The Happiest Chickens are Free-Range

Wendy's Free-Range Chickens

Many people do not know the difference between free range eggs and cage-free eggs. Let me explain: Cage-free is a term that the egg industry likes to use ONLY to make it SOUND like their layer hens are humanely raised when, in reality, they are treated just about the same as any battery-caged hen. Even though these hens are technically cage-free, it doesn’t mean they get more space to run around and be chickens. They are still cramped together in a small room, their beaks are still cut off at birth, and the males are still slaughtered nearly minutes after hatching. Free-range eggs are a totally different story.

If you go to a store in search of eggs from humanely treated hens, then you are sadly out of luck. Free-range eggs cannot be found in any grocery store (and if you know of one, please let me know in the comments below). The biggest difference between free-range eggs and cage-free eggs is the treatment of the chickens. Free-range chickens (notice, I say chickens because the males are typically not slaughtered at birth) are given space to roam freely, their beaks are not cut off at birth, and they are free to do what chickens are instinctively born to do.

Bantam Hen

Chickens are born with an instinct to:

  • Forage for food – Believe it or not, chickens are omnivores- they eat vegetables as well as bugs. Battery caged hens are denied the privilege to forage for food and most cage-free hens are still kept indoors, which means they can’t feel the dirt on their feet or forage for bugs.
  • Nest – Most hens have a strong urge to lay their eggs in a private place. Sometimes they will even go without food and water for days to search for a secret place to nest. Battery caged hens are denied the access or the space to sit on their eggs. Hens often go crazy without this one simple “privilege” because their instinct to mother their eggs is so intense. Cage-free hens are not provided with the privacy or room to nest either. Even though they do have more space than a battery cage hen, this instinct is still not met.
  • Dustbathe – Dustbathing for chickens is like taking a bath for us. It keeps their feathers clean and healthy and also gets rid of unwanted pests.
  • Perch – All chickens descended from the Red Jungle Fowl. This breed of bird often sleeps high up in the trees to avoid predators; also because perching is a natural instinct. Today’s modern chickens still have that instinct which is why most free-range chickens are provided with perches. When chickens are unable to perch, they often become more aggressive, more prone to develop foot damage, and some even develop osteoporosis. In a battery cage, hens will sometimes stand on top of one another to try and fulfill their urge to perch.
  • Explore – Chickens spend 50% of their time exploring, foraging and scratching. These animals are curious creatures and enjoy doing something to fulfill their boredom.

Mama hen, Eddie, and the baby chicks take a dirtbath together

Last summer, my neighbor Wendy bought some baby chicks. She built her own coop to suit her chickens’ needs and to say the least, these chickens live a good life. They are 100% free-range chickens and they get out of their coop at least once a day (that is, if there is no snow on the ground). Wendy’s coop isn’t all that large but all of her chickens have room to stretch their wings and walk around inside. Most of the time, the chickens are outside roaming around the yard, foraging for small bugs to eat, and taking dirt baths. The family’s dog, Striper, protects the chickens from getting eaten by predators like bears and fisher cats, which are always running around our neighborhood.

Wendy and her family name every chicken that they get and Wendy can tell which chicken is which. Since it’s hard to tell the difference between a female and a male chick, the family gives the chickens a female name. For example, the white and fluffy chicken (in the photo above) was left out to die in the middle of the road when Wendy found him and rescued him. Wendy first named him Edith because she couldn’t tell if he was a hen or a rooster. When she heard him crow, she and the family changed the name to Eddie.

Last week, I was walking home from school when my neighbor, who was outside at the time, called me over to see the baby chicks that had hatched the previous week. The three baby chicks, the mama bird, and Eddie were all taking a dustbath together. I had asked my neighbor before about writing a blog about her chickens, so I decided now would be a perfect time to take photos. I ran home, grabbed my camera and started taking picture’s of Wendy’s chickens. Her chickens are a perfect example of how these animals SHOULD be treated.

Penelope’s Story

Penelope

When I went over my neighbor’s house to take photos of her chickens, she pointed out Penelope. This hen has been through a lot more than other chickens have been through and she is lucky to be alive. Over Facebook, I asked Wendy if she could tell me Penelope’s Story. I was surprised by how much effort Wendy put into the story and I decided to copy and paste it straight from there. I’ve only made a few small grammatical changes but otherwise, this is completely in her own words. Enjoy!

It was back in September and I was looking for some more laying hens on Craigslist when I came upon 1 year old laying hens for sale; $3 a piece at a place up in Orange, MA. Actually, it was a fairly nice horse farm right off Route 2. One of those places that gives lessons and boards horses. They even had an indoor riding ring. The horse barn was old looking but very clean and well kept. The horses were mostly outside and they all looked real good.”

“The owner’s daughter I think it was came out to show me the chickens. Behind the nice barn and the indoor riding ring was a shed and there were some bunnies in hutches and a lot of junk and the smell was awful in the front of the shed but at the back of the shed, it look like the metal skeleton of a plant nursery (half round shape if that makes sense). Instead of clear plastic it had black plastic stretched over it but the plastic was really worn out so there were holes everywhere in the plastic where the weather could get in but not enough sun could get through to evaporate the wet ground so it was muddy and smelly. There were about 100 chickens in there mostly hens, some roosters all debeaked so I assumed they were all ex battery cage hens. I don’t know the story about the roosters that were in there; didn’t really make sense. There were also about 4 ducks in there.”

There was a small pile of dead chickens that had been dealt with enough that they were all in the same spot but not removed from the area. Like someone just grabbed them as they died and threw them in the corner. There were 2 chickens that had obviously seen light under the walls and had tried to crawl through and had gotten stuck. They were still alive and brought it to the girl’s attention. (My guess she was in her 20’s) She said ‘Oh I wouldn’t take those they will probably die anyway.’ ”

“There was NO FOOD in the food bowl and I think the only water in the water bowl was what had rained through the ceiling of the enclosure so there was not much water in there to drink. It was gross. It was thick with mud and heavy with the smell of feces and death. There were no nesting boxes so any hen that might have been healthy enough to lay an egg would have to do it wherever. The chickens looked shell-shocked for lack of a better word. I would pick a hen and watch it’s behavior for a few minutes and if it looked okay I would try and catch it.”

“I spent about 15 minutes in this enclosure and made some comments about the conditions these poor things had to deal with and she told me it was her father’s thing. He would pick up these chickens and transport them and he had had this particular batch for a while trying to get rid of them on Craigslist. It was her Dad’s thing. She had someone go get a bale of shavings to spread around probably because I was bitching about the conditions the hens were kept in. I didn’t have much money on me so I could afford to take 2 of the hens. I popped them in the box I brought, tied the lid down, paid the girl and left.”

Penelope

“I contacted MSPCA and reported the place. I named one hen Penelope (Penny) because she’s the copper color of a penny. The other one I named Clarabelle. Penny ate with gusto and started doing well quickly. Clarabelle did not do so well. She didn’t have her sister’s appetite. Clarabelle was very cuddly though and several times a day I would pick her up and pop her into my coat and she loved that. When the weather was getting colder, it was nice and warm in my jacket. I had her almost a week. I had brought her in the house and had her snuggled in my lap and she was napping when about an hour later she stretched out, released the contents of her bowels and died right there in my lap.”

“She probably didn’t have much of a chance. She was really weak but she was a very sweet chicken. On one hand, I feel bad that I couldn’t save her but on the other hand she didn’t die in the mud and get thrown into the pile of muddy anonymous chickens in the corner of that chicken hellhole.”

“Penelope has continued to do well all winter. Taking in an emaciated chicken as the cold weather sets in was probably not the best idea but I added fats into her diet to help her stay warm and not lose weight. She has actually gained weight. She looks fantastic. She is now laying an egg almost every day.”

“Honestly, when I got her, I did not ever expect to see an egg from her. She and her “sister” were in such rough shape. She was extremely shy when she first got here and would hide in the corners of the coop. She did not know how to be a chicken at all. There are certain things a chicken “likes” to do naturally. Perching is one of them. Dust bathing is another joy that helps coat the skin with fine dirt and prevent parasites. Chickens love to dust bathe.”

Penelope walking away

“It is not uncommon to see 8 or 9 chickens flopping around flapping and flicking the dirt all over them then stretching out in the sun. They will even lay there upside down with their feet in the air. IT is pure enjoyment for them. Scratching the soil and pecking at bugs of worms or whatever is also totally natural and something chickens naturally love to do. All my chickens do these behaviors. Penny did none of these behaviors for months. She was a battery cage hen obviously, her beak is clipped. I have never done that to any of my chickens. It is a cruel practice that takes place at about 10 days old. It keeps penned up battery cage chickens from pecking each other.”

“The first time I noticed Penny exhibit a normal chicken behavior was maybe early November? She found a nice pit of dirt and was joyously flopping around flinging dirt all over herself. She was taking a dust bath and I was so happy for her. She really is something special. In January, I walked into the coop and found my Penny tucked into a nesting box. She was laying an egg!!!! She lays the darkest color brown eggs of all my chickens so I know when it’s hers. She lays one at least every other day.”

“I think the fact that her beak has been trimmed makes it difficult for her to pick things up off the ground. All my other chickens look forward to when I toss out some scratch grain on the ground. It has cracked corn and oats and stuff. When I scatter this stuff out for my chickens, Penny comes running over to me now. I scoop a whole cup of it for her and bend down and let her have as much as she wants. Eating it out of a cup is easier for her. Penny’s beak doesn’t work as well at picking things up as all my other chickens so having a nice deep cup of it makes it easier for her. Penny is pretty special. Her speak is very distinct and I know it’s her even when my back is turned. She is one hen who has gone to the very worst of conditions to the best conditions and I really think she is very happy now.”

For people living in the city, I understand free-range eggs are hard to come by. If you have relatives that live in a rural area, ask if they have any small farms living nearby that sell eggs. Then the next time you visit those relatives, just stop by and pay for a two or so dozens. Supporting the small local farms can make a BIG difference! If you have the option to buy from a local farm (one that will allow you to see the chickens’ conditions), then please don’t buy your eggs from a super market! This is one way we can send the message to big corporations that we don’t like the way animals in their facilities are being treated. Hopefully these companies care about what the consumer wants (most of them do, because that’s the only way they can make a profit) and makes changes to fit our needs. Urban areas are tough to find small farms (obviously). Unfortunately, for those living in the city, there aren’t too many places for you to find free-range eggs. But for those who live in a small town, you can easily find friends or neighbors that own chickens who would be willing to share with you.

Conclusion to the Egg Topic:

  • Inform others about the abuse battery caged hens must endure to make sure you have a side of scrambled eggs are made every morning.
  • Play Farm Rescue on Facebook to find out more information I did not discuss.
  • Find a neighbor or friend who has chickens and ask if you can buy from them. Some people will even be willing to give them to you for free!
  • If you don’t know anyone with chickens but you have a yard then buy chickens of your own! I would suggest this to someone with time to spare because chickens (especially the number my neighbor has) are a large responsibility to maintain and take care of. There’s also a lot of money involved with buying feed, keeping the chicken coop suitable for the chickens (which means buying heaters/coolers), building a coop, ect. So I don’t recommend this option unless you are fully willing to take on all of the responsibilities needed to run a coop of your own.
  • Read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s a great book about Factory Farming and Foer spends a good deal of time discussing the treatment of chickens.
  • Don’t believe what you read on labels. Most have low standards on what “humane” is, especially when it comes to chickens and the egg industry.
  • Check out my favorite websites to find out more information.

The way all hens should be able to lay their eggs!

Next Discussion Topic…?

My family informed me that I need to move on from the topic of chickens and onto a different animal issue. The reason I spend so much time on chickens is because they are, in my opinion, one of the most abused animals in the United States. I haven’t even discussed chickens wasted for their flesh (broilers) yet! I’ll get to that one of these days but I think my family is right; I do need to talk about a variety of other animals. Comment below if you have any issues you would like me to discuss in the future.

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The Truth About Eggs

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Chickens exist in stable social groups. They can recognize each

other by their facial features. They have 24 distinct cries that communicate a wealth of information to one other, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea. They are good at solving problems. Perhaps most persuasive is the chicken’s intriguing ability to understand that an object, when taken away and hidden, nevertheless continues to exist. This is beyond the capacity of small children.”

–Dr. Chris Evans,

Professor of Psychology at Macquarie University, Australia

Do you remember when we had farmers with large amounts of land for animals to roam? The chickens would roam free, lay eggs year round, and in the spring, baby chicks would follow their mama hens around everywhere.  Before World War II in America, about 70% of the population worked in agriculture and there were several family farms around. After that there was a shift; major corporations took over small family farms and the treatment of farm animals slowly diminished. This began what is now known as factory farming. In the United States during 2002, 87 billion eggs were produced by around 336 million laying hens.(1) These layer hens don’t get to make a nest, sit on their eggs or even get a chance to see their babies- these chicks will never meet their moms.

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Let’s start from the beginning. You hatch from an egg and notice that there are many other baby chicks hatching around you. A big hand comes and roughly picks you up and throws you in a bin with many other fuzz balls that look just like you. The contents of this bin are then tossed onto a conveyer belt. This conveyer belt has two possible destinations. If you are a male, you will not be living for much longer (even though you just hatched from your shell). Since males cannot lay eggs and are unable to grow fast enough to be profitable for meat, they are useless to the industry. So if you are a male chick, you will either be ground up, gassed in chambers, or thrown out in a huge dumpster; left to either starve or freeze to death. The photo below (taken by Farm Sanctuary) shows male chicks in a dumpster, left to die a slow and painful death.

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If you are a female chick, then you will continue along the conveyer belt. Their beaks are trimmed off with a hot blade, all without anesthesia or pain killers. This has been shown to cause these hens chronic and acute pain for the rest of their short lives. Chickens use their beaks for touching and picking things up; their beaks are like our hands. The egg industry claims that beak trimming is needed both to decrease aggressive tendencies among birds and to reduce feed costs.(4) Many countries have banned beak trimming and have had no problems without it. Chickens with their beaks trimmed often starve to death because they are in chronic pain.

The females, in my opinion, have it much worse than the male chicks do. Ninety-eight percent of the female layer hens are confined in battery cages.(2) Battery cages are small wire cages that normally hold 3-10 hens. Each hen has less space than a sheet of letter-sized paper (67 square inches per bird). A study by Drs. M.S. Dawkins and S. Hardie (1989) found that hens need an average of 72 square inches just to stand erect, 178 inches to preen, 197 inches to turn around, and 291 inches to flap their wings.(3) So 67 x 67 inches isn’t nearly enough room for these poor animals.

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Female hens spend up to two years in these small cages. Their bodies often rub up against the side of the cage, causing them to lose their feathers. In many of the pictures taken of battery cages, you can see that many of these chickens are all bones. Chickens in these cages lack any sort of exercise and often have brittle bones and no muscle. It’s not uncommon to see their claws grow around the wire, because they are not meant to stand on wire for years at a time. Sometimes, hens die younger than others because their health deteriorates. These dead hens are often left to rot inside cages with hens who are still alive. When the alive hens slow down laying eggs (typically around 1-2 years old), the industry brings in newly laid chicks to take over and gets rid of these older hens. Workers violently rip these “useless” hens out of their cages (often breaking their brittle bones) and cram them all in a big truck to take to slaughter. Sometimes, workers will just place these chickens in a dumpster to starve or get crushed to death. All I know is that in a factory farm, none of these animals will have a humane end.

Now, you know the average life of a battery caged chicken. From the day they hatch to the day they are slaughtered, they live miserable lives. These factories don’t care about the welfare of these poor animals. As long as the can get as many birds and as many eggs as the possibly can, the companies are happy.

 

The Truth About “Cage-Free”:

cage-free

Cage-free doesn’t mean the hens are allowed to roam around on Old McDonald’s farm! Most people seem to believe this. I work at a grocery store as a cashier. I would say about 1 in every 30 customers buy eggs labeled as “Cage-Free”. There have been many a time where I almost ask these customers why they go with “Cage-free”, just to see if they believe that these eggs came from happy chickens. I’m sure that’s what most people think. “Cage-free” SOUNDS pleasant- it’s meant to sound that way. But in all reality, “Cage-free” hens are treated just about the same as any battery-cage hen.

  • Both “Cage-free” and battery-cage systems typically buy their hens from hatcheries that kill the male chicks upon hatching—more than 200 million each year in the United States alone.
  • Both cage and cage-free hens have part of their beaks burned off, a painful mutilation that is done all without painkillers.
  • Both cage and cage-free hens are typically slaughtered at less than two years old, far less than half their normal lifespan. They are often transported long distances to slaughter plants with no food or water.

– This information was taken from The Humane Society of the United States. Check out the article here to read more about the topic.

Whether you buy eggs from “Cage-free” hens or ones living in battery cages, you have a risk of getting salmonella. Do you remember the salmonella outbreak that occurred last August? You can thank the egg industry for that one. Although many don’t know how these hens can cause salmonella, there is a theory that it’s caused by their stress. It could also be caused from all of the ammonia and dust in the air, which the hens are constantly breathing in. Either way, it is almost certain that if one hen carries a disease, the chance that the other hens will catch that disease is very good. A way we could possibly prevent the spread of disease is to make the cages larger or just let them be chickens and live outside. But that would mean these egg companies would have to pay more of their money and they don’t want to spend that money.

These hens typically never see daylight. The amount of eggs they are forced to lay is a staggering amount and it puts a lot of stress on their already fragile bodies. Many go insane because of boredom and not being act like a normal chicken would. Please, stop purchasing your eggs from stores. If we got everyone to stop purchasing these eggs, we could make a difference in the world.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP:

  • DON’T EAT EGGS. I don’t suggest this unless you live in the city. If you live in a rural area, chances are there will be several people who own chickens and would be happy to sell them to you. This is what I do. My neighbor owns a small chicken coop and sells my family eggs for $3.50. Sure, it’s more expensive than eggs from the grocery store but I know that the hens (and roosters!) are well cared for and happy.
  • DON’T BUY EGGS FROM THE GROCERY STORE. Unless you’ve seen where your eggs originated from, you won’t know whether or not cruelty was involved in the making of your eggs. So to be safe, refuse to buy your eggs from a store. This makes a HUGE statement and will cause a huge change in the egg industry if a lot of people participate.
  • SEND THIS TO YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY. Chances are they also had no clue the cruelty these chickens had to endure to get the eggs in your fridge. PLEASE recommend my blog to others. My goal is to stop all sorts of animal cruelty. I’m not getting paid to write this blog. I write it because I want to make a difference in this world.

[WARNING!] The videos below will show you just how terrible factory farming is for the animals.They’re a bit more graphic but that’s the point; I want to show you how horrible these animals are treated. BOTH VIDEOS CONTAIN GRAPHIC IMAGES! VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED!

[WARNING! VIDEO CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES] Mercy For Animals is a great organization. Check out their website here for more videos. This was a n investigation taken undercover (because no recording is allowed in these factories (for obvious reasons). Battery cages should be outlawed by now. They cause disease in chickens to spread faster and also make these chickens loose their minds of boredom.

 

 

[WARNING! VIDEO CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES] This one will really shock you. This is what happens the 50% of the chicks born-the male chicks. They are killed because they are not useful to the industry. This might be difficult to watch but try the best you can! These cute babies should NOT BE KILLED AFTER BIRTH! It sickens me to know it still occurs throughout the world, not only the U.S.

 

Works Cited

  1. USDA – National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Poultry Highlights” May 29, 2002, http://www.nass.usda.gov/ca/rev/poultry/205polna.htm.
  2. United Egg Producers – “United Egg Producers Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S. Egg Laying Flocks,” 2002 Edition (United Egg Producers, Alpharetta, Ga.).
  3. Mench J and Swanson J, “Developing Science-Based Animal Welfare Guidelines,” a speech delivered at the 2000 Poultry Symposium and Egg Processing Workshop, http://animalscience.ucdavis.edu/Avian/pubs.htm.
  4. “Feed savings could justify beak trimming,” Poultry Digest, March 1993: p. 6. As cited in Davis K, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry (Summertown, TN: The Book Publishing Co., 1996), p. 70.