Educational Series: Stop Imprisoning Hens in Tiny, Torturous ‘Battery Cages’

By Nick Engelfried
Imagine spending almost your entire life crammed in a space so small and crowded that you can barely turn around. It sounds like a nightmare–but this grim fate represents reality for millions of hens on industrial egg farms who are kept in the cruel devices known as battery cages. A typical battery cage may hold up to ten birds, all stuffed into a barren wire enclosure so small that they constantly jostle against each other while trying in vain to perform natural behaviors. Battery cages are among the cruelest contraptions invented to confine animals for profit. Yet in countries like the United States, their use represents not an exception, but the rule on industrial egg farms.

The widespread adoption of battery cages occurred in the twentieth century, and was tied to the larger trend of increased mechanization and industrialization in farming. Battery cages are designed to produce the maximum number of eggs as quickly and cheaply as possible. Wire floors allow chicken droppings to fall into trays that can be easily replaced, keeping mess to a minimum. Instead of a natural diet, the birds are fed on a dry mash infused with vitamins. Even confining chickens to a tiny living space helps increase profit; not only do small cages require less storage space, they also prevent hens from exercising and burning energy that could otherwise be channeled into growing and laying mass quantities of eggs.

The result of all this is bigger profit margins for egg producers and lower prices for consumers–but the price is paid by the hens used in egg production. In recent decades, public opinion has begun to turn against the use of battery cages as more people wake up to the grim reality of what goes on at factory farms. Alternative methods of egg production exist that can still keep prices low for consumers, while eliminating the worst features of battery cages. Meanwhile, growing numbers of consumers are questioning whether treating animals as mere vessels for food production makes sense at all in our modern world. It is time to rethink the use of cruel devices like battery cages–and doing so requires understanding just what makes them so terrible for birds.

Chickens are intelligent animals who under natural conditions engage in a variety of complex behaviors. While famous for their social “pecking order,” in which birds use their beaks to exert dominance, they also participate in a range of other social behaviors–some of which are so sophisticated that they were once thought to occur only in primates and certain other mammals. Foraging chickens use calls to warn each other of approaching predators, while males will sometimes make more noise if it puts a rival rooster in danger of being eaten. The birds even have what could be described as a sort of rudimentary language, which involves a variety of warning calls used to signal the presence of specific predatory animals.

Other behaviors hens routinely engage in when in a naturalistic setting include foraging for food in dirt and vegetation, sunbathing, and taking cleansing dust baths. None of these things are possible in the confines of a battery cage. When it is time to lay an egg, a mother hen will seek out a sheltered, hidden spot for her nest. This behavior is especially deeply ingrained, as evidenced by the way hens in battery cages will desperately try to find shelter by attempting to crawl under her cage-mates.

Studies have also shown chickens learning and applying past experience to new circumstances, as well as perceiving and responding to what another individual is feeling–the ability known as empathy. All of this calls into question the ethics of treating these social, intelligent birds as mere egg-laying machines. Hens in battery cages are assumed to have only one purpose: to lay as many eggs as possible until the day–usually when they are only a couple of years old–that they are finally slaughtered for meat.

So, what can be done to save egg-producing hens from the cruelty of battery cages? The most obvious step is to prohibit the use of these harmful devices, and some parts of the world have already done just that. In the European Union a law banning battery cages went fully into effect in 2012, and the bloc is currently in the process of proposing new rules that could eliminate the caging of chickens and other livestock altogether. A battery cage ban in New Zealand that has been in the works for a decade became law on January 1st of this year. Other countries where batter cages are illegal include Canada and Mexico, while Australia is working to eliminate them by 2036. This makes the United States something of an outlier among major developed countries. As of today, about 70% of all egg-producing hens in the U.S. spend their lives in battery cages. However, efforts are underway to end the practice in some states.

In 2012, California voters overwhelmingly passed Prop 2, which was meant to ban the use of battery cages for hens, as well as pig gestation crates and calf veal crates, by 2015. A lack of clear language made the law difficult to implement–but in 2018, another state ballot initiative, Prop 12, more clearly defined parameters for the treatment of hens and other farm animals. Together, Props 2 and 12 could have a dramatic impact on how chickens and other livestock are treated in California and beyond, since Prop 12 also prevents the sale within the state of products using practices the law bans at home.

It is important to keep in mind that banning battery cages does not eliminate the cruelties rampant in the egg industry. In New Zealand, battery cages have been largely replaced by colony cages, which house larger numbers of hens in a confined space. Although colony cages allow chickens slightly more space to engage in natural behaviors, animal welfare groups have criticized them for being only slightly better than battery cages. Clearly, the goal should be to move toward a future when confining animals in tiny, barren spaces for profit is not allowed at all. That said, banning battery cages can be a first step in that process, and voters everywhere can encourage their elected leaders to support eliminating these cruel contraptions.

More than almost any other device, battery cages show just how far human cruelty toward animals can go when livestock are treated as machines whose purpose is merely to produce a product for sale. By spreading understanding about the cruelty of battery cages and pushing for their elimination we can help usher in a new era of more humane treatment–not just for chickens, but for all living creatures.

Photo credit: Lever Foundation

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Which of these behaviors has been shown to occur in chickens?
At approximately what age are egg-laying hens normally slaughtered for meat?
Approximately what percentage of U.S. egg-producing hens live in battery cages?
Which of these countries has banned battery cages?
True or false: Battery cages were not widely used until the early 2000s
In addition to battery cages, what practice was banned by California Prop 2?
Which statement applies to colony cages?

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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