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From 28 August 2005 Issue

Keep Chickens Out of Wire-floored Cages
By Karen Davis

(August 19, 2005) In response to the article "Chicken-cruelty charge and video rebuffed by execs, others," (Democrat and Chronicle, July 2): egg industry people often claim that hens don't mind living and laying their eggs in wire cages, but this claim has more to do with assuaging the public than setting the record straight. In reality, ample science shows why chickens do not do "perfectly well'' in cages.

Chickens' feet and legs contain complex joints including many small bones, ligaments, cartilage pads, tendons and muscles that enable them to search and scratch for food on land. Wild chickens (the Red Jungle Fowl of Southeast Asia, from which all chickens derive) and feral chickens (domesticated chickens that revert to living free) spend half to 90 percent of their time foraging, making up to 15,000 pecks a day.

But it isn't just wild and feral chickens. As biologist Marian Stamp Dawkins writes in her book Through Our Eyes Only?: "An ancestral memory of this way of life seems to have carried down the generations into the cages of our modern intensive farms so that even highly domesticated breeds have the same drive to scratch away to get their food.''

Based on experiments, Dawkins explains that if hens kept all their lives on wire floors are suddenly given access to a floor of wood-shavings or peat, they have "an immediate and strong preference for these more natural floors over the wire ones. ... They dustbathe, eat particles of peat and scratch with their feet. It is not just the extra comfort afforded by a soft floor that attracts them, but all the behavior they can do there as well.''

By contrast, when hens are forced to stand and sit on wire mesh, their feet can become sore, cracked and deformed. The hen's claws, which are designed to scratch vigorously, and thus stay short and blunt, become long, thin, twisted and broken. They can curl around the wire floor and entrap the hen, causing her to starve to death inches from her food and water.

The overriding issue is that hens are birds with behavior patterns that have no outlet in a cage. And it isn't just animal advocates who point this out.

Concerning battery cages for hens, Dr. Lesley Rogers writes in her book, The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken: "In no way can these living conditions meet the demands of a complex nervous system designed to form a multitude of memories and to make complex decisions."

Chickens need to be cage-free.

Davis is the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, based in Machipongo, Va.

URL: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050819/OPINION02/508190364/1039/OPINION

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