All hens used for egg-laying – including backyard and so-called ‘free-range’ hens – begin their lives at a place called a hatchery.
When birds are bred into existence for egg-laying at these places, half of them are born male. Of no use to the egg industry, and unable to grow fast enough to be profitable for meat (another breed of birds, known as ‘broilers’, are used for that purpose), the roosters are separated from their sisters and are immediately killed. The most common methods of killing include grinding up their bodies, or dumping them – still alive and conscious – into giant trash cans, where they are left to starve and/or suffocate.
For every egg-laying hen in existence, there is a male rooster who was brought into the world, only to be immediately deprived of life.
In many ways, the culling of male chicks at hatcheries vividly illustrates what is wrong with our relationship with non-humans. The prevailing social and legal norms surrounding non-humans are such that their lives do not have any inherent value; they only have economic value. Their lives are only worth the money they can rake in – for us. When there is no profit to be made from allowing them to live, we immediately ‘discard’ of them, like dirty napkins.
The domestic chicken is a direct descendent of a bird known as the Red Junglefowl, believed to have originated from Southeast Asia.
Unlike the Red Junglefowl, who only lays a few eggs per year, domestic hens have been bred by humans to lay close to 300 (unfertilized) eggs per year. For a hen, laying an unfertilized egg is the biological equivalent of a human women menstruating – it’s what their bodies do in the absence of pregnancy. Because the normal female body (within a particular age bracket) is supposed to be ready to conceive, and because conception would require passing on nutrients to the zygote/fetus/baby, the female body is continuously burdened with additional nutrition that, in the absence of conception, is then “released” (via menstruation or laying an unfertilized egg). For example, human women of reproductive age require 18mg of iron daily, compared to men (and females of non-productive age), who only need 8mg daily. Extra iron is required to make up for what’s lost each month.
Just as a heavy menstrual flow would present a burden on the health of a human woman, so too does the astronomically high egg-laying rate present a burden on the health of hens. Calcium in particular seems to be lost from the high rate of egg-laying, which might explain why poor bone health is common.
This dilemna – our desire to get as many eggs as possible vs. the hens’ health and physical autonomy – is a classical example of the problem with animal use and domestication in general. All of our uses of animals – however “humane” – necessarily involve trading away their interests (no matter how vital) for our gain. Domestication is a social contract for which animals do not sign up and in which we force them to exist in a perpetual state of vulnerability. Unlike human children, who eventually grow up and become autonomous, ‘domesticated’ animals are stuck in a permanent state of dependence upon us. At any and every moment, they have to hope that we have their interests in mind – because they don’t have a lot of say if we don’t. We then go on to harm and exploit them for various purposes.
The bodies of non-humans do not exist for the use and gratification of humans. We cannot justify ‘domesticating’ and using the bodies of vulnerable animals for our gain, any more than we can justify sexually abusing children. Just as there is no way “just” or “compassionate” way to molest children, there is no “non-abusive” way to exploit vulnerable animals for human gain.
If you look after rescued hens, do them a favour and crack open their own eggs in front of them – they will eat them! Eating their own eggs allows hens to re-gain many of the nutrients that their bodies lose through being forced to lay so many eggs in the first place. Us (humans) eating their eggs – even from backyard-type situations – is problematic because it deprives them of nutrients that they would benefit from.
Although better treatment would not resolve the basic problem of using non-humans as means to our ends, the reality is that all egg ‘production’ – including ‘free-range’, ‘cage-free’, etc – involves torturing hens.
The reason is simple: animals are economic commodities. Treating them better – by giving them lots of space, access to the outdoors, etc – would cost a lot of money. In a world of 7 billion hungry humans, there is simply no affordable way to ‘produce’ enough eggs while treating hens ‘nicely’.
The most common method of ‘producing’ eggs is the battery-cage system, where the hens are kept in wire mesh cages. Given the equivalent of a notebook-sized piece of paper on which to live out their entire lives, extreme psychological stress from over-crowding often leads to pecking, fighting, and even cannibalism. Feet and heads often get stuck in between the wires of the cages, causing many birds to die slowly of starvation or thirst. A lack of exercise, combined with the drain of laying an obscene number of eggs, often leads to frail bone health and even osteoporosis.
Alternatives to the battery-cage – such as cage-free or free-range systems – are nothing more than marketing labels, and do not confer welfare benefits for animals. Cage-free egg ‘production’, for example, involves cramming hundreds of thousands of birds into a giant shed. Individual cages are replaced with one giant cage, and the over-crowding is every bit as bad. Fighting and cannibalism are prevalent, and the lack of space means that birds piss, crap, and step all over one another.
‘Free-range’ is also a meaningless label. There is no legally agreed upon (or enforceable) definition of ‘free-range’. In fact, eggs marketed as ‘free-range’ involve violence and exploitation identical to conventional methods:
The vegetarian myth – that milk and eggs don’t result in killing – is just that. Like all ‘farm’ animals, egg-laying hens are on death row. They are kept alive only as long as it is profitable to keep them alive. When the cost of feeding them out-grows the benefit derived from their egg ‘production’ (always at a fraction of their natural lifespan), they are slaughtered.
Most people already accept the basic ideas that should lead them – on their own – to veganism. We all agree that it’s wrong to inflict ‘unnecessary’ suffering and death on animals. But eating animals and animal products (or wearing, using them, etc) is not necessary:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
Indeed, we all accept that animals are somebodies, as opposed to somethings.
The breeding and use of hens for egg-laying, with all that it involves (compromised health, suffering, and death), is a violation of their right to bodily autonomy. It necessarily involves treating sentient beings as if they were objects – something that goes against the moral norms that most of us claim to accept. Veganism bridges the moral disconnect by taking to heart the notion that animals are somebodies as opposed to somethings.
The good news is that, in the 21st century, you can have your vegan cake and eat it, too. You don’t need eggs to make delicious cakes, cookies, and cupcakes!
Other traditional dishes can also be made without eggs:
If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. If it’s wrong to inflict ‘unnecessary’ suffering and death on animals, then – by definition – we can’t justify eating, wearing, or using animals and animal products for our taste buds, convenience, sense of habit, etc.
“Veganism isn’t about giving anything up or losing anything. It is about gaining the peace within yourself that comes from embracing non-violence and refusing to participate in the exploitation of the vulnerable. Veganism is not a ‘sacrifice’. It is a joy.” – Gary L. Francione