A Handy Guide for Vegan Advocates Discussing Chickens and Eggs

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 they are 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.

Althea was the sole survivor after a predator broke into her coop one night and killed her sisters, who like her were hatched as a school project and were living at the school. She was blinded during the attack and nearly died from improper care.

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.

Trudy was so excited about an egg treat she leapt up to eat it out of my hand!

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.

Further Reading

“Backyard Eggs: Expanding Our Notion of Harm”

“What’s Wrong with Backyard Eggs?”

“Eggs: What Are You Really Eating?”

“No Such Thing as a Harmless Egg”

“Eggs. Period.”

“Lessons in Applied Speciesism”

‘The Dapper Dead’ Is Not Ethical Veganism, It’s The Invasion Of The [Imperialist Capitalist] Bodysnatchers

Do not accidentally die around this woman. Repeat, DO NOT DIE. [image taken from Press and Journal]
Can using the bodies of animals run over by speeding motorists be ethical? Emma Willats thinks so.

This past Sunday, The Press and Journal ran a story about the enterprising Scottish vegan taxidermist who (you guessed it) heavily relies on the corpses of roadkill to make luxury fashion accessories for human consumers.

Obviously upon reading this, I immediately died. But I had to resurrect myself quickly before a plucky young white woman discovered my lifeless corpse and saw a business opportunity.

Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin.  Perhaps I should just quote Willats herself:

The way I look at it is that if something has been killed for me then that’s wrong (okay, so far we’re on the same page). But if it’s something that’s died naturally or been run over then we should try to preserve it in some way (starting to lose me). It feels like a bigger waste to just throw an animal to the wayside once it’s dead (yup, totally lost). It’s better to use them in taxidermy than have some council employee just discard them (ORRRR we could also not consider dead bodies to be commodities for human consumption…because that’s also an option). We should be encouraged to use every part of the animal (as opposed to just discouraging people from using others’ bodies at all). I know a lot of people don’t like what I do but once I explain it I think I manage to win them over (ohhhh, so close!). I want to make use of the whole animal rather than just the face          (GURL!  0_____0).

The Press and Journal goes on to report that Willats “started working out of a bothy at her remote home after her partner suffered a nearly fatal car crash.” There is no mention of whether or not Willats had designs on her partner’s corpse had they not survived. But one can only assume a nice pair of kitten heels and a keychain might have been possible. And since some pieces are sold for up to £750, quite profitable!

But this highlights a couple of problems of how we sometimes approach vegan advocacy. First, if we’re trying to decide how to best exploit someone’s corpse (whether they died accidentally or on purpose), we’re probably asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking how to exploit a corpse, we should be asking why we think we are privileged to someone’s corpse at all. When we start mulling over how bodies can benefit us, that almost always spells trouble for pretty much everyone who isn’t a straight white, cisgender, wealthy, able-bodied human male.  Don’t believe me? Take the case of El Negro.

El Negro, the man ‘stuffed and displayed like a wild animal’…because animal bodies and black bodies are consumables in an imperialist capitalist framework.

In 1831, French dealer Jules Verreaux witnessed the burial of a Tswana warrior in the African interior to the north of Capetown. Shockingly, he returned under the cover of darkness to DIG UP HIS REMAINS AND ROB HIS GRAVE! The warrior’s body was displayed as a museum piece for over 150 years before it was finally returned to African soil and properly buried in 2000.

This isn’t a comparison of black people and animal bodies, btw. This is an example of how an imperialist and capitalist mentality teaches us to devalue some bodies as consumable goods and escalate the value of others as sacred instead of respecting every individual’s autonomy in life and in death.

And it’s not limited to race and species. Social class is another indicator of how we value certain bodies. In the 19th century United Kingdom, the only cadavers that could legally be dissected for medical experimentation and  study were those of humans condemned to death by the state. The problem? Only 55 people were executed each year on average, and expansion of medical schools meant that up to 500 were needed!

So what then did people do? Clearly, the solution was for grave robbers to start digging up the recently interred remains of strangers’ loved ones. And you can probably guess that the graves targeted were not those of people wealthy enough to protect their loved ones with metal coffins and thick iron bars.

So to the original question, does using bodies create a demand for bodies? Well, yes! Historically, the answer to this question is ABSOLUTELY YES! Imperialist capitalist thought demonstrably compels us to exploit the underclass (regardless of what face that underclass takes). Dismantling the system is critical to the liberation of all species.

And in case any condescending smart ass is going to make the argument that indigenous people use animal bodies too, save it. Focusing on the cultural practices of indigenous communities who use bodies out of necessity is every bit as disingenuous as focusing on those crafty minimum wage earners trying to get by instead of shining the light on the wealthy CEOs who hoard global resources and create artificial scarcity. It’s a head fake, and it’s sickening.

As long as we view persons—human and otherwise—as inherently exploitable resources, we can never live (or die) free.