letter to the editor in our local newspaper that made me peevish. Its author opined that chickens have better welfare when they are kept in rather than out of cages, because when not caged they are liable to get parasites and cannibalize each other.
I responded. But the letter to the editor format restricted me to 250 words, and I had more to say. Luckily, I have you guys to rant to! So here is my original piece in full.
Dan Miner's letter,
published Dec. 5, sets up a
straw-man argument about the welfare of chickens kept
in versus out of cages. I'm
responding from my experiences as a
veterinarian with a special
chickens in cages free from walking in their own feces? Yes –
because they're standing on wire, which is unhealthy for their feet.
Are chickens out of cages walking in their own feces? Only
if you keep them crowded too close together. If you keep them with
enough space that their surroundings don't fill with poop, then no,
they won't be walking in poop.
chickens in cages able to engage in cannabalism? No – but
they're denied healthy social
don't actually want to kill and eat other chickens. They just do it
if they're highly stressed. Keep them in a healthy environment where
they have some space and the ability to engage in species-appropriate
activities, like perching and scratching for bugs, and they'd much
rather do those things instead.
the cage system protect chickens from parasites? Sure – and keeping
a human in a glass bubble keeps them physically free of parasites,
too, but would anyone with a
normal immune system be
willing to live like that just to avoid normal
Healthy, unstressed chickens
have robust immune systems that can handle normal
a stresssed, crowded
animal isn't a healthy animal. When bird flu swept through commercial
chicken farms this summer, resulting in massive numbers of deaths,
which populations stayed healthiest? The outdoor birds, who were
unstressed because they had
the ability to engage in species-appropriate behaviors, and
therefore had robust immune
systems. The stressed-out, crowded
indoor birds had weak
immune systems with no
ability to fight off the virus, and were so packed together that when
it got into those populations, it swept straight through.
are only healthier in cages compared to out of cages if the
out-of-cage environment is a crowded, stressful one. Many of those
environments are, of course.
I encourage those who care about chicken welfare to purchase eggs
from chickens who are “pastured” or kept “on grass.” Mr.
Miner is correct that “cage free” doesn't mean good welfare. He
just doesn't realize that there's a better way to raise these animals
– with enough space to move around and the opportunity to scratch
around and hunt for bugs. Those are