United Poultry Concerns May 3, 2002
The Litchfield County Times
Litchfield, Connecticut
May 3, 2002

A Cage is No Place for a Hen

By Karen Davis

I would like to respond to Kathryn Boughton's article about Odge's egg farm, "In Sharon, Sunny Side Down" (March 29). Last evening, as on many evenings over the years, I was outside filling water bowls and watching our chickens enjoy themselves in their big fenced yard. From now until September they stay out until around nine. Even then, a few hens will dart off their roosts for a final run around before settling in for the night. It is thereafter so quiet you can hardly believe the activity that's been going on in that yard since daybreak.

One reason I'm out there is to teach about fifty white leghorn hens to go into the chicken house at dusk, instead of roosting in the trees as they wish. I do this to protect them from the owls and raccoons that occupy the yard after dark. These hens, along with twenty others, arrived at our Virginia sanctuary a few weeks ago--a handful of hens rescued from an egg farm in Florida, in which 170,000 caged hens were gassed or crushed to death, and 30,000 hens starved to death, after the company declared bankruptcy in January.

I hate forcing the hens off the branches, where they look like beautiful magnolia blossoms and softly lit candles among the shiny green leaves. That my interference upsets them is clear from their voices and from the anxiety with which they now approach their favorite roosting area, albeit in dwindling numbers. These hens are drawn to the trees in their yard as instinctively as their wild relatives are drawn to the trees in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Many people are surprised to learn that chickens evolved in the tropical forests. Many are even more surprised to learn that chickens bred for the food industry retain their ancestral instincts and social behavior. One of the benefits of running a chicken sanctuary for 15 years is the opportunity I've had to observe and interact with all kinds of rescued chickens. Regardless of how varied their outward appearance or how varied their personalities, chickens have a daily routine embedded in their genes that consists of foraging (scratching for food) in the morning, sunbathing and dustbathing in the early afternoon, foraging in the late afternoon, and roosting at sundown. Their activities are accompanied by emotional expressions that show how much they enjoy their earthly delights.

A problem with operations like the one in the article in which hens are stacked in wire cages is that however convenient for management they may be, they are not suited to chickens, whose constant egg laying in these systems is not the result of "happiness" but of feed stimulants and artificially extended daylight hours that keep hens' overworked ovaries pumping out eggs.

Hens and roosters run around a lot, but in caged layer operations the hen never gets to take a step. She may even be intentionally starved for two or three weeks to manipulate the economics of egg production in the practice known as forced molting. Chickens instinctively peck because they are foragers-they use their sensitive beaks as hands. What are they supposed to do in an environment that prevents their natural beak-related behaviors from being expressed? What can they do in a barren cage where the only material available for taking a dustbath is other birds' feathers?

Poultry specialists recognize the inappropriateness of battery cage systems for hens, which are being phased out in Europe during the next ten years on welfare grounds. The educated public doesn't want them, and no wonder. As explained in the February 2002 issue of Poultry Science, "Hen welfare in a battery cage system is compromised due to the absence of litter, laying nests, and perches, as well as to the hen's inability to move."

Hopefully people will think about these things the next time they go to the store and see those "cheap" eggs that cost the prisoners who laid them dearly. Chickens need to be outdoors where they can forage, dustbathe, sunbathe, lay their eggs in peace, and experience the earthy satisfaction of being chickens. Otherwise the egg, traditionally a symbol of rebirth, is now the symbol of a tomb.

For more information, readers are encouraged to visit our website at www.UPC-online.org, or write to United Poultry Concerns, PO Box 150, Machipongo, VA 23405.

Karen Davis, PhD, is the founder and President of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless "Poultry" Potpourri, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, and More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality.

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

(Litchfield County Times: A Cage is No Place for a Hen )

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