Chickens just naturally want to be free

Peter Fricker
Vancouver Sun
Publication Date:
March 12, 2009


Harvey Enchin’s attack on Metro Vancouver’s support for cage-free eggs (Tuesday, page A4), asserts that such support is based on emotion, not science. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Vancouver Humane Society bases its opposition to the battery cage system for egg production on an overwhelming body of clear scientific evidence that has concluded this system is inhumane.

Study after study shows that hens’ welfare is compromised in battery cages, which allows each hen only 450 sq cm of space (the equivalent of less than a sheet of office letter paper).

Ian Duncan, Canada’s most distinguished poultry scientist has stated: “In addition to restricting certain behaviour, the lack of space in a cage means that hens are crowded together. All the indications are that, at commercial cage densities used in the North America, welfare is decreased.”

Similarly, Mohan Raj, an internationally renowned poultry scientist at the School of Clinical Veterinary Science at the University of Bristol, states: “Keeping sentient birds in such a poor state of welfare for the purpose of maximizing economic benefits to humans is unethical, in my opinion. Unfortunately, these problems are inherent to battery cages and therefore battery cages of any kind should not be permitted.”

Recently, a major European Union research project examined various systems of egg production and their welfare implications.

The study concluded: “Conventional cages do not allow hens to fulfil behaviour priorities, preferences and needs for nesting, perching, foraging and dust-bathing in particular. The severe spatial restriction also leads to osteoporosis. We believe these disadvantages outweigh the advantages of reduced parasitism, good hygiene and simpler management.”

It is this kind of evidence that has convinced the European Union to ban battery cages by 2012.

The same scientific arguments recently led Californians to vote for an end to battery cages in their state in 2015.

Enchin quotes a study from the Poultry Science Association suggesting that the use of television, radio and toys (a piece of string) can reduce anxiety and aggression and productivity.

These forms of “cage enrichment” can hardly substitute for allowing hens to engage in the natural behaviours that battery cages deny them. In any case, poultry farmers have found their use prohibitive because the toys get dirty and can pose health risks, and dust gets into speakers and components. Certified organic and BC SPCA certified hens are not kept in cages and are given space to move, flap their wings, dust bathe and nest — behaviours hens are biologically programmed to perform.

Certified organic eggs are also audited by an independent third party to ensure the highest commercially available animal welfare standards. These are the eggs that the Vancouver Humane Society and most animal welfare organizations recommend to egg consumers. While many uncertified free-range and free-run systems leave much to be desired, they are still preferable to cage systems.

Intensive battery systems, like all factory farms, take up less space and turn out a cheaper product — but at what cost? Aside from causing incalculable suffering to 26 million hens in Canada alone, these operations damage our environment and put public health at risk. Our own Fraser Valley has seen the complete industrialization of poultry farming, with fewer but much larger farms.

During the 1990s the number of chickens per farm increased by 78 per cent. This density and the sheer numbers of chickens (more than 15 million) have contributed to air pollution, with poultry operations being the chief agricultural source of ammonia, which can react with other pollutants to form particulates that are harmful to respiratory health. The massive amount of manure produced by the valley’s poultry has also contributed to the pollution of local waterways.

The density of poultry farms in the valley is also a factor in the potential spread of avian flu. Not only is it easier for the virus to spread from one farm to another, but the cramped conditions and lack of genetic diversity in these operations provide the perfect conditions for the virus to mutate into highly pathogenic forms. Despite much finger-pointing at wild birds and free-range flocks, the real danger is from intensive poultry farming.

The factory farming model, including battery cage farms, produces cheap food but it is ethically and environmentally unsustainable.

It’s true, chickens are not pets. But does that mean they should be condemned to suffer in cramped cages for their entire lives? Is it really too much to ask that hens be able to extend their wings, scratch in the earth and feel the sun on their backs?

Peter Fricker is projects and communications director of the Vancouver Humane Society.