Updated September 17, 2020
One of the most common questions that comes up at a farmed animal sanctuary is what caregivers do with the eggs of the rescued hen residents. It’s a reasonable question for a visitor to have; most hens will lay eggs if they have the capability to do so, and most people only consider chickens in terms of what they can provide for humans because of how society suggests we treat farmed animals. A common sanctuary answer to visitors is either that the birds are implanted to protect their health, or that they feed them back to the hens, who eat them quickly and completely, shell and all, gaining back valuable nutrition and a treat all in one. This comes as a shock to many visitors, who have never heard of a chicken eating an egg!
Sometimes, these visitors may ask why a sanctuary does not sell these eggs to raise more money for residents or give them away in order to curtail human demand for a chicken’s eggs at the very least. This would not honor the residents or their story, one of exploitation and abuse at the hands of humans who valued them primarily for their bodies and reproductive systems. For this same reason, we believe that a sanctuary should not advocate for the consumption of backyard eggs. Although backyard eggs are arguably less harmful to hens than those that come from industrial production, these products are far from cruelty-free.
The Rooster Problem
The most common rehoming request that the majority of farmed animal sanctuaries receive by a wide margin comes in the form of well-meaning backyard egg enthusiasts asking sanctuaries to take in roosters. Many people do not realize that chickens raised in backyard settings often still come from hatcheries, and every time a chicken egg is hatched, there is about a 50% chance that the being born will be a male who is deemed useless by an industry that exploits female reproduction. When chicks are shipped from the hatchery to feed stores or individuals, these young roosters typically come unexpectedly along with their sisters. Roosters are some of the most mistreated animals on the planet; they are often killed as soon as they are hatched and sexed, and there is no “humane” standard to kill them. They are sent alive and consciously into industrial-sized shredders, lethal gas-filled containers, suffocating plastic bags, and have even been abandoned in dumpsters by the thousands. Without the demand for backyard egg production, these roosters would not face death with no regard for their comfort.
Even backyard egg producers who want to keep roosters typically cannot do so once they become naturally talkative due to complaints from neighbors and targeted anti-rooster zoning laws. Regardless of whether a sanctuary were to take these individual roosters in, there would be little impact in the industrial-scale deaths of roosters worldwide due to the demand for egg-laying chickens.
Though living in a backyard setting may be preferable to a battery cage, most often hens raised for backyard eggs are still viewed as commodities rather than as individuals with inherent value. Sanctuaries typically field requests from folks who have been raising hens in a backyard setting but now are looking to rehome them because the hens are laying fewer eggs, have developed health issues the human is unwilling or unable to treat, or for some other reason typically related to viewing the hens in terms of what they can “give” versus what they actually need. Anytime a living being is seen in terms of what a human can get from them, this puts a price on what the individual is worth, whether the human realizes it or not. It is not uncommon for a well-intentioned chicken guardian to reach out to a sanctuary asking them to take the person’s “favorite” hen who has developed a health issue. Often times the person is unwilling or unable to provide even a basic veterinary examination. The issue isn’t so much whether or not the person truly can afford veterinary care or not, it’s that so many people set out to raise chickens without any thought or plan in place for what they will do if the chickens they are responsible for need veterinary care. Unfortunately, whether they are raised in backyards or battery cages, this idea that chickens (and farmed animals in general) as less worthy of care and consideration than animals typically thought of as companion animals, impacts the way humans treat them and often dictates the level of care they receive.
Just as roosters are deemed “worthless” by those who view chickens in terms of egg production, a hen who no longer lays eggs, or lays fewer eggs than they used to, may find themselves in trouble. These hens are often “replaced” by younger hens who are laying more eggs. What “replaced” means varies depending on the person- but many backyard hens are eventually slaughtered when their egg production wanes. And while rehoming these hens with a sanctuary is a much happier ending for the hen than slaughter, unless the humans involved have had a change of heart and are no longer going to raise hens for eggs, the cycle will continue. This is why it is so important for sanctuaries to also educate people about the cruelty involved with all egg production and to advocate for chickens to be respected as the sentient beings they are, rather than disposable novelty items that produce eggs.
Some visitors have waxed poetically about hens who they know personally in friends’ backyards, providing eggs freely and without any exploitation presumably involved. This view does not take into account the fate of all the unwanted roosters, or how the chicken has come to provide so many eggs, or the health consequences of laying. Modern egg-laying hens have been bred intensively to lay up to 300 or so eggs per year. Their wild relative, the Red Junglefowl, lays approximately one to two dozen eggs in an entire year, in one or two clutches.
All of this extra taxation on a chicken’s reproductive system leads to dangerous and lethal health challenges. Egg-laying chickens suffer from side-effects including broken bones due to calcium deficiency, Egg-Binding, Egg Yolk Peritonitis, Internal Laying, Prolapse, Impacted Oviduct, and Reproductive Tract Cancer, which has no remedy. Few backyard egg enthusiasts are willing to take care of an ailing chicken with these diseases, so they are typically killed when they present signs of ill-health or distress. Even relatively healthy older backyard chickens are not typically given the right to live out their natural lifespan (which could exceed 10 years!) as they produce fewer eggs or their health needs become greater. Although they might have a reasonably comfortable life, their premature deaths should also be included in the consideration of whether taking their eggs is truly cruelty-free.
Chickens in sanctuary environments can potentially be spared some of these reproductive health challenges; if a sanctuary decides to do so, they can be implanted to stop the egg cycle and potentially protect their health.
The very perpetuation of these breeds of chickens continues the cycle of violence against them, even if they have a caring person looking after them. One only needs to look at a farm supply store when they incubate a new flock of chicks to fulfill consumer demand to see that this cycle is not solved through backyard laying. Considering these eggs as acceptable only perpetuates the fallacy that there are harmless eggs. An outside observer only needs to see someone endorsing eggs from a backyard chicken before they decide to reach for a carton of eggs at the grocery store produced under standards that have little legal definition beyond the comforting marketing slogans and thinking they’re doing the right thing. For these reasons, we find it unacceptable for sanctuaries to advocate for the consumption of any eggs.
Nobody Needs Eggs
And, of course, it is entirely unnecessary for humans to eat eggs. Humans eat eggs because they like the taste and convenience, not because of any nutritional requirement, flavor, or baking technique that only eggs can fulfill. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture does not allow egg producers to market them as nutritious or safe. To suggest that it’s appropriate to promote a backyard (or sanctuary) chicken’s eggs as a compassionate choice does no favors to the chickens or the people consuming their eggs.
So the next time a visitor notices a chicken with a pleading look in their eye for what comes out of their bodies, do them a favor and educate them about chickens’ love of eating their own eggs, and provide your visitors with some compassionate alternatives!