Battery cages are wire cages that measure about 18 by 20 inches, and they are where about 95 percent of laying hens spend their entire lives. To get a sense of a hen’s life in a battery cage, imagine spending your entire life in a wire cage the size of your bathtub with four other people. You wouldn’t be able to move, so your muscles and bones would deteriorate. Your feet would become lacerated. You would go insane. That’s precisely what happens to laying hens.
Battery cages have been illegal across Europe for over a year, and some countries banned them many years ago. McDonald’s in the EU hasn’t put eggs from caged hens into its McMuffins in years. In two years, California will become the first state where the cages are illegal. Massachusetts can be the second, if we pass the Massachusetts Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, introduced by Senator Robert Hedlund and Representative Jason Lewis. The bill has the strong support of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the ASPCA, and Farm Sanctuary.
Battery cages are so hideously cruel that in addition to being illegal across the European Union, they have been condemned by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which included former Kansas governor John Carlin, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman (who also chaired the House Ag committee for years), as well as farmers and ranchers. They are condemned by every animal protection group in the world, including those that promote meat-eating.
Battery cages are so small that not one hen could extend her wings, and yet the egg industry stuffs five or more in each tiny cage. The animals’ muscles and bones waste away from lack of use; by the time hens are removed from cages after about two years, all of them have suffered from severe bone loss and one quarter suffer new bone breaks.
For some birds, their skeletal systems become so weak that their spinal cords deteriorate and they become paralyzed; the animals then die from dehydration in their cages. This horrid situation is so common that the industry has a term for it, “cage fatigue.” Additionally, standing and rubbing against wire cages destroys the health of hens’ feathers and skin, and the birds’ overgrown claws often become caught in cage wires; they either die where they are trapped, or they have to tear their skin to escape. It is hard to imagine a harder life than that of a battery caged hen.
In addition, the emotional and psychological trauma for hens in cages is severe. Chickens outperform both dogs and cats on tests of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral complexity. As just one example, University of Bristol researchers have shown that chickens have the capacity to delay gratification. Reporting on this research, Discovery Magazine explained: “Chickens do not just live in the present but can anticipate the future and demonstrate self-control … something previously attributed only to humans and other primates…”
In battery cages, these inquisitive and social animals — who are particularly doting mothers — have their every natural desire frustrated. They never nest, perch, forage, take a dust bath, or explore their surroundings. They certainly never build a nest or raise their young. Their lives are categorized by unmitigated mental suffering—from the moment they’re crammed into a cage until the moment they are torn from it two years later.
At Farm Sanctuary, we spend our lives with farm animals, and we wouldn’t eat them or their eggs under any circumstances. We recoil at the treatment of hens in all systems, including cage-free and colony cage conditions. But we also work to eliminate the very worst abuses of farm animals, and it’s hard to imagine anything worse than the battery cages where 250 million hens are currently “living;” immobilizing animals for their entire lives qualifies, without a touch of hyperbole, as torture.
So far, the only grocery store chain to have banned the sale of eggs from caged hens is Whole Foods, and the only restaurant chain to promise to ban them from their supply chain is Burger King (by 2017); both companies deserve plaudits for their progress. But these systems should be illegal in every country where compassion for animals is as universal a value as it is in the United States.
Massachusetts citizens have a chance, right now, to take effective state action. Please urge your state legislators to pass Massachusetts Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.
Bruce Friedrich is senior director of advocacy at Farm Sanctuary.