I recently visited a long-time friend and her husband for dinner in their new home. After catching up over a pleasant meal of Indian food, I met the most recent additions to their household: Rosie, Frida, and Charlotte. This yellow ball of fluff is Rosie sitting on my hand. While not vegans, my friends are kind-hearted and progressive people, and they eat mostly plants. They’re very conscious of food politics, environmental concerns, and health. The purchase of three female chicks is part of their ongoing movement toward a more personally responsible and ethical relationship with food. (They’re also growing a garden and looking into building a greenhouse.)
In an enclosed backyard, the chickens will be able to dust bathe and to scratch for bugs in the grass, once they’re a little older. Nearly all chickens that hatch in the U.S. are denied the simple pleasures that come from having dirt and grass beneath their feet. Each of the girls is a different breed, and they were selected not for the size of the egg they will lay, but for their friendliness. They’ll be treated more like the cat (who’s getting along with them just fine so far) than like egg machines. This is Frida on my hand, with beautiful hawk-like markings. Her eggs will be small and blue-green.
Many vegetarians stopped eating meat because they didn’t want any animals to die for their food. It’s quite common for the realization that the meat on the plate is the body of an innocent animal to be made early in life. Many children, once they realize that eating meat means causing death, announce to their parents that they want to be vegetarians, a true act of courage at a young age. Regrettably, most people have never learned that buying eggs means causing death as well.
In the wild, hens would lay 100 or so eggs a year. In modern farms, they’ll lay 300 or more, as many as their bodies can be tricked and coerced into producing. This leaves them sick and broken (the industry uses the term “spent”) at which point they are killed for low-grade meat. The killing takes place at approximately 1 year of age, when it becomes more cost-effective to replace them with a new set of birds than to keep feeding them as they decline. (Normally, the birds would live for 15 or 20 years.) In that short year, they’ll be packed so tightly into cages that they won’t be able to spread their wings. The cages will be stacked ten rows high in a giant warehouse.
These three girls are pretty lucky. My friends have resolved that Rosie, Frida, and Charlotte will never be eaten, even when they no longer produce eggs. They’ll live out their lives in safety. They’ll have the company of each other and the care of two people who are already quite fond of them. This is the “ideal scenario” people like to ask vegans about. “What if there were truly happy chickens living in a backyard, fed good food, not killed for meat…would you eat THOSE eggs? What could possibly be wrong with that?”
Sadly, there’s a dark side even to this haven. Naturally, only female chicks will become egg-laying hens. The other half of the chicks have no place in this system. Non-egg-producing roosters are also loud and not well-liked by neighbors. So, a day or so after they hatch, the chicks are inspected, and the baby boys are killed; their sisters sold. My friends understand this, but the laws in place prohibit roosters in city limits –they couldn’t have raised any male birds, even if they wanted to. In fact, if Charlotte, the black bird on the right, turns out to be a Charles (the birds are 90% guaranteed to be female), they’ll have to get rid of him somehow. Holding these tiny birds, I was keenly aware of their dead brothers, casualties of a system of slavery.
No, I won’t eat the eggs that Frida, Charlotte, and Rosie produce. But I will visit them and watch them grow up. I’ll enjoy getting to know them as individuals with unique personalities. And I will be happy to know that my friends won’t be participating in the horrific egg industry that you can find out more about in a book or with a Google or YouTube search. (Include the word “undercover” to get behind the carefully-constructed facade.)