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The Ethics of Free-Range Eggs

In the May-June 2009 issue of VegNews, Rory Freedman tries to answer the question, "is eating eggs from free-range hens congruous with the compassionate-living ethic?" Her answer is that it isnít, because itís wrong to take things (eggs) that arenít yours ("Herbivoreís Dilemma," p. 74-75).

This response would make sense to other convinced vegans, but to anyone else, it must appear really weak. The "backyard chicken" movement is really taking off, and if this is the best we can do, Iím worried.  This is a tougher question than first appears.  

Rory Freedman is a master at irreverent communication. Skinny Bitch (of which she is the co-author) has now been on the best-seller list for over two years.  The information isn't new, but it's good, and I donít think thereís ever been a vegan book that widely distributed. So even though the book doesnít appeal to me (think: 60-year-old white guy), I have to applaud what she has accomplished.

I am not so sure, though, about her response to the egg question.  The issue with factory farms, and even for many so-called "free range" farms, is pretty clear-cut: animal suffering.  But if you deal, somehow, with the worst aspects of animal suffering, then where do you draw the line?  

Some years ago, one of my relatives who kept chickens (and did not eat them ó though he did eat other meat) asked if I would have any objection to eating an egg from that particular chicken. Recently, thereís been an upsurge in the "backyard chicken" movement, and in fact one of our neighbors asked us if weíd have any objections if they kept backyard chickens just for the eggs. I asked if they were going to eat them, and their response was, "no, theyíre going to be pets."

The main problem with most commercially-produced eggs is the horrific conditions on factory farms. If you eliminate the factory farms, what is the problem? Letís look at Freedmanís response: we shouldnít eat eggs, even if factory farms are not involved, because people shouldnít "take things that donít belong to them."

The first and obvious question is, what are you going to do with the eggs? I was at an animal sanctuary in the east some years ago that kept rescued chickens. Someone asked them, what do you do with the eggs? They were vegans, so their response was: "we boil them and feed them to the dogs."

You could make a case that what these vegans were doing was "thievery," but this is an awfully thin case to make, and not likely to convince anyone who isnít already a screaming vegan. The suffering inflicted on the hens by taking their non-fertile eggs away from them has got to be pretty small in the scheme of things. Iím not familiar with rescued hens, but I assume that if we did the totally non-directive thing, at some point the hens would give up on their non-fertile eggs and you would have not a collection problem, but a disposal problem. The eggs will need to go away one way or another, it is just a question of when and how.

If I were talking to someone about the ethics of backyard chickens or "free-range" eggs, Iíd start with the compassion angle, and start with some of the facts listed by Karen Davis next to Freedmanís article in VegNews: even "free range" conditions are not very nice. Debeaking still occurs. The chickens are not actually in cages, but they are crammed together in an open area, the smell is awful, and in the end they are killed for chicken soup anyway. It is marginally better than being on a factory farm, but it is not a nice life.

What about the backyard chickens? This is harder to argue against, assuming that the person is keeping chickens just for the eggs, and that the chickens are pets ó they will be allowed to live out their lives and they will not be eaten. But there is still an underlying infrastructure here. Where do people get their backyard chickens? From people who breed them. Half of the chickens bred are going to turn out to be male; so for every hen you adopt, there is already a dead male chick.

O. K., letís take this one step further: suppose that we are talking about rescued hens, kept as pets. That eliminates not only the suffering of the hen, but any complicity with the chicken industry.

I have to say that at this point, I cannot think of any important ethical reason to object to eating the eggs from such hens. I wouldnít do it ó if, heaven forbid, I were ever to acquire custody of such hens, I would not eat, sell, or give away the eggs. (Not in the current relatively affluent country I live in, anyway). I would just treat the eggs as a disposal problem; perhaps Iíd try to figure out a way to compost them somehow.

But my reasons for doing this would not exactly be ethical. I would be mildly concerned that simply removing the eggs without giving the hens a chance to verify that their eggs were not going to hatch, would cause some excess suffering to these hens. But this would not be a primary reason, and quite honestly it would not be decisive. The first thing I would think of would be: cholesterol! Eggs are cholesterol city. The next thing would be, disease from germs and suchlike. After that, eggs are just basically "icky." Eating animal reproductive matter? Excuse me while I throw up. And I wouldnít want to sell or give away something that Iíd want to throw up, either.

But ethics? Compassion for hens? I donít know. Iím sorry, I just canít plausibly make a reasonable case for that. My guess is that the best response to someone who wants to keep chickens in their backyard is to say, "well, if you do it compassionately, thereís nothing intrinsically and ethically wrong with that." Iíd press them to get a rescued hen (I donít even know if this is possible; itís just a thought I had, right now). Iíd urge them to keep it as a pet, and to protect it against foxes and coyotes ó we have plenty of those in Denver. It might be quite an education, and they might get an increased respect for animals in this way.

If acquiring rescued hens is practical (and I donít know this), I would try to urge those in the backyard chicken movement to do something compassionate and get rescued hens rather than hens from a chicken factory. We might hook them up with Karen Davis. That might turn the whole backyard chicken movement into something very different from just a "green" way to exploit animals.

I am concerned that careless responses to this question will simply fuel the perception that vegans are not really interested in compassion, they are just interested in "purity" and in demonstrating to others in their group how "tough" they can be on controversial issues. Itís too early to tell whether this backyard chicken movement is just a fad or an ongoing trend, but as vegans, we need to be able to come up with some better response than "itís thievery." It is a serious issue; we need a serious response.

Keith Akers
August 5, 2009