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.

17498494_1064512856988273_354737982175706250_n
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.”

“‘Persistent Ovulator'” 

“Eggs: The Leading Cause Of Cancer Nobody Talks About”

“Lessons in Applied Speciesism”

Advertisements

Of Bullies and Butchers: Ethical Meat, Vegan Bullies, and the Humane Myth

How do you respond with words to someone who murders your loved ones, glorifies that killing, is praised as a hero, and then casts you as a bully when you push back against such a heinous act?

This is the question I have wrestled with for months: How does trying to stop the murder of innocents make you the bully, and the butcher the saint?

In November of 2016, Wild Abundance, a homesteading & permaculture “school” in Asheville, North Carolina held a class to teach people how to “humanely” kill and butcher a sheep. A counter-protest, organized by the Let Live Coalition and in which I participated, got derailed by outside threats that were made by anonymous, unaffiliated individuals (against organizers’ requests to be peaceful and respectful when asking Wild Abundance to cancel the class). In the end two young sheeps were killed and processed…in order to “honor” them.

“The animal will be tethered, and when all the students are here, we are going to pray. Then we are going to wait for the moment that feels right and take the animal’s life.” – Natalie Bogwalker, Wild Abundance

Natalie of Wild Abundance
Natalie of Wild Abundance “honoring” a sheep.

In the ensuing mayhem after the start of the peaceful campaign, heated online rhetoric resulted in the would-be butchers pivoting on the notion of their vulnerability in order to divert attention from the act(s) of needless murder and blame “vegans” (en masse?) for the true violence. Natalie Bogwalker, owner of Wild Abundance, was portrayed (in pictures and words) as an innocent new mother being bombarded by militant vegans, and Meredith Leigh, the original instructor (butcher) for the class, as a stalwart hero of “ethical” food, food security, and sustainability.

The threats against them are unfortunate and had no place in the peaceful protest/campaign. But as a vegan, I (and many others) found this erasure/obfuscation of the true victims–the non-human animals being killed and butchered–to be both familiar and offensive. As a vegan who rescues, lives with, and cares for farmed animals, I found such intentional human narcissism to be beyond disturbing and disgusting.

Ayelet: starved and parasite-ridden due to severe neglect by a farmer, her body was so fragile and her bones so brittle by the time we rescued her that she broke under the strain of living...
Ayelet: starved and parasite-ridden due to severe neglect by a farmer, her body was so fragile and her bones so brittle by the time we rescued her that she broke under the strain of living…

Let’s be clear about this: What we humans have done over thousands of years is create a situation, a system, in which domesticated animals are victims by design, from birth. In particular, “humane,” small-scale farmers and so-called “ethical butchers” (see photo below) play off of the public’s admittedly wishy-washy concerns about animal welfare by portraying their actions–birthing and raising animals for the sole purposes of using, killing, and eating their bodies–as the best possible life for these beings.

ethical-butcher
From Meredith Leigh’s Instagram account, at the scene of a planned “ethical slaughter”; she later denied using the “ethical butcher” epithet for herself, possibly after realizing it is even more fucking ridiculous than “ethical meat”: see http://www.mereleighfood.com/blog/2016/11/14/vegan-bullying-and-the-new-world, paragraph 5.

“ETHICAL BUTCHERS” & THE ULTIMATE BETRAYAL

Thus, If you’re a “humane” farmer, what you essentially do is create a relationship with individual animals, feed them, care for them, build trust with them…and then that “one bad day” happens, and you throw them to the ground, restrain them, and kill them. That bond is shattered, and these intelligent, feeling beings experience much more than just physical pain in this ultimate betrayal of their trust.

To many, this sort of scenario is not only acceptable but also ideal–it is the best possible life for beings who are dead, dismembered, and digested: That lamb is little more than a conglomeration of choice cuts and leftover bits, no matter how deeply a butcher professes to “love” him or her.

We always must remember that this fact means that humans always have the power, along with free reign to enact violence (of all kinds) on innocent bodies. The indelible reality of this power dynamic, which results in the killing of non-consenting individuals, also belies any notion of “ethical meat,” even if Meredith Leigh can write an entire book on the subject (which, it should be said, largely ignores actual discussions of ethics).

Beyond the act itself of killing, when humans pretend to be victims while slitting an innocent’s throat, we perform an act of erasure that perpetuates violence and murder by transferring human sympathies to another human, not the dying non-human animal. Period.

Yet this sort of claim to victimhood is not only possible but also preferable to our culture at large. Thus Meredith Leigh, self-proclaimed “ethical butcher,” can talk up her “vulnerability” as a butcher of bodies and launch a campaign (and a hashtag…) against “vegan bullying” in the face of strong resistance to her planned act of murder during that class.

“COMPONENTS”

Image credit: https://i0.wp.com/3x39fmt0aja34zifjfnu4695x.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/mere-w-newborn-lamb-1-e1464302032302.jpg
Image credit: http://3x39fmt0aja34zifjfnu4695x.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/mere-w-newborn-lamb-1-e1464302032302.jpg

We must be honest in seeing what Leigh sees when she looks at an individual non-human. Her language is deeply disturbing in how it positions living beings as already-dead bodies, “components,” not-yet-divided morsels of flesh, calling to her and her tools to be separated and consumed. To her, the murder of the individual is merely a momentary passage to what they always were…

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-1-28-00-am

This way of seeing and representing individuals makes Leigh not an ethical butcher, but in reality a death fetishist. What drives someone who is supposedly in harmony with nature and its constituent life forms to so visibly relish the death and dismemberment of those under her dominion?

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-1-25-48-am

A lamb is not a pair of legs in a field, and yet…

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-1-29-14-am

A pig is not a blank slate upon which humans can perform meaningless acts of universal communication, and yet…

pig-writing

Her exertions to disembowel someone who did not want to die do not make her a hero, and they certainly do not make her a victim, and yet…

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-1-38-12-am

These are all examples of performance art meant to gratify an ego and please an audience, a narcissistic act of consumption in itself, as needless and disturbing and offensive as the idea of an animal being murdered by a “loving” hand, which she (and I should say all “humane” farmers and butchers) so clearly wishes to cultivate.

Yet for Leigh, the human-non-human relationship is always about domination–albeit a form of domination cloaked in the vacuous rhetoric of love, compassion, connection, oneness, and “cycles of life”–i.e., euphemisms for senseless acts of subjugation and violence.

EAT YOUR PRIVILEGE

What Leigh and all other humane farmers and all their consumers do not, cannot, understand is that to truly honor a living being means respecting and nurturing them while they, like all of us, struggle to stay alive. It means becoming a family with them, not an oppressor towering over them with a boot on their throat. And then when they die, despite your best efforts to keep them well for their own sakes, it means dignifying their deaths and memorializing them in your heart, forever, as a memento to a loss that cannot be measured.

When you know the value of their lives as individuals, the mentality that sees them as “components” becomes pathological beyond words, and the betrayal lurking within the shadow of the Humane Myth becomes an unbearable offense to your very family.

Perhaps if Leigh spent as much time as I do caring for the victims of animal farmers, and simultaneously entertained the notion that they actually desire and deserve to live, she might rethink her convictions about “ethical” meat. Otherwise, as it stands she seems to be profiting in many ways as a butcher-for-hire who does not have to confront the devastating realities of love, loss, grief, and systemic violence–the ubiquitous bullying that is part of humanity’s oppressive traditions. I am sure that privilege makes her lamb chops taste much less like a dead toddler.

It must be a wonderful thing, this privilege to confront the moment of death in a position of absolute personal safety and dominance–not to be forced to experience the catastrophe of a loved one’s death, of bearing the weight of their dead body, of digging their grave and piling dirt upon them, and then of putting your heavy, heavy foot in front of the other as if your life has not just been utterly upended, forever.

I will never know what that privilege Leigh so clearly enjoys is like…but I would still rather have our sort of genuineness than ever to sink into the cozy consumption and weakly defended self-gratification of Leigh’s “ethical meat.”