Sound of a Battery Hen
You can tell me: if you come by the
North door, I am in the twelfth cage
On the left-hand side of the third row
From the floor; and in that cage
I am usually the middle one of eight or six or three.
But even without directions, you’d
Discover me. We have the same pale
Comb, clipped yellow beak and white or auburn
Feathers, but as the door opens and you
Hear above the electric fan a kind of
One-word wail, I am the one
Who sounds loudest in my head.
Over the past few months, I’ve written a series of posts on the themes of motherhood, maternal exploitation and deprivation, and the intersection of speciesism and sexism in Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals. Previously, I discussed examples of these vis-à-vis “pork production” and the “dairy industry.”
While Masson also explores the exploitation of sheep, goats, ducks and chickens in The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, the mother-child bond between a mother hen and her chicks receives the most attention of these remaining groups – so I’ll conclude my discussion with a look at “egg production.”
Photo via Jeanette’s Ozpix
In previous posts, I noted how female non-human animals (like their human counterparts) are especially vulnerable to exploitation because of their reproductive systems. Their ability to give birth – oftentimes referred to as a “miracle” in humans – makes them particularly valuable as the producers of future “commodities.” Their value, unfortunately, does not lead to preferential treatment from their captors. Instead, they suffer especially brutal and prolonged abuse.
As such, females become machines, assembly lines, destined to produce milk, eggs, flesh – and a replacement generation of baby-, milk- and/or egg- machines:
By the mere fact of their sex, sows, hens, ewes, does, nannies, cows and heifers – not to mention mares, bitches, jennies, jills, etc. – are ripe for especially brutal and prolonged exploitation. Oftentimes, this involves a constant cycle of pregnancy, birth, nursing and baby-napping, culminating with the female’s own death when she’s no longer able to breed or “produce” to her “owner’s” satisfaction.
Certainly, we recognize that the theft of a mother’s child is an atrocity when the victims are human mothers and children. At the same time, we argue that non-human animals deserve no rights because they are mere brutes, “lesser” beings, ruled by instinct and instinct alone. Yet, what is the drive to reproduce and parent if not an evolutionary instinct? And if we follow the popular line of reasoning – i.e., animals are creatures of instinct – does it not stand to reason that the maternal instinct is especially powerful in non-human animals?
Many – if not most – non-veg*ns find it difficult to relate to non-human animals, who (supposedly) are so different from us. At a fundamental level, our differing modes of communication make cross-species communication more difficult, particularly when one species (that would be us) has little interest in communication (and mutual understanding and respect) to begin with. Even so, many humans live with “pets,” the majority being dogs and cats; and, as we’ve come to recognize certain expressions and non-verbal cues in these mammals, such empathy can be extended to other, similar species – such as cows and pigs.
Photo via Woodstock FAS
Birds, though, are another animal (pun intended) altogether. The anatomy of a bird – small, “beady” eyes, a rigid beak where an expressive mouth might otherwise be, two legs coupled with a pair of wings rather than four limbs – renders their non-verbal language incomprehensible to us. Many of the common cues, such as emotions expressed via the mouth, lips and/or snout, are absent – and most humans haven’t the knowledge (or desire) to properly “read” birds on their terms. As alienated as humans are from other animals and the natural world, this alienation only grows with species differences, whether real or perceived. (Consequently, many people don’t even think to attribute basic sentience, including the capacity to experience fear and pain, to fishes, what with their very un-human-like appearances.)
Perhaps this is the reason (or one of many) why birds – chickens, especially – are the most abused and exploited group of animals on the planet. The United States “produces” and consumes ten billion chickens (and half a billion turkeys) every year. Along with rodents and cold-blooded animals, these 10.5 billion sentient creatures are not even afforded the most basic protections under the Animal Welfare Act (which is a scam anyhow, but stay with me here); put another way, these animals do not even qualify as “animals” under federal legislation.
Because we see them as “alien” beings, so unlike us, birds suffer greatly at the hands of humans. “Different,” however, does not mean “less than”; and, should one bother to take a closer look, one would find that birds are sentient beings who experience many of the same emotions as humans, dogs, cats, cows and pigs. For example, while the mechanics of birth in the chicken world may differ from that in humans, the evolutionary and psychological aspects aren’t completely foreign. When it comes to family ties and the mother-child bond, chickens are surprisingly….human. Or rather, “animal,” as humans certainly don’t have a monopoly on parenting, friendship and love.
Photo via Bobcatnorth
In a previous post on cows, I noted how mothers carry their young for nine months before giving birth; pigs, too, carry and birth their young, as do most mammals. In contrast, birds – hens included – lay and incubate eggs; if the eggs are fertile, chicks will emerge under optimal conditions:
When a hen is used to coming to his “call” the rooster may mount the hen and proceed with the fertilization.
Under natural conditions most birds lay only until a clutch is complete, and they will then incubate all the eggs. Many domestic hens will also do this – and are then said to go broody. The broody hen will stop laying and instead will focus on the incubation of the eggs (a full clutch is usually about 12 eggs). She will sit or set fast on the nest, protesting or pecking in defense if disturbed or removed, and she will rarely leave the nest to eat, drink, or dust-bathe. While brooding, the hen maintains the nest at a constant temperature and humidity, as well as turning the eggs regularly during the first part of the incubation. To stimulate broodiness, an owner may place many artificial eggs in the nest, or to stop it they may place the hen in an elevated cage with an open wire floor.
At the end of the incubation period (about 21 days), the eggs, if fertile, will hatch. Development of the egg starts only when incubation begins, so they all hatch within a day or two of each other, despite perhaps being laid over a period of two weeks or so. Before hatching the hen can hear the chicks peeping inside the eggs, and will gently cluck to stimulate them to break out of their shells. The chick begins by pipping – pecking a breathing hole with its egg tooth towards the blunt end of the egg, usually on the upper side. It will then rest for some hours, absorbing the remaining egg-yolk and withdrawing the blood supply from the membrane beneath the shell (used earlier for breathing through the shell). It then enlarges the hole, gradually turning round as it goes, and eventually severing the blunt end of the shell completely to make a lid. It crawls out of the remaining shell and its wet down dries out in the warmth of the nest.
The hen will usually stay on the nest for about two days after the first egg hatches, and during this time the newly-hatched chicks live off the egg yolk they absorb just before hatching. Any eggs not fertilized by a rooster will not hatch, and the hen eventually loses interest in these and leaves the nest.
One might assume that this physical/bodily separation between a mother hen and her chicks results in a weaker mother-child bond – prior to hatching, at least – than exists between a mother pig and her piglets, or a mother cow and her calves. One might also be mistaken.
Photo via WasabiNoise
In the last few years we have learned that there may be more communication between the human fetus and the mother than was previously thought possible. We know that the fetus hears sounds in the womb; similarly, information is communicated by the embryos inside the egg to the incubating hen. Even before birth the chick is capable of making sounds both of distress and of pleasure, to which the mother hen reacts. A day or so before hatching, the chick often utters distress peeps. The mother hen then moves her body on the eggs or makes a reassuring call to the embryo, which is followed by a pleasure call on the part of the chick. In other words, the bond between the chicks and the mother hen starts before birth. This makes sense, for it allows us to understand why a chick responds immediately after the birth only to the calls of his mother. (page 65)
As with humans, pigs, cows – most animals, really – in chickens, the mother-child bond begins well before the chick emerges from his egg. Prior to hatching, mother and child are communicating with one another through eggshells – conveying fear, distress, contentment; offering reassurances; caring for one another; bonding and forming attachments.
A mother hen cares deeply for her chicks, Masson explains, and the maternal instinct manifests itself in similar ways across animal species:
Deeply embedded in the chicken brain is the instinct to construct a nest to protect her young. This is really not all that different from the human parent’s “instinct” to paint and furnish a room in anticipation of a new baby. […]
The British philosopher Stephen Clark has pointed out that scientists rarely place quotation marks around words like “see” when used about animals, but are quick to declare words like “love” out of bounds. The complexity of the bond between a mother animal and her young is especially difficult for humans to study with objectivity because, in my opinion, it is startlingly clear that human mothers and animal mothers have so much in common. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin quotes the philosopher of science, William Whewell, asking “Who that reads the touching instances of maternal affection, related so often about the women of all nations, and of the females of all animals, can doubt that the principle of action is the same in the two cases?” Darwin’s great friend George John Romanes wrote that “It must be admitted, from what we know of hens, that the maternal feelings may be so strong as to lead to a readiness to incur danger rather than that the brood should do so.” (pages 65-66)
The mother hen – a phrase that has come to signify good mothering in humans – may appear to be doing nothing but feeding herself, at least to the naive observer. To the person trained to see what is truly going on, she is in fact imparting essential knowledge to her chicks. Christine Nicol and Stuart Pope from the Department of Farm Animal Science at the University of Bristol demonstrated this conclusively in 1996 when they gave hens unpalatable food, colored blue, which the hens learned to avoid. What would happen when their chicks were brought in and were also given this unpalatable food, but were too young to know? Would their mothers intervene? […] It turned out that the mother hens did respond and attempt to get their chicks to avoid the bad food and eat the good food by nudging them away from the bad food. They knew that what the chicks were eating was not good for them and were teaching them what to eat. The scientists involved said they were “sensitive to perceived chick error.”
However, any such purposeful communication has been rendered irrelevant by Western factory farming mechanisms, which bring the chick its food by conveyor belt. Today, chickens are one of the fastest growing creatures on earth, genetically altered to grow twice as fast as normal – fast food on legs, bred to be fried and eaten within seven weeks of emerging from the egg. Others are permitted to grow into egg-laying machines, caged by the thousands in mighty sheds without a glimpse of the sun-dappled light of their natural habitat. Many people now go through life without seeing a hen in any other form than a corpse. (page 67)
Masson observes in passing that the English language implicitly recognizes the superior maternal skills of hens, as evidenced by the term “mother hen.”
Photo via mswebersd
In a later passage, he expands upon this thought:
Implanted in our language is the knowledge that hens, when permitted to sit upon their fertile eggs until they hatch, are devoted mothers: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37) (page 68)
No greater authority than the Bible has waxed poetic about the hen’s maternal gifts! (Okay, as an atheist, I’m saying thing with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek. But. For those who do subscribe to Christianity, this notion is worth a second look.)
For a change of pace, even the rooster gets his due:
Less well known, and not yet fully explored, is evidence of the altruism of the rooster. In his History of Animals, Aristotle drew the attention of ancient Greeks to a paternal quality in the rooster that, to this day, is controversial: “Some of the males have been seen before now, after the death of the female, busying themselves about the chicks, leading them around and rearing them, with the result that they neither crow any more nor attempt to tread.” (page 68)
As is almost always the case, “standard farming practices” do not honor parental, familial or social connections between hens, roosters and chicks. Factory farms reduce chickens to one of two types: “broiler” chickens, who are bred and birthed only to become “meat,” and “laying” or “battery” hens, who are kept captive so that we may steal their eggs (most infertile, some containing would-be baby chicks).
While our primary focus is “laying hens” – as these are the females whose reproductive systems suffer from sex-specific exploitation – let’s first look briefly at “broiler” chickens:
With a growing number of consumers switching from red meat to poultry, the chicken and turkey industries are booming. In addition to selling a growing quantity of poultry meat to consumers in the U.S., poultry companies are also benefiting from expanding markets around the world.
Record numbers of chickens and turkeys are being raised and killed for meat in the U.S. every year. Nearly ten billion chickens, and half a billion turkeys, are being hatched in the U.S. every year. These birds are typically crowded by the thousand into huge factory- like warehouses where they can barely move. Chickens are given less than half a square foot of space per bird while turkeys are each given less than three square feet. Both chickens and turkeys have the end of their beaks cut off, and turkeys also have their toes clipped. All of these mutilations are performed without anaesthesia, and they are done in order to reduce injuries which result when stressed birds are driven to fighting.
Today’s meat chickens have been genetically altered to grow twice as fast, and twice as large as their ancestors. Pushed beyond their biological limits, hundreds of millions of chickens die every year before reaching slaughter weight at 6 weeks of age. An industry journal explains “broilers [chickens] now grow so rapidly that the heart and lungs are not developed well enough to support the remainder of the body, resulting in congestive heart failure and tremendous death losses.” Modern meat type chickens also experience crippling leg disorders, as their legs are not capable of supporting their abnormally heavy bodies. Confined in unhealthy factory farms, the birds also succumb to heat prostration, infectious disease, and cancer.
Chickens and turkeys are taken to the slaughterhouse in crates stacked on the back of trucks. The birds are either pulled from the crates, or the crates are lifted off the truck, often with a crane or forklift, and then the birds are dumped onto a conveyor belt. As the birds are unloaded, some fall onto the ground instead of landing on the assemblyline conveyor belt. Slaughterhouse workers intent upon ‘processing’ thousands of birds every hour, don’t have the time nor the inclination to pick up individuals who fall through the cracks. Sometimes the birds die after being crushed by machinery or vehicles operating near the unloading area, while in other cases, they may die of starvation or exposure after days without receiving their basic needs.
Once inside the slaughterhouse, fully conscious birds are hung by their feet from metal shackles on a moving rail. The first station on most poultry slaughterhouse assembly lines is the stunning tank, where the birds’ heads are submerged in an electrified bath of water. Although poultry is specifically excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act which requires stunning, the practice is common because it immobilizes the birds and expedites assembly line killing.
Stunning procedures are not monitored, and they are often inadequate. Poultry slaughterhouses commonly set the electrical current lower than what is required to render the birds unconscious because of concerns that too much electricity would damage the carcass and diminish its value. The result is that birds are immobilized but are still capable of feeling pain, or they emerge from the stunning tank still conscious.
After passing through the stunning tank, the birds’ throats are slashed, usually by a mechanical blade, and blood begins rushing out of their bodies. Inevitably, the blade misses some birds who then proceed to the next station on the assembly line, the scalding tank. Here they are submerged in boiling hot water. Birds missed by the killing blade are boiled alive. This occurs so commonly, affecting millions of birds every year, that the industry has a term for these birds. They are called “redskins.”
Males and females alike may be enslaved and murdered for their meat. To factory farmers who produce eggs, however, only the females are of value:
Approximately 300 million egg laying hens in the U.S. are confined in battery cages — small wire cages stacked in tiers and lined up in rows in huge warehouses. The USDA recommends giving each hen four inches of ‘feeder space’, which means the agency would advise packing 4 hens in a cage just 16 inches wide. The birds cannot stretch their wings or legs, and they cannot fulfill normal behavioral patterns or social needs. Constantly rubbing against the wire cages, they suffer from severe feather loss, and their bodies are covered with bruises and abrasions.
Practically all laying hens have part of their beaks cut off in order to reduce injuries resulting from excessive pecking, an aberrant behavior which occurs when the confined hens are bored and frustrated. Debeaking is a painful procedure which involves cutting through bone, cartilage, and soft tissue. Poultry researcher, Dr. Ian Duncan notes, “there is now good morphological, neurophysiological, and behavioral evidence that beak trimming leads to both acute and chronic pain.”
Sickness and disease are inherent problems in factory farms where birds are forced to live in filth and extreme confinement. In an attempt to minimize costs, and maximize profit, even the sickest of hens are denied veterinary care. Hens are left to die a slow, and often agonizingly painful, death from sickness and injury. An undercover investigation done by Mercy For Animals uncovered birds suffering from raging eye and sinus infections, mechanical feather damage, pasturela, paralysis, vitamin deficiency, enlarged vents, wing hemetones, and blindness.
Laying more than 250 eggs per year each, laying hens’ bodies are severely taxed. They suffer from “fatty liver syndrome” when their liver cells, which work overtime to produce the fat and protein for egg yolks, accumulate extra fat. They also suffer from what the industry calls ‘cage layer fatigue’, and many die of egg bound when their bodies are too weak to pass another egg.
Osteoporosis is another common ailment afflicting egg laying hens as the birds to lose more calcium to form egg shells than they can assimilate from their diets. One industry journal (Feedstuffs) explains, “…the laying hen at peak eggshell cannot absorb enough calcium from her diet…”. While another (Lancaster Farming) states, “… a hen will use a quantity of calcium for yearly egg production that is greater than her entire skeleton by 30-fold or more”. Inadequate calcium contributes to broken bones, paralysis, and death.
After one year in egg production, the birds, are classified as ‘spent hens’, and sent off to slaughter. They usually end up in soups, pot pies, or similar low grade chicken meat products where their bodies can be shredded to hide the bruises from consumers. The hens’ brittle, calcium-depleted bones often shatter during handling and/or at the slaughterhouse.
With a growing supply of broiler chickens keeping slaughterhouses busy, egg producers have had to find new ways to dispose of spent hens. One entrepreneur has developed the Jet-Pro system to turn spent hens into animal feed. It is described in Feedstuffs, “Company trucks would enter layer operations, pick up the birds, and grind them up, on site, in a portable grinder… it (the ground up hens) would go to Jet-Pro’s new extruder-texturizer, the ‘Pellet Pro'”.
In some cases, especially if the cost of replacement hens is high, the hens may be force molted. This process involves starving the hens for up to 18 days, keeping them in the dark, and denying them water to shock their bodies into another egg laying cycle. The birds may lose more than 25% of their body weight during the molt, and it is common for between 5% and 10% to die.
For every egg laying hen confined in a battery cage, there is a male chick who was killed at the hatchery. Because egg laying chicken breeds have been selected exclusively for maximum egg production, they don’t grow fast enough or large enough to be raised profitably for meat. Therefore, male chicks of egg laying breeds are of no economic value. They are literally discarded on the day they hatch – usually by the least expensive and most convenient means available. They may be thrown in trash cans where they are suffocated or crushed under the weight of others.
A common method used to dispose of unwanted male chicks is grinding them up alive. This method can result in unspeakable horrors as a research scientist described, “Even after twenty seconds, there were only partly damaged animals with whole skulls”. In other words, fully conscious chicks were partially ground up. Eyewitness accounts at commercial hatcheries indicate similar horrors with chicks being slowly dismembered on augers carrying them towards a trash bin or manure spreader.
Hens are held captive, tortured with physical and psychological deprivation and abuse, forced to lay more eggs than their bodies were meant to – and, at the end of the day, they are never allowed the chance to incubate these eggs, to nurture the lives inside, experience their babies’ development and birth, and to raise these children in the wild, as nature and evolution intended. Once laid, a hen’s eggs are ferried away – usually automatically, via a slots and piping built into her cage-prison – never to be seen again. Her body depleted, she’s slaughtered for cheap “meat” after a year, without ever experiencing the joy of her children. This despite all those eggs (so many eggs!) she produced, with great cost to herself.
In “A cow is so much like a woman,” I mused,
Non-human animals, some of whom may be unable to make sense of their suffering (clearly, this varies widely from species to species), may actually have a greater capacity for suffering than humans. When the source of this suffering is the rupture and violation of deep, evolutionary instincts – such as the drive to reproduce and parent – the pain, panic and terror may be impossible for us to comprehend.
What must it feel like to expel egg after egg from one’s body – perhaps expecting to spend the next three weeks perched upon these eggs, protecting them from harm, perhaps feeling driven to do so – only to never see or touch these eggs, let alone the chicks that should be inside them?
What must it feel like to have this theft – not just of an egg, but of one’s children, family, social ties and life purpose – take place on a factory farm, in the context of ongoing torture? How much more egregious is this abuse when it’s suffered in a cage so tiny that you cannot stretch your wings, a cage stacked alongside and on top of thousands of identical cages, in a massive, windowless barn, housing hens who suffer the same fate as you?
What must the pain, panic and terror feel like?
I don’t think any of us can begin to comprehend a hen’s suffering –
but, if any human can come close, it’s Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns. If you’re still with me after this lengthy post, please take a moment to go read The Life of One Battery Hen, which appeared as a chapter in her 2005 book The Holocaust & the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. It’s from this essay that I excerpted the “prologue” at the beginning of this piece.
I cried the first time I read it, and a dozen reads later, the tears still flow.
Photo via Igualdad Animal
Humans and chickens, women and hens, Handmaids and battery hens…no, we’re not so different, after all.
Tagged: animals animal rights animal welfare ethology animal behavior farmed animals factory farming livestock meat intersections parallel oppressions animals and women maternal instinct mother-child bond mother child speciesism sexism flickr photos the pig who sang to the moon Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson chicken rooster hen chick eggs poultry karen davis united poultry concerns handmaid margaret atwood exploitation awa animal welfare act