In praise of cages for laying hens
By Dennis T. Avery
My wife and I used to have free-range chickens. We didn't get an abundance of eggs because the hens hid them in barn hay—and then brought us batches of live chicks instead of breakfast makings. And, they stopped laying during the winter so we had to buy commercial eggs at the local grocery.
Then the local foxes and hawks discovered our chickens, and we learned first-hand why people invented chicken houses: the roosters and non-nesting hens usually survived sleeping in the barn rafters, but the nesting hens and those with chicks got taken, with the chicks as appetizers. That's why Britain invented fox-hunting in the old days—to protect the village hens. People also kept the birds inside their homes at night, which meant more disease risk, poor husbandry, and poor hygiene.
Reluctantly, the Averys decided to put the new chickens into a coop with a fenced yard—and netting overhead to keep off the hawks.
Now our problem is that the chickens peck some of each others' feathers off. We haven't had any chickens pecked to death yet, but that's the typical problem with birds that are confined, but not caged. The "pecking order" is real and natural. The only real solution is to de-beak the birds and my wife won't allow it. We have thrown the roosters out of the "safe house" and the damaged hens are in a separate area re-feathering. But we have fewer than two dozen chickens to fuss over.
That's why the egg producers of the modern world have invented wire cages for their hens. The birds are kept safe and comfortable, and they're socially surrounded by other birds that can't peck them to death. Higher feed efficiency with the cages is kinder to the planet, because millions of acres don't have to be converted from wildlife habitat to grow extra feed and for chicken pastures.
Across the affluent world, bans on caged laying hens are being pushed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the U.S. HSUS is not your local Humane Society that accepts pets for adoption but a radical anti-pet group—that wants to eliminate all domestic livestock and poultry, along with all pets and circus animals.
Activist pressure hit the European Union years ago, and the EU announced it would ban cages for laying hens pending a report from an advisory commission. In due course, the advisory commission reported that non-caged layers pecked each other to death more often, while spreading salmonella and other dangerous bacteria. Surprise!
Sweden refused to accept the EU commission's good-sense report, and moved ahead with banning cages for laying hens. Now, Sweden is reporting "significant" increases in cannibalism, bird disease and bird deaths. How does this help the birds? Meanwhile, the Swedes are importing eggs from neighboring countries that allow cages, in order to supply enough eggs for the kiddies.
California may go Sweden one better. California has already passed a layer-cage ban in a referendum vote that takes effect in 2015. Now Assembly Bill 1437 would ban any imported eggs from other states or other countries—except the powdered and liquid eggs used for institutional cooking. California not only won't have electricity, they won't be eating omelets!
That's why I have recited our recent real-world experience, which sums up the history of chicken-raising over recent centuries. Now, like the U.S. Congress, which over the past 15 years demanded that banks make more housing loans to people who wouldn't make their payments, California and perhaps some other states are planning to make egg-production nearly impossible.
Do the activists pushing the cage bans really have the best interests of the birds and our children at heart?
Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.