By Justin Van Kleeck
One of the most common discussions I get drawn into these days is on the ethics of keeping chickens for eggs in supposedly “humane” situations, like a suburban backyard. The details vary from time to time but always deal with humans wanting to eat hens’ eggs and feeling justification in doing so because the hens are not in a cage, a shed, or a slaughterhouse.
But there is much more to those “happy eggs” than is immediately apparent, and so I am hoping this post can serve as a handy guide for vegan advocates who have gotten beyond the “factory farming” horizon and want to talk about all forms of animal agriculture…and maybe for some non-vegans who think backyard eggs are better (they are not).
Just because a hen is not in a cage, shed, or slaughterhouse does not mean she is free from exploitation. One of the hardest parts of talking to people about the problems with “humane eggs” is that culturally, we tend to focus on treatment (cages are bad, sheds full of sick hens are bad, slaughterhouses are bad, beating an animal is bad), so under the prevailing standards a little flock of hens in someone’s yard looks nice and bucolic. But that focus on treatment is really dealing with aesthetics, not ethics.
The crux of the problem with the whole idea that chickens’ eggs can ever be ethically neutral as a foodstuff for humans is: domestication. Modern domesticated hens lay about twenty times more eggs each year than their wild ancestors, the Red Jungle Fowl of southeast Asia, who lay 10-15 purely for reproduction. Read that again: TWENTY TIMES. That averages out at around 250-300 eggs per hen every year from about six months until their laying declines and peters out around four-five years old.
Selective breeding and genetic manipulation through thousands of years of domestication have thus completely hijacked the bodies of chickens: the ramping up of sex hormones and the physical process of laying takes a devastating toll, causing all sorts of problems (egg yolk peritonitis, impacted egg material, cancer, osteoporosis, prolapses…). These will usually kill a hen before she stops laying on her own; however, if kept healthy they can live into their teens.
The roosters suffer too–not only by being killed as chicks or once they crow because nobody wants male laying-breed chickens. They also have jacked up sex hormones that take a toll on their bodies as well. Simply put, no matter where they came from, virtually every single hen had a brother who was killed for no good reason.
It is also worth noting that whenever a chicken-keeper says their hens are all perfectly healthy, keep in mind that laying and other health problems happen in all breeds, not just the two most frequently used on industrial farms (white Leghorns and reddish brown Sex Links). Most people aren’t aware of the subtle signs that a chicken is ill (as prey species they are amazingly stoic) and get no vet care at all. The hens our sanctuary takes in from backyard situations are almost always sick with something, and/or have been the sole survivors of predator attacks due to negligence.
Along with all these physical consequences for chickens is the issue of bodily autonomy. When a hen lays an egg, why on Earth do we feel we have a right to something her body has created? Instead of stealing what is theirs, the best thing to do would be feed eggs back to the hens–eggs are usually their favorite treats, and doing so returns depleted vital nutrients in the eggs to the bodies they were pulled from.
For some reason humans think you can exploit and manipulate the bodies and very genes of non-humans over millennia, and then when those exploited bodies function as humans want them to, we can claim that what they do is “natural” and continue using them (dithering about welfare and treatment is often as far as we’re willing to go…).
That is fucked up, a tactic right out of the Humane Myth playbook…and that is why eggs are inherently unethical for human consumption, regardless of where they come from.
Eating hens’ eggs or allowing other humans to do so is perpetuating that system of exploitation and normalizing violence, including violence that is embodied as a result of domestication.
We adore our family of rescued chickens, and it is agonizing to get them to the safety of a vegan sanctuary and then see all the health problems they have due to their biology and breeding. Even with access to great veterinary care, far too often our hands are tied by their genes. We have lost so many beloved family members because of this, and I will never pretend that humans eating eggs and exploiting chickens to do so is nice, happy, or humane. No other vegans should either.