The Battery Hen: Her Life Is Not For The Birds

by Karen Davis
The modern hen laying eggs for human consumption is far removed from the Burmese jungle fowl from whom she derives and the active farmyard fowl of recent memory. Rather, she is an anxious, frustrated, fear-ridden bird forced to spend 10 to 12 months squeezed inside a small wire cage with three to eight or nine other tormented hens amid tiers of identical cages in gloomy sheds holding 50,000 to 125,000 debeaked, terrified, bewildered birds. By nature an energetic forager, she should be ranging by day, perching at night, and enjoying cleansing dust baths with her flock mates--a need so strong that she pathetically executes "vacuum" dust bathing on the wire floor of her cage.

Caged for life without exercise while constantly drained of calcium to form egg shells, battery hens develop the severe osteoporosis of intensive confinement know as caged layer fatigue. Calcium depleted, millions of hens become paralyzed and die of hunger and thirst inches from their food and water.

In the 20th century, the combined genetic, management, and chemical manipulations of the small Leghorn hen have produced a bird capable of laying an abnormal number of large eggs--250 a year in contrast to the one or two clutches of about a dozen per clutch laid by her wild relatives. The laying of an egg has been degraded by the battery system to a squalid discharge so humiliating that ethologist Konrad Lorenz compared it to humans forced to defecate in each others' presence. Researchers have described the futile efforts of caged hens to build nests and their frantic efforts to escape the cage by jumping at the bars right up to the laying of the egg.

Battery hens suffer from the reproductive maladies that afflict female birds deprived of exercise: masses and bits of eggs clog their oviducts which become inflamed and paralyzed; eggs are formed that are too big to be laid; uteruses "prolapse," pushing through the vagina of small birds forced to strain day after day to expel huge eggs. The battery cage has created an ugly new disease of laying hens called fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome, characterized by an enlarged, fat, friable liver covered with blood clots, and pale combs and wattles covered with dandruff. In recent decades, hens' oviducts have become infested with salmonellae bacteria that enter the forming egg causing food poisoning in consumers. Disease and suffering are innate features of the battery system in which the individual hen is obscured by gloom and thousands of other hens in an environment deliberately designed to discourage perception, labor, and care.

Battery hens live in a poisoned atmosphere. Toxic ammonia rises from the decomposing uric acid in the manure pits beneath the cages to cause ammonia-burned eyes and chronic respiratory disease in millions of hens. Studies of the effect of ammonia on eggs suggest that even at low concentrations significant quantities of ammonia can be absorbed into the egg. Hens to be used for another laying period are force molted to reduce the accumulated fat in the reproductive systems and regulate prices by forcing the hens to stop laying for a couple of months. In the force molt, producers starve the hens for four to fourteen days causing them to lose 25 to 30 percent of their body weight along with their feathers. Water deprivation, drugs such as chlormadinone, and harsh light and blackout schedules can be part of this brutal treatment.

Even eating is gruesome for the battery hen, who must stretch her neck across a "feeder fence" to reach the monotonous mash in the trough, a repeated action that over time wears away her neck feathers and causes throat blisters. In addition, the fine mash particles stick to the inside of the hen's mouth attracting bacteria causing painful mouth ulcers. A mold toxin, T-2, can taint the mash creating even more mouth ulcers in the hens, who have no choice but to consume what is in front of them.

Battery hens are debeaked with a hot machine blade once and often twice during their lives, typically at one day old and again at seven weeks old, because a young beak will often grow back. Debeaking causes severe, chronic pain and suffering researchers compare to human phantom limb and stump pain. Between the horn and bone of the beak is a think layer of highly sensitive tissue. The hot blade cuts through this sensitive tissue impairing the hen's ability to eat, drink, wipe her beak, and preen normally. Debeaking is done to offset the effects of the compulsive pecking that can afflict birds designed by nature to roam, scratch, and peck at the ground all day, not sit in prison; and to save feed costs and promote conversion of less food into more eggs, because debeaked birds have impaired grasping ability and are in pain and distress, therefore eating less, flinging their food less, and "wasting" less energy than intact birds. Diseases of Poultry (1991) states that " A different form of cannibalism is now being observed in beak-trimmed birds kept in cages. The area about the eyes is black and blue due to subcutaneous hemorrhage, wattles are dark and swollen with extravasated blood, and ear lobes are black and necrotic" (p. 827).

The battery system depends on debeaking and antibiotics. Many of the antibiotics used to control the rampant viral and bacterial diseases of chickens in crowded confinement can also be used to manipulate egg production. For example, virginiamycin is said to increase feed conversion per egg laid, bacitracin to stimulate egg production, and oxytetracycline to improve eggshell quality. In Factory Farming (1991), Andrew Johnson says virtually 100 percent of laying hens in the United States are routinely dosed with antibiotics (p. 29).

At the end of the laying period, the hens are flung from the battery to the transport cages by their wings, legs, head, feet, or whatever is grabbed. Many bones are broken. Chicken "stuffers" are paid for speed, not gentleness. Half-naked from feather loss and terrorized by a lifetime of abuse, hens in transit embody a state of fear so severe that many are paralyzed by the time they reach the slaughterhouse. At slaughter the hens are a mass of broken bones, oozing abscesses, bright red bruises, and internal hemorrhaging making them fit only for shredding into products that hide the true state of their flesh and their lives, such as chicken soups and pies, school lunches and other food programs developed by the egg industry to dump dead laying hens onto consumers in diced up form.

To date, there are no federal welfare laws regulating poultry raising, transport, or slaughter in the United States. The U.S. egg industry opposes humane slaughter legislation for poultry, claiming that laying fowl cannot be economically rendered insensible to pain prior to having their throats cut or being decapitated. There is no reason to assume the industry will reform of its own accord. While working to improve the conditions under which chickens are raised, transported, and killed in current society, consumers should boycott battery eggs and discover the variety of egg-free alternatives in cooking and dining.

What Can I Do?

For more information contact:
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
Phone: 757-678-7875

(UPC fact sheet on the Battery Hen)