When we start talking about animals, our relationships with them, and our responsibilities to them, then factory farming is eventually going to use up a lot of the oxygen in the room.
Guess we better start talking about that.
Remember, I’m not an “animal rights” guy in the way you thought of when I used that term. That’s kind of the point of this entire post series. There are many things going on as a matter of course that can reasonably give “just walkin’ around folks” pause.
Until very recently, I didn’t pay much attention to shrieking about “factory farming,” because I assumed that’s just what it was. Most of the people trying to get my attention on it seemed as likely to start in about calling fish “sea kittens” or trees having souls or something, and it was easy to tune out.
The truth is that there are several things going on—things of which you likely want no part—to bring animal products to your grocery store.
The subject of factory farming shall span several posts, so let’s ease into it. Let’s talk about chickens to start. Chickens bring their meat and their eggs to the table, which gives them broad relevance. Most vegetarians still eat eggs, after all.
I don’t think there’s much going on in a chicken’s head. I think a chicken—any domesticated fowl, really—probably has three things hard-coded: eat, don’t get eaten, and have sex.
Probably little of that even rises to the level of thought. In a lot of ways, instinct is as basic as breathing or blood circulation. It just is. We have no reason to think a chicken is capable of considering the contents of its own mind. Chickens can’t reason.
Ah, but what about feelings? Can a chicken be happy or sad?
I think it’s silly to suppose a chicken has complex emotions. However, it’s pretty easy to observe what chickens do with their time when they have a choice. Chickens roam. Chickens take it in. That they consistently choose to do so demonstrates that it’s important to them on some level.
So it’s pretty clear to me that a lot of common practices in commercial chicken houses are deplorable. Debeaking is a thing, and there is no anesthesia administered. Most “broilers“—meat chickens—are raised in growout houses, while most egg-laying hens are raised in battery cages.
In either case, the amount of space per bird is about half the area of the screen you’re reading this on (unless you’re reading it on your phone). They often can’t get out of their own excrement, so they develop painful ammonia burns on their legs and feet.
There’s an even worse dark side to industrial egg production. Obviously only hens lay eggs, so what to do with male chicks born to egg-laying chickens? Are they sold for meat? No, that’s not profitable. They don’t grow large enough or quickly enough.
They are instead systematically killed shortly after birth. Male chicks have their necks broken, or they are asphyxiated. It’s legal (and widely practiced) to drop them alive into a grinder. Electrocution is also gaining popularity as a method of “dealing” with male chicks.
Thousands of male chicks have died in these ways just since you started reading this post. You can see it here, but be warned. It can’t be unseen.
I love eggs, and I’m going to keep eating them. But commercial egg production is brutally cruel, and I’m not going to support it. So what do I do?
Eggs are actually a fairly easy problem for us to solve. We now get our eggs from a former colleague of mine who raises chickens in her backyard. I pay her $3 a dozen, and though it’s just a little legwork to get them, no chicks are dropped alive into grinders for my omelet. (Plus, they are so tasty. Wow, they just pop!)
You can probably solve the problem the same way, though it may take a little looking. Or, you can seek out well-documented eggs at specialty stores. Don’t assume eggs at a mainstream supermarket are “safe.” Lots of times they’re festooned with things that sound great like “No Antibiotics! No Hormones!” (Well, guess what? It’s illegal to treat any poultry with antibiotics or hormones in the United States. The claim is meaningless.)
Chicken meat is harder, and we haven’t clicked that over yet, though we will soon. Unfortunately, “free range” doesn’t mean very much on a grocery store package, because the bar to get over for such a claim is so low. My stepbrother actually purchases chickens from a local farmer, and I’m going over soon for a lesson on how to cut and prepare one. Our new meat habits will coincide with a chest freezer in the garage.
The garage freezer is my primary summer project.
Nature is neither kind nor cruel. Nature merely is. We—people—have been blessed with ethics, morals, and sufficient mental horsepower to act on them. If we’re going to assume that dominion over animals means we can eat them, as I and many other reasonable people do, then that’s one thing. But it’s quite another to discard basic respect for life and well-being.
I’m going to eat the chicken. But there is plenty of room in my world view for reasonably ensuring that the chicken enjoys its life.
Knowing what you know now, is there in yours?