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.

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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”

In Memory of Autumn

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This is Autumn the rooster. I want you to know his name.

Autumn died suddenly yesterday after what appeared to be a brief illness, seen mostly in a mild runny nose. I took him to the vet just a few days prior, and with medications was certain that his recovery would be swift.

But chickens are masters of hiding their suffering, and it seems there was much more going on than he let on.

Autumn is dead, so I suppose I should have said, “This was Autumn the rooster.” The problem with recent and unexpected deaths, though, is that past and present coexist. They mingle together; they dance and flirt in a sort of chronological vortex that pulls in your mind, little by little.

Soon nothing seems quite clear and concrete; everything exists in a liminal state, swirling.

Lurking around all of this dysphoria, of course, is a recognition that roosters specifically (along with chickens in general) fall very low on the scale of moral consideration for most people. Whereas hens lay eggs that humans can eat, making them at least “worth something” to the many humans who love to eat eggs, roosters do not do a whole lot that humans find particularly useful. In fact, roosters are mostly a pain in the ass–a kicking, biting, intimidating whirlwind of feathers and fury that your average human wants to avoid.

These interrelated attitudes of apathy and aversion towards roosters lead to some devastating consequences. Female and male chicks are born in about equal numbers, but males are, as a policy, killed at hatcheries. If they are not ground up alive or suffocated in a trash bin, you might find their dead bodies used as packaging material and insulation for the chicks you ordered for your backyard flock and your “happy” eggs. The horrors faced by these young boys are just unfathomable, but we know what goes on. For example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ–faib7to

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukWtsY04cAc

Those boys who do make it out alive typically end up, like Autumn, unwanted and abandoned; many end up killed once they reveal themselves to be male with that first crow.

I remember getting a message that police in a local town had picked up a stray hen, and the only offers to “rescue” her came with a promise to eat her. I got in the car, drove to where she was being held, and got her out of harm’s way. For several weeks, in fact, we believed Autumn was a she. Until that crowing started.

He was always an affable fellow. While not obviously craving affection, he would very quickly fall asleep on your shoulder while being held, and he loved a good scratch on the neck.

Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.

Once he arrived at our place, he quickly became attached to another recent rescue, Salem. They were virtually inseparable. One of my fondest memories is bringing them outside to their yard and watching them greet each other with a rooster dance. Where one was, you would find the other. Their bond was profound.

Autumn’s last days were spent inside, for what we thought would be a short recuperation period. I held him to help give him his medications on what would be his final morning, scratched his neck (like a Narcoleptic, he quickly nodded off as I stroked him), and gave him a kiss.

The dysphoria of sudden death is in many ways centered on a clumsiness in transitioning from present to past tenses. We experience this transition with every breath, but changing tenses for individuals and our relationships with them is a much harder process to navigate: I still feel out of balance and teetering, as does the rest of the world…

This was Autumn.

I want you to remember his name.

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The Boys

Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.
Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.

Autumn (foreground) and Salem of Triangle Chance for All came into the Microsanctuary at different times, from different places, but when both were adolescents. After a few weeks of socialization, they became best friends. Now they are almost never apart.

Every evening when we bring people inside for bed, we typically take Autumn in first. Inevitably Autumn makes a fuss until we bring his buddy inside, and Salem runs up to us when we go to get him, expectantly waiting to be picked up and carried back in to see his friend.

The bond between these roosters is absolutely charming, just as the larger rooster flock they are a part of is delightful to behold. Our cultural assumptions and notions about roosters are sadly shallow reflections of their true personalities. Living with them as we do, as vegans, we cannot but appreciate their beauty … and feel dismay over the fact that so many see them as merely unwanted “byproducts” of the eggs they eat.

Autumn and Salem are individuals, and they are a pair. They are not, and never were, mere byproducts.