The Silent Ark
2: The Chicken and The Egg
Home economics, now appropriately named ‘food technology’,
was never one of my favourite subjects. However, it was through
this that at the age of 16 I was allowed to go on a guided tour
of an egg, chicken rearing and processing plant. That simple statement
sounds innocuous, but it isn’t how I felt. I had made a decision
never again to eat meat because I no longer wanted animals to suffer
and be killed in my name. I had never seen as animal killed and
thought of it was abhorrent to me, but here I was, about to witness
just that, entirely of my won volition.
My family had never witnessed slaughter either. No one I knew
had ever seen it. In fact very few meat eaters have. I found it
extraordinary that people should be so protected from the source
of their food. Now I’m quite happy for a carrot seed being
planted and the grown root being dug up, washed and chopped into
pieces. The only part I draw the line at is demonstrating it being
cooked, because that would expose how bad I am at it! Meat eaters,
on the other hand, are precious beyond belief about the source of
their food. If the whole process of transport, slaughter, stunning
and butchery is so natural to us, why do parents go to such lengths
to protect their children from witnessing these things?
It was with great apprehension that I arrived at yet another soulless,
windowless, undistinguished building – a battery hen house
in the rural beauty of the Lancashire countryside. The overriding
impression was one of ugliness and protruding from the roof were
the rows of little round ventilators which have become synonymous
with battery egg production. Almost anywhere in Europe, and possibly
now anywhere in the world, you are likely to be confronted by them,
often in the most idyllic setting.
My guide opened the door and asked me to enter quickly. ‘The
air pressure in the building is slightly higher than outside. It
keeps the ammonia down.’
I must have been to slow because as I walked inside, the overpowering
stench of ammonia took my breath away. So powerful was it that I
had an almost instant headache and it was several seconds before
I was conscious of the noise – 15,000 clucking squawking hens,
an incessant, throbbing, burbling sound which continues in such
places for 17 hours a day. This artificially lit, constantly long
day is totally independent of the rising and setting of the sun
and is designed to extract the maximum number of eggs from the chickens.
This was a comparatively small battery and many are now twice
this size. But even so, the tiers of cages, four deep, ranked on
either side of the aisle, filled every available space. There were
several aisles, each flanked by a similar number of cages. I walked
up and down them, my ears filled with the babble of hens, my nose
assailed by the stench of ammonia, my vision limited by the partial
light. I was deaf to the running commentary of my guide.
One simple fact illustrates the space allotted to each bird. A
fully grown hen, which all of these were, has a wing span of about
76 cm. Each cage was only 50 cm wide and 45 cm deep, only a fraction
bigger than the average family microwave oven. For the 18 months
to two years that each bird spends inside her cage, she can never
spread her wings to their full extent. Even more disturbing is the
fact that each bird shares this minimal space with four others.
As if to confirm that they were no longer seen as sentient creatures,
these chickens, I was informed, were 579s. They were not even dignified
with a name.
Their condition was sadly pathetic. Most had great patches of
feathers missing and some were nearly bald. Food and water were
dispensed from automatic troughs in front of the cages. Any movement
by the bird, whether to eat, drink, change her position or avoid
being pecked, required her to push and shove or clamber over her
I noticed that the end of each bird’s beak was missing,
as though the last few millimetres had simply been sliced away.
I was later to discover that this was precisely what had happened.
At a few days old, many of the chicks destined to be placed in battery
cages have their beaks thrust into the red-hot blades of a beak-trimming
machine. With exact precision, it severs part of the beak, theoretically
cauterizing at the same time.
There is something particularly pathetic about little bewildered
chicks, blinking erratically while droplets of blood ooze from the
end of their severed beaks. Many die from the shock and others simply
bleed to death.
For years we’ve been led to believe that the beak is a piece
of unfeeling, dead tissue but recent research by Michael Gentle
and colleagues at the Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics
research in Edinburgh has challenged that, making the practice of
debeaking even more disturbing. The beak is, in fact, a complex
and sensitive organ containing an extensive nerve supply. The pain
which results, according to Gentle et al., causes ‘long-term
chronic pain and depression’ and may be felt by the bird for
it’s entire life.
I was to discover that other, even less attractive practices are
necessary to keep the battery system operating. These include adding
a slosh of antibiotics to try and control disease, and feeding their
own dead and even their own excreta back to the hens as food supplements
to control costs and ‘stay competitive’. This, of course,
is the ideal way to ensure that diseases become endemic.
That explanation that animals need only food and shelter to be
content is matched by the second most common palliative - only happy
animals breed in captivity. Battery chickens, of course, don’t
breed because they never see a cockerel and their eggs are therefore
infertile, but they do lay a lot of eggs, on average some 300 a
year, compared with their wild counterparts’ 10 or 12, and
this egg-laying process is trumpeted as a sign of their contentment.
Ironically, it provides probably the hens’ greatest cause
of stress. The cages they inhabit consist of nothing but wire bars
– floor, ceiling and sides. So they have no choice but to
be in constant bodily contact with each other. For both their wild
ancestors and even their farm yard cousins, egg laying is an extremely
private, even solitary affair. The process can take up to an hour
and the laying hen will always remove herself from the rest of the
flock before beginning it.
Perhaps it’s as well I was unaware of this as I slowly walked
down aisle after aisle of caged chickens. Of course I could see
them jostling each other but had no idea that those about to lay
were trying to hide from the others, climbing beneath them to seek
privacy and solitude. Hide? It’s like a person attempting
to conceal themselves from four others in the same telephone box.
As they finally laid their eggs, each one rolled across the wire
mesh floor and plopped into a small conveyor belt at the back of
the cage, where it was carried away to be washed and packed.
And this is where marketing comes cynically into its own. Television
advertising assails us with visions of chickens who cluck happily
and trot eagerly to their deaths. Their eggs, produced in totally
artificial light, the result of an unnatural, often cannibalistic
diet in an environment akin to a breakers’ yard, are sweetly
termed ‘country fresh’ or ‘farm fresh’.
The boxes are adorned with pictures of wheat ears and sometimes
even thatched cottages. That’s marketing for you!
Of course certain facts are never mentioned – the tonnes
of faeces which drop down through the cages, from one bird to another,
before finally settling on the floor of the battery; the brittle,
broken bones, resulting from a calcium deficient diet and lack of
exercise, which affect one third of the 35 million battery hens
alive in Britain at any given time, rising to 90 per cent when they’re
slaughtered. If these facts were known, it is unlikely that battery
eggs would account for the 85 to 90 per cent of all egg sales in
Britain, the rest of Europe and the USA which they did in 1995.
It’s difficult to contemplate the degree of suffering which
must be experienced by the millions of chickens who spend their
days and nights with broken bones, unable to ever rest properly
or to find a position which mitigates the pain. If you ever needed
any confirmation that this hurts then Edinburgh University can supply
it. As a result of their 1991 review of all scientific studies on
battery farming they came to the conclusion that battery hens do
suffer. You could never work that one out without a science degree
could you? However, they did go on to say that the battery system
should be outlawed. They are not the first ones to do so.
But the cruelty continues unabated. Even as the Edinburgh study
was completed, on a site designated as ‘a special landscape
area’, Corby Borough Council granted permission to the Plymouth-based
Horizon Poultry Farms to build the largest battery hen unit in the
whole of Europe and MAFF gave a grant of £50,000 and made
a recommendation to the EC that Horizon should receive a further
£200,000 from the agricultural fund. In a piece of manoeuvring,
the money was cleverly ear-marked for the egg-packing plant and
not for the caging of the 1,600,000 hens. This cleared MAFF of any
charge of abusing animals. What the money was actually used for
is merely semantics, however, because without this and the other
financial inducements the project may have been economically unviable.
Any arguments against such use of public money are usually countered
with the response that new jobs will be created. If you question
the lack of morality you are usually dismissed as having misguided
sentiment which places concern for animals over concern for humans.
However, concern for employment is cynically inconsistent. Miners,
steel workers and shipbuilders don’t merit any Government
subsidy and hundreds of thousands were thrown out of work during
the 1980’s while nuclear power workers, fishermen and livestock
farmers (not vegetable farmers, mark you) merited subsidy. Would
it be too simplistic or cynical to suggest that there aren’t
a lot of votes to be gained from coal miners or shipbuilders who
tend to be of a different political persuasion from the Conservative
It is important to be absolutely clear what happens in the name
of subsidy, for which you pay through the tax deducted from your
For every chicken in a battery cage, another chicken has been
killed. The stumbling block is that the breeding hens from which
battery chickens are obtained tend to produce an equal number of
male and female chicks. The female chicks have been specially bred
to produce as many eggs as possible but to be low in body weight,
scrawny, in order to keep food consumption to a minimum. However,
the scrawniness also affects male chicks so they’re not suitable
for meat. They can’t lay eggs either. In fact they’re
no good for anything at all, not even life.
At a day old, the newly hatched chickens are sexed by an experienced
chicken sexer – females this side, males that. The females
are boxed up and despatched to be grown on, where they will stay
until transferred to battery cages at about 18 weeks old. There
they will stay until their egg laying begins to drop off, usually
at between 18 months and two years old. As soon as that happens
they’re used for soups, pastes, stock cubes, the restaurant
trade, baby foods and even school meals. Creatures that would naturally
live a minimum of seven years are considered redundant at only two
and for almost the whole of that period are denied the ability to
fulfill even their most basic instincts.
The male chicks are unceremoniously dumped in a bin. When it’s
full, with hundreds of chicks piled one on top of the other, the
ones at the bottom struggling to get to the top, the bin is transferred
either to the carbon dioxide gas chamber or the crusher, depending
on the preference of the particular producer. The fate of these
tiny creatures is to be fed to other captive animals, to be turned
into fertilizer or to be processed into chicken and other feed.
The scale of the slaughter is breathtaking – according to
MAFF, 40 million day-old chicks every year.
There are numerous eyewitness accounts of still living chicks
struggling beneath the weight of their dead companions as they emerge
from the gas chambers. One can only guess at their eventual fate.
Of course, MAFF has a clear view on this carnage: ‘We definitely
recommend the use of one hundred per cent carbon dioxide gas.’
The constant drive to intensify all livestock production and to
increase the amount of animal products in the national diet began
after the Second World War and has now reached a frenzy. It has
nothing to do with nutrition or need but is based on financial return
available on invested capital. For people with money to invest,
livestock rearing is no different from a bank or building society.
All the investor wants to know is how much interest they will make.
If chickens cease to be profitable, the money will be moved into
tobacco or armaments or motor cars. To ensure the investors stay
happy, breeders will do almost anything to keep their profitability
as high as possible. And that means pushing animals beyond their
ability to cope. They are simply units of production. The truth
is that capitalism knows absolutely no morality and the only thing
which brings about change is public pressure.
As I continued my tour, I understood perfectly why people would
want to demonstrate and shout and make an apathetic public listen.
The denial of any rights to living, feeling creatures was beyond
my comprehension. But as I walked through the dim light of the battery
sheds and the stench of ammonia, I was already beginning to learn
political skills. I didn’t shout or argue with my guide, but
was determined to speak to the man responsible. It was easier than
The owner was a middle-aged man dressed in typical farmers gear,
polite and composed. He outlined the history of his farm and explained
that although the battery I had just seen contained 15,000 birds,
the total number on the farm was 200,000. Then, in a bizarre twist,
he struck a censorial stance and spoke about the Continental producers
as having much larger batteries, as though the scale of the operation
were the concern, not the system itself.
‘I love chickens,’ he insisted, ‘and everything
I do here is in the best interests of the birds.’ I was about
to have my first lesson in the use of statistics. ‘Free range
chickens are much worse off. Not only have they got to be debeaked
because they peck each other, but they get more diseases. The whole
environment here is carefully worked out to control this. Even the
dimmed light is to the benefit of the hens. Listen, I don’t
want chickens dying because that’s just money down the drain
and there’s a 3 per cent lower mortality amongst battery hens
than free range.’
I instinctively knew I was being misled – and so I was.
The comparison he was using was that of high density birds which
can be crammed 2,000 or 3,000 to a shed but because they have access
to a bit of land outside they are termed ‘free range’.
Under these circumstances their whole social order breaks down and
many hens won’t risk venturing out in case they have to cross
another bird’s territory or because of congestion at the exits
or entrances. The land outside the shed becomes saturated with droppings
and poisoned and it is this which accounts for the increased mortality.
Way back in 1948, L. E Easterbrook wrote in Picture Post:
But can it be really true that birds kept under these unnatural
conditions, without exercise, without exposure to the sun and the
wind and the rain, so debilitated that they are admittedly unfit
for breeding, often with their bones so brittle that they snap like
dry twigs - can it be really true that the eggs they produce for
us are just as nourishing as eggs from birds kept very differently?
The brittle bones that he wrote about are a direct consequence
of the hens being forced to produce such an unnatural quantity of
eggs in restricted conditions. Each eggshell uses up two and a half
grams of calcium, almost 10 per cent of the hen's normal body reserves.
Over the course of a year and 300 eggs, a hen will use 25 times
the normal amount of calcium in her body. The result is osteoporosis.
The bones waste and become weak and it takes very little for them
to break. This disease affects almost all laying hens.
But that isn't the end of their problems. Other common diseases
are prolapses, egg peritonitis, infectious bronchitis and ‘cage
layer fatigue’, a form of paralysis. There is also a rapidly
increasing threat from Gumboro disease, a viral cancer, and on top
of that, avian leukosis, the bird variety of leukaemia, is now commonplace.
An infinitely better way of producing eggs is in small-scale,
free range flocks of about 100, not the 400 birds to the acre recommended
by the EC. In these smaller numbers, the birds can organize their
social order without too much stress. But it is important to remember
that the male of the species is still killed at a day old, whether
free range or battery.
Anyone who believes that chickens do not suffer from being forced
into a cage in which they spend their whole lives standing or squatting
on wire mesh should watch a genuinely free range bird and its habits.
Given the opportunity, it will cover a huge area, even several acres.
In extreme heat it will sit quietly in the shade, but for the rest
of the day it will wander about ceaselessly, using its powerful
feet and legs to look for bugs and beetles, seeds and grains. It
will strut and stride, pushing the grass aside with powerful thrusts
of its feet, watching carefully to see what it has unearthed. It
will find a dusty piece of land in which to bathe and throw dust
everywhere with apparent pleasure and enthusiasm. You don't need
to know that it has a large brain for the size of its body because
its intelligence is obvious. It is an irony that these egg-laying
machines never have the opportunity to mother because they are extremely
careful and protective towards their young.
For me, one of the inhuman acts which encapsulates so much of
what threatens this world is our treatment of birds. Since humans
could first express their thoughts they have watched birds with
fascination and envy. Their ability to soar into the sky, to hang
almost motionless on a rising thermal, to look down and see the
world as we could only hope to see it, has entranced and captivated
And what have we done to the creatures with this wonderful freedom?
We have taken parrots, as gregarious, noisy and boisterous as a
teenage party, locked them in solitary confinement and boasted when
we have taught them to say 'Pretty Polly'. We have taken linnets
from the tree tops, blinded them and left them to sing their hearts
out in lonely darkness. We have taken descendants of the jungle
fowl, who crisscross the forests in restless search, and have crammed
them five to a cage. And in cynical deception, we tell the world
that they prefer it that way.
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