By SYD BAUMEL
It looks like news-at-six video of a puppy mill bust. Except the filthy, neglected animals are hens, and the setting is a modern industrial-strength egg barn near Guelph, Ontario.
The camera sweeps across a long aisle lined high on both sides with “batteries” (stacks) of wire cages, then slowly pans across a single tier. The hens inside are packed so tight they can barely move.
They are a pathetic sight. Where there should be ivory-white feathers, there are spiky quills and tattered grey coats. The birds in the lower tiers are caked with feces from the cages above. Below the towers of cages, a displaced hen squats helplessly on a manure pile. Another lies dead in the aisle. Everything is cloaked in filth.
“This is a life sentence with no parole. Their only escape is slaughter,” say the video's closing titles.
Viewable on the website of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals (CCFA), “The Truth About Canada's Egg Industry” is produced by CCFA and the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS). The grainy footage was shot by an anonymous University of Guelph biology student who snuck into the barn last summer and broke the story in his student newspaper. In October, a media blitz by CCFA and VHS briefly brought the story to national attention.
Animal scientists and veterinarians quoted on CCFA's website are appalled by the footage. Mohan Raj, a prominent poultry scientist at the University of Bristol, is shocked that such “extreme cruelty to layer hens” could exist in Canada.
“Considering the fact that birds appear to be featherless and fecal ammonia is an irritant and it can burn the skin, I would consider this as a serious welfare problem,” Raj writes. “The dead bird in the aisle could have escaped from the cage and, after prolonged suffering, died due to deprivation of food and water.”
Debra Probert, Executive Director of VHS, says the video, like similar shockers shot south of the border, should be a wake-up call for Canadians.
“Government and industry are constantly reassuring consumers that things are better for farm animals here in Canada,” she tells Canadian Press (CP) in October. “We have long suspected that's not the case and now we have the proof – this footage shows filthy, disgusting, hideously abusive conditions.”
Particularly disturbing is the pedigree of the farm. The owner, Lloyd Weber, is a veterinarian and a member of the Dean's Veterinary Advisory Council of the University of Guelph, one of Canada's foremost agricultural colleges. His barn, LEL Farms, is a tour site for agriculture students. “It’s difficult not to speculate that if this farm, with such esteemed connections, is so bad, what are other farms like across Canada?” the VHS comments in its newsletter. “We have no reason to believe this is not the norm.”
Weber and the egg industry defend themselves in national news stories. Conceding that a dead bird may have been left in an aisle, the veterinarian insists he lives up to the closest thing Canada has to laws governing how farmers should treat their animals: the Canadian Agri-food Research Council's Recommended Codes of Practice. “The [stocking] density does meet the [Code's] guidelines for housing birds in cages,” he tells CP. An Ontario Egg Producers spokesperson stands up for his industry: “We encourage producers to live up [to the codes]. A happy hen is a producing hen.”
But Ian Duncan, an internationally respected poultry welfare scientist at the Univeristy of Guelph, is not so sanguine. "The egg-laying sector of the poultry industry, has become too intensified. It is time for change," he tells CP. "The general public needs to think if it wants to go on with its demand for extremely cheap food or [be] prepared to pay a little more for more humanely produced food.''
Code of Practice or License to Abuse?
The bitter irony for Canada's 26 million egg-laying hens (three million in Manitoba), 98 percent of whom live in large battery-cage operations like Weber's averaging over 17,000 hens per barn, is that Weber's self-defense is probably valid.
“The LEL farm is not that different from other battery hen farms. Pretty much status quo,” according to Stephanie Brown, a director of CCFA. “Might be a tad dirtier, and the cages are old, but it's battery-hen reality.”
Brown is a former president of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, the only animal welfare organization ever permitted by the Canadian Agri-Food Research Council (CARC) to participate in formulating the Recommended Codes of Practice. CARC is an NGO funded by government and industry and comprised mostly of representatives of the regulated industries themselves (50 percent), government and academia. There is little about the conditions at LEL Farms that would run afoul of those Codes (which can be read on the CARC website). In Ontario, where the Codes' recommendations for treatment of animals on the farm are just that – recommendations – as they are in every province except New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba, no charges have been laid against LEL Farms. However, according to Brown, Weber has stopped inviting agriculture students to tour his facility – on the advice of the Ontario Farm Animal Council, an industry public relations organization.
The primary Code for Canada's 1000+ registered egg producers (producers who have 500 or more hens – almost all the hens in Canada) is the 2003 Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets, Layers and Spent Fowl. It gives producers the green light to house their hens in wire-mesh battery cages with no litter on the bare floors and just 67 square inches per four-pound bird.
Look down at the outspread pages of The Aquarian, 22 inches by 15.5 (341 square inches). The Code would allow you to house five hens on that area, day-in, day-out, until their egg production wanes – typically 12 months – and then kill them.
Because chronically overcrowded, stressed-out chickens – especially the genetically high-strung White Leghorns that lay most of the industrial world's white eggs, and at three times the rate of their ancestors – can easily peck each other to death, the Code allows egg producers to cut off the pointy, nerve-rich ends of their beaks (“debeaking”), without anesthetic or painkillers. Some leading poultry scientists, including Ian Duncan, believe the mutilated birds suffer “phantom limb pain” for the rest of their lives. Regardless, for a chicken, losing its beak is like losing a right hand for a human. And they still peck each other anyway: pulling out feathers and exposing bare skin to infections and ammonia burns from the barn's abundant chicken waste.
The Code's acceptance of the now universal battery cage production system, first introduced in the 1940s, perpetuates what poultry scientists and bioethicists commonly regard as an animal welfare disaster. As American philosopher and animal scientist Bernard Rollin summarizes the problem: “Virtually all aspects of hen behavior are thwarted by battery cages: social behavior, nesting behavior, the ability to move and flap wings, dustbathing, space requirements, scratching for food, exercise, pecking at objects on the ground.”
According to the experts, battery caged hens pay a serious price for such major deprivations as:
- Not being able to fully stretch or flap their wings. The average hen needs 144 square inches to stretch her wings; 303 to flap them. The Code gives her 67. She will try to flap her wings anyway. Temple Grandin, a renowned farm animal welfare scientist, describes the consequences she witnessed at a large battery egg operation: “When I visited a large egg layer operation and saw old hens that had reached the end of their productive life, I was horrified. Egg layers bred for maximum egg production and the most efficient feed conversion were nervous wrecks that had beaten off half their feathers by constant flapping against the cage.”
- Not being able to build and lay their eggs in a nest. “The worst torture to which a battery hen is exposed is the inability to retire somewhere for the laying act,” Konrad Lorenz. the Nobel prize-winning father of ethology wrote in 1980. “For the person who knows something about animals, it is truly heartrending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cagemates to search there in vain for cover.” Laying her eggs on a sloping wire-mesh floor surrounded by five or six other nervous hens is so disturbing that the hen appears to hold her egg in as long as she can bear. She must relive this ordeal every 30 hours.
- Not being able to perch and roost above ground. Perching above ground and roosting in the shelter of a tree are a fixtures of the chicken's natural repertoire and exercise routine. Entire flocks roost together at night to stay clear of predators. Neither perching nor normal exercise are possible in a battery cage, which is so low the birds can't even adopt their standing alert posture. According to Scottish poultry scientist, Michael Baxter, “The fact that hens are restricted from exercising to such an extent that they are unable to maintain the strength of their bones is probably the greatest single indictment of the battery cage. The increased incidence of bone breakage which results is a serious welfare insult.” Those broken bones are never treated. Neither is the osteoporosis that gradually consumes most battery hens.
- Not being able to establish a pecking order. According to Baxter: “When crowded together this regulatory system [pecking order] breaks down and the hens appear to be in a chronic state of social stress, perpetually trying to get away from their cagemates, not able to express dominance relations by means of spacing and not even able to resolve social conflict by means of aggression.”
Battering Battery Cages
more of what the scientists say
Inhumanity in the egg industry begins in the hatchery. Layer chickens are bred to produce eggs, not flesh. The male chicks – seven million a year in Manitoba alone – are nothing but a garbage disposal problem. The humane solution favoured by the Code is to feed them, live, into a high-speed macerator (grinder) – the industrial equivalent of a kitchen garburator.
The female chicks may legally meet the same fate after their year of service. “In Manitoba, hens are euthanized on-farm by methods approved by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association," Penny Kelly, General Manager of Manitoba Egg Producers, informs me. "To my knowledge, several high-speed macerators are in use locally.”
But the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association denies that it approves of the practice. "The CVMA Animal Welfare Committee has not specifically addressed the issue of high-speed maceration as a method of euthanizing spent laying hens," writes Janice Mercer, a CVMA spokesperson.
I ask Dr. Mohan Raj, an international expert on humane euthanasia of poultry, for his opinion. "This method is being seriously considered for large-scale use in Canada (http://www.afac.ab.ca/research/species/Articles/spenth.htm)," I inform him, referring to a scheme to grind up spent hens and feed the remains to farmed mink.
"I have very serious welfare concerns:
"1. There is no published scientific paper suggesting an optimum speed
(revolutions per minute) for immediate maceration. Therefore, it is hard to
speculate whether the 'high-speed' is the optimum speed required to [ensure]
immediate killing of poultry.
"2. Adult poultry can fly (are you surprised?). Therefore, some birds may
try to escape from being macerated while their legs are caught between the
blades of the macerator leading to severe pain and suffering. I will leave
this scenario for your imagination."
Who's Minding the Hens?
Click here for conclusion
Aquarian co-editor Syd Baumel is "a known animal rights activist" with close ties to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, AnimalWatch Manitoba, the Winnipeg Vegetarian Association, Eatkind.net and the Winnipeg Humane Society.