be calls for the genetic mutation to be brought to an end, in a similar way to what has occurred with some breeds of dogs and cats where certain physical traits such as flattened faces, exaggerated through selective breeding in order to place ‘aesthetics’ before physical function, had reached the stage that they were causing serious impairment for the individuals affected.
Still with me? Well to the best of my knowledge, as of now, NO such genetic mutation has been carried out to cause puppy mill mothers to have a litter every day. I’d never say never, because I long ago lost any faith in our species having an ethical line they will not cross when serving their own interests at the expense of others. However let’s go back to hens.
So, back to hens
Unlike puppy mill mothers where the genetic modification described was an imaginary one for the sake of this analogy, exactly this type of genetic mutation HAS been selectively bred into all the hens that we use for eggs today, regardless of whether they are obtained directly from a hatchery, or from someone whose backyard hens have laid fertile eggs. Let’s read over the preceding paragraphs, and think ‘hens’ for ‘puppy mill mothers’ and ‘eggs’ for ‘puppies’.
The key point here is that the wild ancestors of the breeds that we use for eggs, lay two clutches of about 6 – 10 eggs a year for the purpose of raising young. Their bodies evolved with this behaviour as an integral part of their physical make up.
The TSHR (thyroid-stimulating hormone receptor) gene coordinates reproduction with day length, confining breeding to specific seasons. A mutation disabling this gene enables chickens to breed and lay eggs all year long, and contrary to claims that their laying is just ‘doing what comes naturally to them’, it is the exploitation of this mutation that causes hens’ bodies to operate in overdrive and to lay over 300 eggs a year at a catastrophic physical cost to their health and well being.
Further research and breeding programmes are in progress to further increase the number of eggs each hen is capable of laying; to increase the size of these eggs taking account of the cost of feed required, with a current aim being 500 eggs before the hen’s body becomes unprofitable. At no point in any of these considerations is there any acknowledgement of the fact that these ‘egg laying machines’ are in fact sentient individuals who are being unspeakably harmed by our meddling.
The driver behind all of this egg use, is consumer demand for eggs. As long as there is consumer demand for eggs, there will be a financial incentive to those who supply that demand. The only way any of us can effectively advocate for the well-being of hens who lay eggs, is by calling for the end of that consumer demand. In addition to egg use being morally unjustifiable, eggs are, in any case, extremely harmful to humans.
And a final thought
When we read of a breeding mother being rescued from a puppy farm, the first thing that the rescuer will do – and it almost goes without saying – is that they will arrange for her to be sterilised to spare her the risk of future births. I’m glad that there are people out there who do that. In doing so, possibly for the first time in her life, the rescued mother is being recognised and valued for who she is. By ensuring that her reproductive system can never be exploited again, the rescuer is taking steps to ensure that although the horrific past, and the legacy of damage that may be its likely consequence, can’t be undone, at least whatever time remains will be spent without deliberate reproductive harm being caused to her.
I am glad that some hens escape the cycle of use that their mutated reproductive systems impose on them and I know several vegans who rescue hens. I understand that hormone implants are the least risky method for stopping the cycle of incessant egg laying and these are used wherever possible. Unfortunately, each implant requires to be periodically renewed, availability can be unreliable and appropriately specialised veterinary staff hard to find, but nevertheless, so many try their absolute best to remove the burden of egg laying from those they rescue. When implants are not possible, eggs are fed back to the hens who laid them and are greatly enjoyed. Few, however, would ever claim that sanctuary and rescue are solutions to the problem. And none of the vegan rescuers that I know, would sell or give eggs to other humans, thereby condoning and perpetuating continued consumer demand for eggs as an appropriate food item.
Only by ending consumer demand for the products of exploitation, can any of our victims ever be valued for who they are rather than for what we can take from them. When it comes to individuals rescued from reproductive exploitation, don’t they all deserve the same consideration?