A recent Associated Press article about one researcher’s effort to breed “gentler” chickens is getting a lot of attention. Agribusiness representatives have seized the article to defend the cruel practice of confining hens in cages (claiming that most egg-laying hens are, by nature, too aggressive to each other to let them live in a cage-free environment). A closer inspection of the issue leads to a different conclusion. Certainly, studies that lead to improved animal welfare—such as reduced feather-pecking among laying hens—are a positive step. However, the egg industry needn’t wait for new bird strains to exist before working to improve birds’ quality of life.
Currently, the majority of egg-laying hens in the U.S. are confined in cages so small the animals can barely move – let alone spread their wings or engage in other important natural behavior, such as perching, nesting or foraging. Such restrictive confinement takes a physical toll on the birds’ health, leading to osteoporosis and other metabolic disorders.
Well-established scientific research [PDF] shows that cage-free housing offers significant animal welfare advantages compared to cramming animals into cages. As Dr. Bernard Rollin at Colorado State University’s department of animal science has stated: “Research has shown what common sense already knew—that animals built to move must move.”
This is why California and Michigan have outlawed the cage confinement of egg-laying hens, and why dozens of major companies (e.g. Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway, Wal-Mart, Costco and Hellmann’s mayonnaise) have moved toward cage-free eggs.
So what about this research at Purdue on the genetic basis of feather-pecking? Scientists have studied abnormal pecking behavior for years, and now understand that it is multifactorial, with some of the causes including overcrowding, barren environments, and lack of loose litter, in addition to the genetic background of the hen. The behavior is notoriously unpredictable, and it can occur in both cage and cage-free production systems. While efforts to correct this animal welfare problem are certainly commendable, many cage-free producers are already successfully managing their flocks with low mortality rates [PDF]. Providing early access to an enriched environment, with perches and foraging substrate for example, can greatly reduce the probability of an injurious pecking outbreak.
Mortality may be high or low in any type of laying system, depending on how well that system is managed. But the problems associated with cage confinement— including the denial of basic behavioral needs and virtual immobilization—are inherent to battery cages and cannot be mitigated.
The HSUS supports efforts to improve the lives of animals, including research that may reduce feather-pecking. However, the egg industry need not wait to make critical animal welfare improvements—such as simply allowing birds the freedom to walk and spread their wings. Many cage-free producers are already able to manage their flocks in a way that reduces mortality due to abnormal pecking behavior, and these successful cage-free producers should serve as models for the rest of the industry.