A dream beyond reach: the natural way of lifeIn nature, hens gather in small flocks and maintain complex social lives. They walk and run, and even fly short distances. Most of their time is spent searching for varied food, which they select. When resting, they perch on poles and branches, and they roll in a "sand bath" for pleasure. Every hen builds her nest in a hiding place, and when laying eggs she guards her privacy with zeal. After laying a number of eggs she broods, and after hatching she looks after her chicks until they can fend for themselves. All opportunities to perform these natural behaviors are denied the domesticated fowl in the modern egg industry.
Every male born…The breeds of fowl used in the egg industry are different from those used in the meat industry. The males do not comply with the economic requirements of the poultry farmers: Not only do they not lay eggs-they grow too slow to be used for the meat industry. Therefore they are destroyed in the easiest and most convenient ways. Immediately after hatching, hatcheries sort through the chicks and discard all the males and "damaged" females. All the unwanted chicks are thrown into huge containers while still alive. The chicks at the bottom are crushed to death or suffocated, while the chicks above die slowly from thirst, hunger, heat or cold. About 15,000 chicks are killed this way every day-more than half the chicks hatched in Israel. In other countries, chicks are granted an instantaneous death by means of carbon dioxide gas or a crushing device.
More crowded than a dungeonThe healthy hens go through a short period of growth. Once they have reached sexual maturity they are transferred to a facility where they will stay for the rest of their lives: narrow metal cages, organized in long rows, stacked one on top of the other-"battery cages." Every hen has 20x20 cm of space-not enough to spread her wings. In many hen houses hens are crowded so severely that they cannot sit down unless some trample on others. The cage floor is made out of wire mesh, since poultry farmers do not want the expense of cleaning the cages. The litter falls through the mesh-sometimes on the hens caged in the lower row of cages. The mesh floor has a slope in order to make it easier to collect the eggs, which roll, through a space at the bottom, to the gathering facility outside the cage. Standing on the sloping wire mesh is painful and often causes foot injuries and deformities. Even in such conditions the hen does not lose her natural drive to roll in the soil. When she tries to do so in the cage, her feathers rubagainst the mesh until the flesh is exposed and injured, then her neighbors are attracted to it and start pecking at it.
The cruelty of battery cages prompted the European Union to ban their use. The 1999 legislation is gradually coming into effect, and by the end of 2011 battery cages should be extinct in the European Union. In Israel, very few hens are not confined to battery cages. The eggs produced from uncaged hens are marketed as "organic eggs" or "free range eggs."
Cutting through the living beakConditions in the battery cages cause aggression in hens. In order to reduce the consequences and prevent injuries and cannibalism, poultry farmers trim part of the hens' beaks. The trimming is done shortly after hatching, using a sharp burning metal blade; it is painful and traumatic because the beak tissue contains nerve cells. The trimming can cause burns or cuts to the tongue, or the development of fleshy and sensitive tumors. It makes it difficult for the hens to perform natural behaviors, such as cleaning their feathers and eating seeds. After the trimming, there is a significant decrease in food consumption for days, and in many cases it seems that the harm done to the beak causes chronic pain. In spite of that, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture recommends trimming the beak again at the age of 17 weeks, immediately before the laying period. On many poultry farms, the machinery forces the hens to press the troughs for an automatic flow of water and food to occur. Thus, the beak-trimmed chicks are forced to press their injured beaks on the bottom of the feeders. The pecking on the metal causes the wound to reopen and bleed. In the first few weeks after the trimming the hens tend to vomit, so poultry experts warn farmers to change the water in the troughs because of the sourness caused by the vomit.
The production of laying machinesLike the rest of the animals used in agriculture, the hens in the egg industry have been distorted (or "improved" in the agriculture slang) genetically by means of artificial selection. The distortion has generated hens who reach sexual maturity much earlier and lay more and bigger eggs. The body of the hen is not designed to lay such big eggs. Laying them causes great pain, believed by some to be similar to that of human childbirth. In addition, the internal organs of the hen are worn out from the daily rubbing involved in laying, which intensifies the pain. The worn-out laying organs tend to collapse-in some cases the laying tube collapses out of the body (through the sex organ) and is exposed to injuries, contamination and pecking by cage-mates. The rate of egg-laying is very high: Hens lay around 300 eggs per year. On traditional farms, hens would lay around 100 eggs a year. The intensified laying causes osteoporosis, since the body's calcium reserves are invested in the eggshells; this is why hens' bones break easily.
Against the motherhood driveIn her natural environment, a hen who is about to lay eggs looks for a protected hiding place to build her nest. On the industrial poultry farm the hen does not get any privacy or feeling of being protected when she lays her eggs. The zoologist Conrad Lorenz described laying in such conditions as the most severe torture experienced by hens in the industrial poultry farms: "Their instinctive reluctance to lay eggs amidst the crowd of their cage-mates is certainly as great as the one of civilized people to defecate in an analogous situation". In their natural environment, hens stop laying eggs after having a few eggs in the nest because of the hen's need to incubate her eggs. In the commercial egg farm's early years, the incubation drive was considered a financial problem because it made hens stop laying eggs. The farmers used to lock in "rehabilitation" cages the hens who tended to brood, or injected hormones into them.
Shock treatment: starvationOne of the cruelest practices on today's egg farms is called "forced molting." In nature, hens shed their feathers every year and grow new ones. This process takes several months, during which time the hens do not lay eggs. During this period the hen's reproductive system has time to rest and recover, and eventually the hens start laying eggs again in full volume. In order to speed up this process, the poultry farmers induce molting artificially by means of shock treatment. They darken the hen house and withhold all food for a period of 10 days to two weeks. Sometimes they do not give them water for the first few days. During an additional month the hens are kept very hungry. The strong hens eat all or most of what little food is provided, while the weak birds are pushed away from the feeders to starve. Many hens die, but this is a desirable consequence for the farmers because the rate of egg laying in the weak hens is low anyway. The surviving hens lose 30 percent of their body weight on average. As a result of this process, hens have lower immunity to most of the diseases that they were immunized against in the past.
Pressing the hens to deathA few decades ago on traditional poultry farms, some hens lived more than 10 years. Today, when the hens are only about two years old and their egg-laying capacity decreases again, poultry farmers get rid of them. In order to save on costs until their deaths, it is customary to cut the amount of food given to them in their last month of life and to starve them completely in their last few days. Mortality in the last few days is economically insignificant, since these hens will be killed soon anyway.
About one-quarter of the hens do not reach the age that the farmers planned for them. They die as a result of the tough life in the hen house. The rest are taken away by hired workers from the Egg and Poultry Board: They come to the hen house, pull the hens out of their cages by their legs, hold them upside-down, several hens in each hand, and push them into very crowded cages. The bones of many hens break during this violent removal. The cages are designated for the transportation of hens to the slaughterhouse, but their bodies are not fit for human consumption and their economic value is low. That is why in many cases the contractors prefer to kill the hens with methods that save them money and working time: by trampling them with their feet inside huge containers or burying them alive in garbage sites. Killing hens with an electrical current while they aresuspended by their legs with metal pincers is considered an animal welfare achievement in Israel.