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Picking a Chicken Fight

            Once again, California has become the front line for a battle over animal welfare.  This November 2008, the issue of farm animals and the space they deserve will be coming to a ballot box near year.

            Promotion of the Farm Animal Confinement Initiative has been funded by the Humane Society of the United States.  This initiative has some implications for California’s veal and swine industry, but will have major repercussions on egg production in our state.  As written, it mandates that chickens be kept in cages big enough that they can spread their wings without touching another bird or the walls of their cage.

            Currently, egg-laying hens live in extremely tight quarters. With several hens sharing a single cage, the average area per hen is about 350 square centimeters—less than a page of notebook paper per bird.  This tiny amount of real estate is definitely smaller than the European standard—which ranges from an average of 450 - 700 sq centimeters (depending on the nation.)

            The Humane Society has pledged to spend at least one million dollars to get this initiative passed and already advance news stories, intended to inform and guide your thinking, are appearing in local media.

            “Factory Farming” is the term that animal rights groups use when referring to animal production practices.   The phrase is effective in that it evokes a negative feeling about farming from those who hear it.  But simply labeling every sort of production system as factory farming does not further the discussion of “how much room do animals need for their well-being” versus “what are the advantages & disadvantages of various housing systems for food animals.”

            There are some “cage-free” housing systems being developed.  However, these haven’t been widely accepted, and truthfully, some of this hesitance is related to economics—fewer birds on a parcel of land = fewer eggs = fewer dollars.

            However, this issue isn’t as simple as corporate farming profits vs. animal welfare.  Giving animals more space and/or eliminating cages can increase the risk of deadly disease transmission and painful injury—neither of which improves the hen’s welfare.

            Scientists have been conducting research on what seems to make laying hens happier.  When measuring the behavior of hens, some of the signs of frustration (cage pecking) increase as the birds get crowded, but other negative behaviors like cannibalism (pecking another bird to death) will increase when there is more room.  I cannot fairly summarize the pages of literature on laying hen behavior, but in general, more negative behaviors tend to be seen when the birds are kept at the extremes-- either very crowded or not crowded at all.  The trick is to find out what amount of space is ‘just right.’

            Often lost in the discussion of laying hens and cages is the reality that cage-free systems don’t mean that the birds live in a “wall free” world. Cage-free birds are still kept inside giant buildings, and these birds are so crowded together that the photos remind me of rush hour on a busy New York street.

            It is important that our society discusses the welfare of animals, and the Farm Animal Confinement Initiative is part of that discussion.  Proponents of the Initiative aren’t concerned that passage will likely end the egg industry in California and raise the price of eggs--their only focus is to improve the welfare of the animals we eat.

            I agree that there isn’t anything wrong with wanting our food animals to have a better life, but the key is to find a balance between the needs of humanity and the welfare of animals under our stewardship.

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