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Battery Hens - A Symbol Of Much That Is Wrong

Battery Hens - A Symbol Of Much That Is Wrong In Society

A column by Green Animal Welfare Spokesperson Sue Kedgley

It is hard to erase the image of the tragic looking battery hen that I found myself holding last week at the launch of the SPCA's campaign to have the battery cage banned.

It wasn't just that this chicken had lost a lot of its feathers. Or that its beak had been burnt off. It was the skin damage and raw, red patches all over its body that shocked me so much.

The skin under this chicken's neck was raw, red and festering - presumably as a result of having to poke its neck through a wire cage to feed from a central feeding trough. There were raw red patches all over its body, due to the constant rubbing against other birds and the sides of her cage.

This sad looking hen was a typical battery hen from a Wellington battery farm. Depending on how you look at it, this chicken was lucky to have lived so long. It was 18 months old. Typically battery hens are exhausted in one year and are slaughtered and replaced at that point.

Two and a half million hens in New Zealand share the same fate as that one hen. They spend their entire short, sad lives inside a cramped, barren cage with two or three other hens, with a living space about the size of an A4 piece of paper.

Battery hens never get to walk, peck, scratch, feel the sun or even stretch their wings anywhere near their full 70 centimetre span. In fact they can't do most of the things that hens do in a natural environment. They are forced to stand on sloping mesh floors which causes considerable discomfort and often leads to foot injuries and sore feet.

If they want to move or turn around all the other birds have to move as well, so it is a constantly restless as well as stressful environment.

At about five days old most battery chicks have at least half of their beaks cut off - a mutilation that is carried out to stop hens pecking each other to death as a result of the overcrowded, stressful and boring living conditions they are forced to endure.

Ordinarily, hens will lay eggs only during the summer months. On battery hen farms, however, lights are kept on for up to 16 hours a day so the hens think it is summer and continue producing eggs all year round. But calcium depletion due to the high number of eggs each hen lays, together with the lack of exercise, can lead to osteoporosis and result in weak and broken bones.

On many battery hen farms, hens have to endure the constant smell of toxic ammonia from the decomposing uric acid in the manure which falls into a pit below their cages.

As I held the tragic looking, trembling creature at the SPCA launch, it occurred to me that she was like a symbol of much that is wrong in our society.

Mahatma Gandhi once observed that 'the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.' What does it say about the moral state of our society that we allow millions of hens to spend their lives locked up in tiny cages?

It says, firstly, that as a people we put profit and greed ahead of everything else. A life of suffering for millions of animals is tolerated because it saves a few cents on the price of an egg and brings higher returns to egg producers.

It is also tolerated because not enough people know the reality of this industry. For too long it has been hidden under a veil of secrecy and it is only now, through the efforts of the SPCA and others, that the veil is being lifted.

It says that as a species we treat animals with utter contempt. Instead of recognising that hens are living individual creatures that we ought to treat with respect and compassion, we take the opposite view that they are biological machines or commodities that we are entitled to exploit, no matter how cruelly, providing it makes them more efficient producers of eggs.

It also suggests we have lost touch with our humanity, for how otherwise could we allow millions of animals to be treated as if they were not alive, as if they did not feel or suffer; as if they were mere slaves of the human race?

It suggests that we have lost touch with nature and with the control of our food supply. Why otherwise would we buy eggs from hens that have never seen the sun, which are fed a totally unnatural diet (consisting of the ground up remains of other animals, soy meal that is probably genetically engineered, and other delicacies) and which only get their yellow colour because of artificial dyes that are incorporated into their feed?

It suggests too, that parliament (which could rid the land of the battery hen cage tomorrow) is more concerned with protecting the interests of big business (yes, layer hen farming is a very big business) than with responding to the concerns of ordinary New Zealanders, the vast majority of whom want to see the battery hen cage banned from New Zealand.

Finally it suggests that our legislators have an extraordinary capacity for hypocrisy and for self delusion. Only three years ago Parliament passed the Animal Welfare Act which states that it is illegal to cause animals to suffer, and stipulates, in section 10, that all animals must be able to display their normal patterns of behaviour.

Obviously a hen in a cage which cannot walk, peck, scratch or stretch its wings, cannot express any of its normal patterns of behaviour. This is an obvious and transparent breach of section 10 of the Animal Welfare Act. So why has the battery hen cage not simply been declared illegal?

Instead of simply declaring it illegal, Governments have procrastinated and developed a time-consuming and lengthy process to review the code of animal welfare for layer hens (which says a battery hen cage is legal and acceptable, and not a breach of animal welfare regulations).

As part of this process, a six week public consultation exercise will begin shortly. After that the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee will deliberate, and decide whether the battery hen cage is acceptable under the new Act or not. If it is honest and brave and says that it is not, it will make a recommendation to phase it out to the Minister of Agriculture, Jim Sutton, and he will make the final decision. The legislation cleverly avoids the issue from being decided by Parliament.

If the committee is compromising and dishonest, it will kick for touch and say the battery cage remains acceptable, and recommend to Jim Sutton that it remains. In which case it would be another 10 years before New Zealanders would be able to voice their opinion again on the despicable battery hen cage.

That is why we must take this rare opportunity now. If enough New Zealanders speak out we could change the lives of millions of poor tortured animals. If we don't we will be sentencing these poor helpless birds to, at the very least, another 10 years of misery.

Submission forms can be obtained from the Body Shop or the SPCA or from my office.

ends

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