Backyard Chickens: Expanding Our Understanding of ‘Harm’
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Free From Harm
May 2014

Putting harm aside, we might want to stop and think a bit more about what kind of relationships we are cultivating with our backyard chickens. Not every relationship we have must be contingent upon getting something in return. Sometimes we can just show kindness and compassion. Sometimes we can just appreciate someone for their intrinsic worth and not base their value on what we can get out of them. And in the case of chickens, this could never be more desperately needed, considering all of the suffering we force upon 40 billion of them around the world every year for our tastebuds.

This article was co-written with Charles Horn. Photo by Andrea White. 

backyard chickens eggsOur Built-in Bias about Backyard Chickens

The first question we get from people who meet our rescued chickens is “do they lay eggs?” Laying eggs is clearly what defines them for most people. Even otherwise well-informed people are under the spell of contrived and false “egg industry” perceptions of chickens.

We often get asked, “what is the harm of eating the eggs of chickens that will lay them anyway?” In fact, many chicken keepers claim that they have a “symbiotic” relationship with their hens. In exchange for good treatment, they see their “reward” as the eggs that their chickens lay. Sounds like a “win-win,” but we will see later in detail why this logic does not pan out. In order to fully understand our impact on these birds, we must look way beyond treatment.

Let’s start where chicks are born in the hatcheries. When we buy chicks, we are directly and financially supporting hatcheries who are responsible for a whole host of staggeringly cruel practices. Their most egregious offense is the maceration and suffocation of millions of baby male chicks, 6 billion globally every year. Those who adopt chickens instead withdrawal their support of the hatcheries but still face several important ethical considerations in answering the question, “what’s the harm in collecting and eating the eggs that our adopted chickens lay?”

The Harm of Breeding

Chickens bred for egg laying are irreparably harmed from their breeding to lay an unnatural and unhealthy number of eggs, resulting in a host of painful and life-threatening reproductive diseases and premature death. Consider the fact that most egg laying hens, even the so-called “heritage” breeds, will only live 4 to 6 years on average (assuming they are allowed to live past their one- to two- year egg laying prime) and will likely die of complications caused by egg laying. In contrast, undomesticated chicken hens living in their natural habitat have been known to live 30 years and more. They lay eggs just like other wild birds do — for purposes of reproduction — and only a few clutches of eggs per year on average.

Benefiting from Harm

Most would agree that gaining some pleasure or enjoyment from the source of someone else’s suffering is immoral. We would not consider it ethical to, say, rescue a dog used in a dog fighting ring and argue that, since he is already trained and bred to fight, that in exchange for adopting him and providing him refuge, we reward ourselves by enlisting him back to the fighting ring where he can “earn his keep” because he’s going to be a fighter anyway. Even if we are not the direct cause of the chicken’s suffering, by eating her eggs, we are benefiting from what harms her, that is, her “rigged” reproduction which would not even be possible without the industrial scale chicken testing and breeding practices we already claim to oppose, on the grounds that they are horrifically cruel.

“Plantation” Logic Applied to Backyard Chickens

Backyard chicken keepers often describe their relationship with their chickens as “symbiotic.” They provide them with a great life and, in return, their chickens provide them with eggs. There are at least two problems with this position. First, it ignores the fact their eggs exist only because of the systematic testing, manipulation and re-engineering of the chicken hen’s reproductive system which forces them to produce an unnatural and unhealthy amount of eggs. Secondly, it it is impossible for chickens to give their consent to such an arrangement. It assumes that they desire to make a sacrifice for us, but in reality, their intensive egg-laying is simply forced upon them by no choice of their own. But, what if we adopt them? Well, as author Charles Horn points out:

If the desire is there to eat the eggs, did that consciously or subconsciously go into the decision to adopt in the first place? If so, the intention was never just one of providing refuge; it was also one of exploitation.

An Exception that Invites More Exceptions

By creating an exception for eating the eggs of adopted chickens, we then open the door to other exceptions being made. As Horn points out, “If it’s okay to eat, is it okay to gather and sell? Is it okay to adopt many chickens and make a business out of it? Again, we’re seeing how we still have a mindset of exploitation here and just how easily the slippery slope can lead people toward animal agriculture. If not them, someone else surely will, because the mindset of exploitation is still there.”

Reinforcing the False “Egg-Industry” Stereotype

Eating the eggs of chickens also reinforces their egg industry role as “layers” or egg-laying machines, as if to suggest that this is their primary purpose in life, which is incorrect. The fact is that natural egg laying for chickens is no different than it is for many other birds. What’s changed is that modern breeding has forced chickens to produce an obscene amount of infertile eggs. Aside from egg laying, chickens lead rich and complex social lives, have many interests and are keenly self-awareness. They have long term memory and clearly demonstrate that they anticipate future events. They form deep bonds with other flock mates and other species, like dogs and humans. And yet even if they didn’t possess all of these advanced cognitive abilities, they are sentient beings who feel pain and pleasure much like we do. And sentience, not intelligence, is the basis for how we should treat others.

By eating eggs, we imply that their worth is measured by what they can produce for us as a food source, rather than focusing attention where it should be: on their intrinsic worth as individuals. “Just as we don’t see human beings or human secretions as a food source, similarly we shouldn’t see any sentient being or their secretions that way either,” writes Horn.

The Logic of Not Wasting Eggs

The popular notion that it is wrong to waste chicken eggs by not eating them is based on the presumption that their eggs are actually ours to waste, further reinforcing the anthropocentric notion that the eggs belong to us, not them. So, based on this logic, if we discover abandoned and unfertilized turtle eggs or duck eggs or robin eggs, we are also compelled to steal them and make a meal out of them so as not to let them “go to waste.” By looking closer at this logic, we find that the issue is not actually wasting, but culture. The reason why we perceive only chicken eggs as edible, and don’t insist on collecting the eggs of other species, is cultural conditioning. It has become a socially acceptable practice, just like slavery was a socially acceptable practice throughout our history and up until just a short time ago.

What Do We Do With the Eggs If We Don’t Eat Them?

When we let go of the anthropocentric notion that their eggs belong to us, then what could we potentially do with the eggs, if we instead wanted to do something to benefit this most exploited of birds? Well, we could hard boil the eggs and grind up the shells. We can add the shells to their grit to give them back the vast amounts of calcium that is leached from their bones to produce all of those shells. We can also feed them their eggs to give them back some of the protein and other nutrients they lost.

Putting harm aside, we might want to stop and think a bit more about what kind of relationships we are cultivating with our backyard chickens. Not every relationship we have must be contingent upon getting something in return. Sometimes we can just show kindness and compassion. Sometimes we can just appreciate someone for their intrinsic worth and not base their value on what we can get out of them. And in the case of chickens, this could never be more desperately needed, considering all of the suffering we force upon 40 billion of them around the world every year for our tastebuds.


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