Thursday, December 17, 2015

Let chickens be chickens

A week or so ago I encountered a 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 interest in animal welfare.

Are 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.

Are chickens in cages able to engage in cannabalism? No – but they're denied healthy social interactions as well. Chickens 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.

Does 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 diseases? Healthy, unstressed chickens have robust immune systems that can handle normal diseases. But 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.

Chickens 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 happy chickens.

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