By Dania Sheldon
First appeared in the June 2012 edition of the Flying Shingle
If you’re reading this article, please stop for a moment, close the paper, fold it in half, and look at the size. It’s eight by 11.5 inches (20 by 29 cm); that’s 92 inches squared (580 cm2). Now imagine a hen sitting on that paper. Her average wingspan is 32 inches (81 cm). But if she’s among the 95 per cent of “laying hens” in Canada, she lives in a wire cage and never has more than the size of your newspaper on which to stand.
In fact, Canada’s standards for battery cage hens stipulate a minimum of just 432 cm2, so shrink your newspaper by 75 per cent and imagine her living on that for the 12 or so months of her miserable existence. She can’t groom herself, or flap her wings, or nest, or perch. The end of her beak has been cut off so that she and her two to five fellow hens don’t peck each other to death. Beaks have extensive nerve supplies, so debeaking isn’t like trimming your nails; it’s more like having them ripped out.
This hen never leaves the cage. After producing about 320 eggs in a year, her “productivity” has usually dropped, making her less profitable. So she is pulled from her cage and stuffed in a crate for transport to a slaughtering facility. She has a one in five chance of suffering broken bones in this process, as intensive laying and an absence of exercise have made her bones weak, and there is no monetary value in treating “spent” laying hens with care.
I’m sparing you the even gorier details because I’d like you to keep reading.
So you’re in the supermarket, looking at the shelves of clean, neatly packaged eggs. You scan the prices and buy a dozen for $3.29. They’re “farm fresh”. But if the carton doesn’t say “organic” or “free range” or “free run”, you’ve just indicated that you support the treatment I’ve described.
There’s no wiggle room here. Even “free run” and “free range” chickens don’t necessarily have any more floor space than caged chickens, and producers are not required to provide the hens with nest boxes, perches, or suitable ground for dust-bathing— although some do. On Gabriola, we fortunately have the option of buying from people whose flocks we can meet. But if that choice isn’t available, the only labels that indicate a good standard of welfare for the hens are “SPCA certified” and “certified organic”.
A lot of people know about battery cages. So why are 95 per cent of Canadian egg consumers still buying into such inhumane treatment of hens?
I think most would cite cost. A dozen certified organic eggs are about $5.99–$6.99, so $2.70–$3.70 more than battery hen eggs. The cost of a large latte or a pint of beer. How good would that taste if you were drinking it next to cages of hens whose misery yields cheap eggs?