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Why I Don’t Eat Backyard Hen Eggs (And It’s Not The Reason You’d Think)

When I saw the headline “10,000 Hens in Norfolk Needing Homes Before 29th June” back in 2009 on the Sky News website I was an avid meat eater. Nevertheless, I read on to discover 29th June was in fact their slaughter date and those that weren’t rehomed as pets would be killed for cheap pies and pet food. These were ‘battery’ hens. Hens that had lived the past eighteen months in tiny cages but had become less ‘productive’ with their egg-laying.

Although I ate chickens and their eggs most days without a thought, I found myself sympathising with these chickens. 10,000 individuals that stood a chance of being rescued from the slaughterhouse. Being only a couple of miles away, I could actually help make it happen for at least a couple of them. I bizarrely believed I could eat animals and love them too without hypocrisy. I had not yet made the connection that I was hoping to save animals from the industries I actively supported with my own money.

Upon collecting the hens my mother cried when she saw them. We were told they had been living in wire cages no bigger than an A4 piece of paper and had never seen sunlight until an hour before our arrival. All of them had the tips of their beaks cut off and most of them had very few feathers left. Beaks are commonly cut at a day old by farmers in an attempt to reduce injuries as they peck and pull at each other’s feathers out of frustration due to their environment. It was a sorry sight, but still we failed to make the connection that we had paid for this to happen to them.

When I got them home, as I watched the three birds peck around the lawn in the sun for the first time, it was almost startling. The bare breasts, legs and wings of whole chickens I’d seen in supermarkets my whole life were literally embodied and wandering around my own garden. I came to fully realise that their featherless, meaty bodies actually contained individual personalities, preferences, fears, quirks and emotions. Something I had never considered before. I ate meat because it was normal, but for the first time I began to question that normality as a justification. I thought of the other 9,997 hens that day and all the others I had consumed in the past. They all had lives, wants and needs, but it was simply outside my realm of comprehension to grasp the true scale of the horror. At that moment I simply vowed to eat free range, organic, high welfare chickens instead – Chickens that spent their whole lives in open fields and ‘only had one bad day’ at the slaughterhouse. Because surely, if the idea of not eating animals products at all was sensible, realistic and healthy then surely I’d know at least one vegan?

Eventually one of my friends gave up meat, dairy and eggs for health reasons and I discovered it was possible and followed suit. It felt great to finally align my values with my actions and my only regret was that I wish I had done it sooner. It was 2015 and I had been rescuing ex-commercial hens for six years by this point, however I continued to consume their eggs. Even the PETA website states: “we would not oppose eating eggs from chickens treated as companions if the birds receive excellent care and are not purchased from hatcheries.” so I felt comfortable in continuing to do so from the hens I had been able to rescue from the industry.

When people buy eggs, whether they’re free range, organic, cage-free, the truth remains that ALL male chicks in the industry are either ground up alive or suffocated. If you know someone local that keeps hens, chances are they obtained them from a hatchery that does the same. Billions of ‘spent’ hens that have slowed down egg production at eighteen months old are also sent to the slaughterhouse, simply because they have become as much of a ‘waste product’ as the males.

However, rescued hens will continue to sporadically lay eggs throughout their lives. So technically, I could personally consume those eggs without any animals being harmed.
So why did I stop eating them? What changed my mind?
Well it wasn’t for the reason many vegans would tell you…

“If you leave eggs in the nest, chickens will only lay enough for a clutch and will then stop laying”

This is just not true when it comes to ex-commercial hens. Whether it’s because they’ve been selectively bred to not be as maternal, or because they’ve never had the opportunity to keep their eggs long enough to sit on them, I’m not sure. But in eight years of keeping them, not once have I seen an ex-commercial hen become broody. As soon as the egg is laid they wander off, leaving the egg in the nest and completely ignore them no matter how long the eggs are left. Less commercial breeds do tend to get broody from time to time, and will go without food and water as long as possible in order to sit on infertile eggs, eventually becoming depressed when they never hatch. I’ve had hens sit on rubber eggs (so as not to leave eggs to rot) for weeks and weeks, so usually the kindest thing to do is to remove the eggs as soon as possible to avoid broodiness starting in the first place. In the wild, jungle fowl (of which modern chickens were selectively bred from) would lay up to a total amount of 15 eggs per year. Chickens today lay around 300. What we have done to them in the name of exploitation has completely destroyed that natural process.

“Eggs are a chicken’s period and it’s gross to eat them”

In one sense this is a valid analogy. Periods are the expulsion of an unfertilised egg, along with the lining of the womb that would have provided it with nutrition – a chicken laying an egg is expelling an unfertilised egg as well. In another sense it is different, as chickens are not mammals, and do not have wombs – the egg is both the egg and the womb in that sense. So it’s not the same reproductive system, and laying an egg doesn’t involve all the bloody parts of menstruation. Either way, it’s normalised in our society to consume eggs so the technicalities of what they actually are didn’t personally affect my decision on continuing eating them or not. What did, was seeing what being bred to lay an egg almost every single day of the year has done to chickens today. Whilst their wild counterparts have be known to live up to twenty years, ex-commercial hens live around around three. Up to six if they’re very lucky. Throughout the years I have seen dozens of hens succumb to reproductive tract complications, egg binding, decomposed eggs, egg yolk peritonitis and eggs rupturing through the oviduct because of how we have exploited their reproductive systems. I have had to insert a gloved hand into the vent of a chicken in order to retrieve broken egg shell. I’ve had to syringe pints and pints of putrid yellow fluid from a chicken’s swollen abdomen. And I’ve seen the results of surgery due to eggs becoming stuck and rotting their insides. I will never forget that smell – rotting eggs coming from a chicken’s vent (chickens only have one hole in which they lay eggs and excrete faeces). Not exactly delicious.

“Eating Eggs Is Unhealthy”

All eggs, regardless of their origin, are high in fat and cholesterol and don’t contain any fibre. In many studies, researchers have found that higher levels of cholesterol are linked to a greater risk of having a heart attack. For every 1 percent increase in the amount of cholesterol in your blood, there is a 2 percent increase in your risk of having a heart attack. Conversely, every 1 percent reduction in your cholesterol level reduces your risk by 2 percent. Elevated cholesterol – anything above 150 – promotes atherosclerosis, the buildup of cholesterol, fat, and cells in the arteries that feed the heart. When these arteries become clogged, a section of this muscle loses its blood supply. This results in a heart attack. But regardless, I still drink alcohol and eat vegan junk food myself. Health has never been a huge motivator for me, and as it turns out, isn’t for most people. It’s a nice added bonus to know what issues you’re dodging when you do give up the eggs you don’t need though.

The real question isn’t, “what’s wrong with cage-free eggs?”, it’s “can I live a happy, healthy life without eggs?”. What it comes down to is whether we want to benefit from the results of their exploitation any longer. There is no biological requirement for us bald apes to be eating the equivalent of a mammalian menstruation from birds, so I don’t eat eggs to show it’s possible. I don’t eat them so that I can discover egg substitutes in baking and to share recipes and foods that astound the sceptics. I don’t eat eggs because I want not eating eggs to be the norm, and because our obsession with them needs to stop.

The chickens I rescue are in retirement from exploitation until the day they die and I get a greater amount of pleasure from letting them eat their own eggs to regain some of the nutrients they’ve lost far more than stealing them for myself.

If we want to lead by example, we need to show how easy it can be to boycott exploitation as far as possible and practicable.

Pinkamena, my oldest ex-battery hen at six years old.

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