The Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee did the right thing yesterday when it refused to approve a draft bill of the Egg and Poultry Board regulations through which the Agriculture Ministry sought to increase the annual egg production quota by seven percent. The request would have meant over half a million more hens being held in the battery cages of the Israeli egg industry, their lives a long path of ruthless suffering. Those who worked on drawing up the draft regulations must see the brutal reality behind the numbers.
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There are 8 million hens living at any given time in Israeli chicken coops. Every hen has a space about the size of a keyboard, and with a slanted mesh floor that makes standing an agonizing effort. At first they try to spread their wings, but after a while, they just give up. The only time they see daylight is when they are taken for electrocution, piled on top of each other in small plastic containers. The poultry “farmers” collect them from thousands of small metal cages, their beaks forcibly trimmed, with broken legs and breathing difficulties.
They live this way for two years without moving. The need to lay huge numbers of eggs causes them to suffer from calcium depletion, leading to pain and fractures. Those that are no longer useful are pushed by the farmers into an inverted cone that separates the head from the body.
Even when life is an unending source of pain and the body gives up, they still want to live. The ceaseless squawking turns into sharp screaming, when a hand comes into the little cage and removes one of them.
“This is something that makes money, and if stops making money we have to end it,” said the poultry worker in an investigative report by the Anonymous nonprofit association for animal rights in Israel, which together with Let the Animals Live submitted objections to the request to increase the egg quota.
In a video by Anonymous one can see the poultry worker pulling out one chicken. It’s hard to believe that such a small body can emit such sounds; it’s screaming as if it’s gone crazy. “It’s eating like a pig and not contributing anything,” he says, as he breaks its wings with his hands so that it can’t fly. He does it calmly. The screams are blood-curdling; it’s screaming as loud as it can. The screams follow one another incessantly; they are loud and hoarse from effort, and sound nothing like the gentle, musical sounds emitted by free-range chickens. They sound just like the screams of a dog or a human being; the screams of those about to die sound very similar, it seems. Perhaps it’s because they are coming from the same place.
Chickens have developed cognitive abilities. They can make abstract observations, develop emotional bonds, and grieve. In videos that document chickens in farm animal shelters they are seen running to their handlers when called by name and curling up on their laps, emitting the soft, pleasant sounds they use when they call their chicks. But chicks that hatch in food industry hatcheries will never hear those sounds. One minute they are found in the protective egg, and the next they emerge to a world where the mother’s warm body is replaced by hands sorting them. The males are thrown into machines that will grind them alive (five million male chicks are destroyed by the egg industry each year), while the females will be taken to machines that trim their beaks with a red-hot blade, a trim that will cause some of them pain for the rest of their lives.
From the hatcheries they will be sent to the battery cages to produce eggs. They are fated to keep screaming as they try helplessly to retrieve the eggs that roll away from them on the sloped floor. After two years, when they can no longer lay eggs, they will be hung on hooks and emit those same horrible screams as they are electrocuted. Their lives, after being hatched from an egg with no mother and the continuous fruitless attempts to produce a chick that will never be born, will come to an end.
Fifty percent of the hens in the European Union are raised in coops without cages. But in these coops there is also overcrowding, the beaks are trimmed, and the males are killed, as are the hens that stop laying eggs. But this is still preferable to battery cages. It’s the minimum, until one day perhaps they will be able to spread their wings and lay their eggs without watching them roll away.
Yesterday’s decision by the Knesset committee brings some local hope. The prime minister and MKs from both left and right, including Economic Affairs Committee chairman Eitan Cabel, called to reduce the number of egg-laying hens to the minimum necessary, to increase quotas only for poultry farms without cages, and to stop the delays in enacting regulations under the Animal Welfare Law that will set minimum standards for raising hens.