In Sheila’s sermon this morning the overriding theme was compassion. A Christian virtue that these days seems a very pick and choose affair. Earlier this week I heard a debate on the news as to whether or not that great gorilla should have been shot when a child entered his pen. The thing I did agree with was the argument that ‘…Life in a cage is no life at all…!’
I have been working for a few years with a charity that rescues and re-homes ex commercial laying (battery) hens. We arrive by arrangement at the ‘farm’ early morning. The ‘farm’ being numerous large high windowless sheds carefully hidden by a row of huge trees. The door is open and the noise of thousands of hens clucking is overwhelming. Row upon row of long narrow cages piled one on top of another right up to the ceiling. The dim fluorescent light is on 18 hours a day to enhance egg laying. Eighty in each cage, 8000 in each shed they live on a wire mesh floor, all automated, feed, eggs and waste go by on a conveyer belt.
Stressed and bored with rare human contact and nowhere to scratch and forage, bathe or nest, a handler goes in once a week to check them. They pull the dead and sick ones out and leave them on the concrete floor by the door. Last time we found seven dead in the cages and four very poorly indeed. One of which was wheezing badly and was rushed to the vet where it was found to have fractured elbow, femur and ribs. The wheezing was caused by blood leaking into her lungs!
Factory farming is cruel and holds new concerns about the spread of disease and antibiotic resistance. If a domestic pet cat or dog was left to suffer untreated the owner would be prosecuted but a hen, value 25p to the abattoir, gets no attention at all. Barn layers and those bred for the table fair worse. Bred for their obesity gene, 40-70 thousand in a shed, they are fed on high energy food and grow at an alarmingly abnormal rate. They are never cleaned out and their baby legs cannot hold their body weight. They squat or fall over and sustain burns from the ammonia in the excrement, the smell of which takes your breath away. Some die of heart and lung failure. Slaughtered at 6 weeks old after a short life of suffering, the chicken going in the oven for dinner has more space there than it ever had in its short life.
Every two months we get as many as we can out; they are considered ‘spent’ at eighteen months. Never having seen the light of day they are frightened, white-faced, pale comb, tatty, bald or even ‘oven-ready’. Poorlies go straight to the intensive care unit (my porch) and we never re-home an ill hen until it is recovered. With care and a good rest and good feeding they make a full recovery and make wonderful pets. Re-feathered as silky beauties, they are not mindless, egg laying machines; they are inquisitive, naughty and mischievous. Each has its own individual personality, dietary likes and dislikes. They dig, graze, play, sing with the wild birds and carry on laying for a while, but on their own terms! Very trainable, but mostly they will train you.
Jesus asked that the cup of suffering to be taken from Him before His crucifixion. No-one can stop these creatures suffering other than by deliberately shunning any eggs or poultry that are not from high quality free range. If anyone would like to try re homing a couple of rescue hens contact me via Parish Office Tuesday evenings 6pm-7pm. It is very rewarding and addictive.
(This article by Wendy Cobourne was originally published as part of St David’s Messenger in July 2016)