23rd March 2012
The Winter sun sets beyond the horizon after another long and arduous day of work. Yet, after having served her manager well, this factory worker does not bid her colleagues goodbye and she most certainly does not clock off for the day. No, this factory worker, after putting her heart and soul into all of the products she created for her employer’s profit, today was granted no leave from her workstation when she required privacy. She was not protected from a co-worker who physically harassed her and who, reminiscent of schoolyard bullying, stole her lunch, leaving her hungry and exhausted. This modest little factory worker did not even have moment’s break in which to stand and stretch out, relieving weary muscles and bones, let alone to wander about in the season’s cool and refreshing air in an effort to replenish her mind and spirit.
This dedicated factory worker will never have any of these privileges. For this dedicated factory worker is Louisa-May, an egg-laying chicken, a caged ‘battery’ hen. And her workplace is a factory of the worst possible kind; a factory farm, a hell on earth.
Louisa-May’s workplace is a large, poorly ventilated shed and her workstation; a 40cm high cage, which she shares with four other hens just like herself. Louisa-May is seen as nothing more than an egg-producing machine, her life valued only by the amount of product, and the subsequent profit, she can continue to yield. Louisa-May’s personal space is smaller than an A4 sheet of paper, meaning that she will never spread her wings just as she longs to and that flying, even the shortest of distances, is a dream so laughable she cannot even bear to consider it. The wire floor of Louisa-May’s caged prison is so far removed from the warm, soft earth nature designed her to scratch around in and her nails, as a result, are cripplingly long. Her feet grip painfully, almost uncontrollably, around the thin wires of a floor which slants away beneath her, ensuring that her ‘product’ rolls away from the instinct of a broody or, more likely, a hungry hen. Above Louisa-May, below her and beside her are thousands and thousands of hens just like her; imprisoned, undervalued and overworked. Working for their lives.
As the sun sets outside in the wide open fields, inside this egg ‘factory’ artificial light reflects from each and every surface. Resting and roosting are not an option here: there are girls who have not yet completed their day’s work. The shorter, darker days of Winter signal to the hens that it is time for their tired bodies to rest for the season, to take a break from egg-laying and to replenish their vitamin and mineral stores. But the forces of nature have no place within this factory and anything less than 300 eggs per year from a hen just will not do. Controlled breeding and the monitoring of genetics by humans have seen the egg laying chicken become far removed from her closest wild cousin, who needs only to lay a handful of eggs a couple of times per year in order keep her species thriving. As a result of such unnatural demand, Louisa-May’s body is severely depleted of the calcium required to produce the numerous hard eggshells and many of her fellow hens have succumbed to caged layer fatigue, whereby they are so severely worn out that they simply starve and die. Uterus infections, reproductive problems and broken bones are routine but there are no Workplace Health Checks here; a certain number of hens are expected to be lost and as this is factored into the company’s overall profit and loss calculations, their extensive suffering and eventual end go unnoticed.
Respiratory and eye infections are an occupational hazard as the build-up of excrement leaches ammonia into the factory’s atmosphere. Louisa-May struggles to breathe at the best of times but is far more fortunate than one of her cage’s occupants who, in addition to wheezing and rasping for each breath, is also painfully blind as a result of the conditions.
Louisa-May herself does not fare so well amongst the masses and where a naturally established pecking order would see her identifying and avoiding hens far stronger and superior to herself, here she exists not only within the same cage as them but must also compete with them for food and water; something which goes against every natural instinct she possesses. As a result, Louisa-May is severely underweight and is losing strength daily. The close quarters and competition cause the hens to turn their frustration toward each other and whilst many have necks that are bald from reaching through the wires for nourishment, not a single feather adorns Louisa-May’s back; the excruciating consequence of being the weaker creature. Painful debeaking as young chicks was carried out to prevent such harm; however a badly formed beak can inflict just as much damage upon the soft flesh of another as an unmutilated one can. Louisa-May’s legacy to the hot, sharp knife is a chronically short upper beak, which not only hinders her ability to eat; it also robs her of the ability to preen the few feathers she still possesses. With bathing in dust to keep clean and free of parasites definitely out of the equation, preening is the one and only hygiene practice that remains available to a battery hen.
On and on it goes; the ‘life’ of a battery hen until, at around just 18 months of age, she is deemed a spent hen, no longer commercially productive and is taken from this world forever. This is despite the fact that, given the chance, a happy and healthy chicken may live for ten years.
And so, with Louisa-May now spent, both literally and commercially, her days were numbered. Rough hands hoisted her from her cage and pushed her into a small crate, which was to be loaded onto the back of a truck. Louisa-May and her sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth were to leave this world forever. The first day they ever saw the sunshine was to be their last. But these five little women were luckier than most. Kindness intervened and instead of being carted off to that place from which hens never return, a last minute reprieve brought Louisa-May and her sisters to the sanctuary of Edgar’s Mission.
Today Louisa-May lives out her days blissfully, having found solace, safety and most importantly, endless sunshine at Edgar’s Mission. With wide open spaces abounding, Louisa-May will never be prevented from stretching and flapping her wings again. Louisa-May scratches in the soil, her nails now worn down to a comfortable length, she forages for tasty treats, lays her eggs in private in her carefully constructed nest and dust bathes until her heart is content. Louisa-May has learned to love the sweet sensation of watermelon on her beak and to gobble up juicy grapes. Her nourishing diet and new way of life mean that thick and healthy feathers now cover what was once a bare and bony back. Louisa-May relishes in the company of her chicken friends, safe in the knowledge that she is a prisoner no more. And so, with her life now a permanent vacation, Louisa-May and her companions love nothing more than to lie in the sun, wing back, and bathe in the sunshine for what seems like hours on end.
And so, as the Summer sun sets beyond the horizon after another glorious and magnificent day of rest and play, Louisa-May settles in to roost for the night, looking forward to the adventures that tomorrow will bring.
For she is Louisa-May, former factory worker, ex-battery hen; no longer viewed as merely the sum of her product but as a sentient being and sensitive soul. But she is far more than this too. She is our symbol of hope and compassion; our proof that the kindness of one can change the lives of many. The choices we make each and every day determine the fate of millions of laying hens just like Louisa-May. Please don’t take their sunshine away.
The Lowdown on Chickens:
- Chickens are sociable animals who ideally live in stable groups, establishing an intricate social hierarchy, known as a ‘pecking order’.
- Not only can chickens recognise the individual faces of up to 100 other birds in their flock, they can also recall where each of those individuals sit in the pecking order, relative to themselves.
- Chickens are intelligent creatures with the cognitive ability to solve problems, recognise shapes and colours and can comprehend that objects still exist even after they are hidden from view. In this respect, they are more cognitively advanced than small human children!
- In 2002, the PBS documentary, The Natural History of Chickens, stated that ‘Chickens love to watch television and have vision similar to humans. They also seem to enjoy all forms of music, especially classical’.
- Dust bathing is an activity that chickens will carry out daily in order to remain clean and well. The hens will crouch down in soil or litter and use their wings to distribute the matter over their body, which cleans feathers, prevents and removes parasites, removes oil build up and helps to maintain body temperature.
- Hens are driven to lay their eggs in private, in a quiet and secluded place. If prevented from doing so, this frustrates a hen greatly.
- Scratching in the soil, bathing in the sun, stretching their wings and preening feathers are all behaviours that make a chicken’s life complete.
- In Australia today, over 11 million egg laying hens are confined within ‘battery’ cages, which allow them less space than the size of an A4 sheet of paper.
- As of 2008, caged hens must be given at least 550 square centimetres of personal space, however researchers have found that to stretch her wings, a hen requires an average of 829 square centimetres and to preen, an average of 1150 square centimetres. The recommended cage size does not allow a hen to carry out her natural behaviour.
- Nearly 70% of all eggs purchased in Australia come from hens kept within battery cage systems.
- Within a battery cage, hens are unable to establish a natural pecking order and cannot avoid higher ranking birds as they would naturally. The frustration of confinement can also result in aggression and even cannibalism amongst birds. Again, they are unable to escape from this.
- In order to ‘fix’ such incidents of aggression, ‘debeaking’ has become standard practice, whereby at a young age, a hot blade, laser or infrared technology cuts off part of a chick’s upper and lower beak. This procedure is painful for the young animal, who receives no anaesthetic or pain relief. Debeaking can make preening and even eating difficult for a hen.
- With no exercise, a battery hen can develop weak and brittle bones and is at a high risk of osteoporosis. More than 56% of caged hens live with painful untreated fractures.
- Following an incubation period of 21 days, chicks will hatch and at one day old their sex is determined. Sexing chicks requires considerable skill and is done at this very early stage to determine their fate. Nature dictates that 50% of chicks hatched will be male.
- It’s only the female chicks that will become commercial layers that produce the eggs used for human consumption we eat. The male chicks are considered an unwanted by-product of egg production and are killed and disposed of shortly after birth. This means that for every commercial laying hen, there is a male who did not make it.
- Stress, being pecked by cage mates and rubbing on the wire cage to reach their feed are all factors which contribute to feather loss in battery hens.