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 gradually declines (sometimes ceasing completely) with age.
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.
“The Unavoidably Violent History of Backyard Eggs”
“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: The Leading Cause Of Cancer Nobody Talks About””
6 thoughts on “A Handy Guide for Vegan Advocates Discussing Chickens and Eggs”
Reblogged this on Erica Wachs CMT and commented:
The majority of backyard hens still come from commercial hatcheries and eggs are one of the easiest things to replace when veganizing a recipe.
Thank you, thank you, thank you… for saying what needs to be said! There seem to be so many people calling themselves vegan and eating eggs from hens they keep in their yard. It boggles my mind that these idiot assholes have the audacity to call themselves vegan.
Eating eggs FROM ANY SOURCE is exploitation, violence, torture, and murder. It is WRONG and it is IMMORAL. STOP NOW.
Excellent article. Thank you. All use of sentient beings is cruel.
I’m sure I appear a monster to you. I am not, nor do I have any desire to become, vegan. I eat mostly vegetarian, save for the meat I hunt, but I think you have a gross misunderstanding of the word ethics. It is not unethical to eat eggs any more than it is to eat tomatoes. The tomato is a freakishly deformed berry. The wild ancestors had berries the size of a blueberry, and through centuries of genetic manipulation we have created ova that swell to the size of fists. Every year people plant them on their backyard, forgetting to water them, allowing weeds to choke the life from them, all because they had something better to do. Oh, wait, could it be a case of mutually beneficial evolution? Did the tomato form larger fruit to entice humans into planting them in places other than a hillside in Peru where they originate? Oh my, did chickens become the most populous bird, extending their range to every place on the planet where humans live? Do they get extensive benefits including longer lives than nearly any wild bird, low risk from predators, and well trained humans literally putting food out for them? The world is no beach vacation. Indonesian Red Jungle Fowl have a 65% mortality rate within their month. This is typical for large ground dwelling birds around the world. The issues chickens face as domesticated birds are a fraction of what their ancestors did.
I don’t have time for or interest in distinguishing human monsters. I disagree with you, and let’s leave it at that with the name calling. Okay?
Your position rests on the assumption that domesticating other beings–taking control of their life cycles and lifestyles–is fine, even benevolent, and I don’t agree with that at all. Domesticated animals have been genetically altered for the benefit of humans, often with many consequences for them . Red Junglefowl lifespans are roughly 15 years in the wild, 30 years if kept in captivity. Chickens are lucky if they make it to half of the former. There are tradeoffs aplenty for the supposed easy lives of domesticated animals, especially farmed animals; the loss of autonomy is an important ethical one.
As far as eating tomatoes goes, I’m sorry but unless you want to get into the bog of “plants have feelings too,” I don’t see the point of the analogy. Almost every part of our modern food system is a result of industrialization and globalization, as well as humans tinkering with genes. I’ve seen how much suffering comes with the health problems chickens experience because of their breeding. Tomatoes don’t have that experience.