The Disturbing Truth Behind "Humane" Eggs
For a baby hen on a “humane” farm, terror began on Day 1.
by Wayne Hsiung
Emma was born from suffering.
In the 14 days before her birthday, her mother starved in darkness. The lights had gone out. The food and water stopped coming. When the young mothers realized this was not a temporary problem but rather a common industry practice called "forced molting," anxiety transformed into terror. Some went into a frenzy, flailing uncontrollably in what is aptly called “the death throes.” In the cramped conditions of the farm, where each mother had barely enough room to lift their heads, this caused a wave of panic throughout the enclosure. Limbs were broken. Faces were maimed, And thousands of young mothers -- especially the weakest and most feeble -- were trampled to death, as others huddled in fear. In the aftermath, many resorted to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to survive.
When the lights finally came back on, and the food and water were replenished, the mothers flung themselves at the yellow gruel as if it were manna from heaven. Emma’s mother was one of the hardy few who survived. After 14 days of starvation and darkness, fate rewarded Emma’s mother with a single perfect egg.
But the egg slowly rolled away on the slanted wire floor. Mother hens yearn to protect their eggs as fiercely as a pregnant human mother will protect her developing baby. But after 14 days of starvation, 14 days of darkness, even this small gift was taken away. It was the last cruelty the world offered her because, within days, Emma’s mother was thrown into a landfill and buried alive.
BIRTH ON A FARM
Weeks later, Emma would emerge from the egg. Young chicks, like all young birds, have two urgent needs when they are born: the need for their mother, and the need for food. But of the two, finding their mom takes priority. Chicks, like human children, cling to their mothers obsessively. They will obediently follow their mothers into cold, into danger, and even to their deaths. Every chick knows that survival is impossible without your mother, food or water be damned. Your mother may find you food, but food will never find your mother.
But it is the first and most basic right -- the right to her mother -- that Emma was denied. When her tiny head popped out of her shell, she looked around her, and all she could see was an endless mass of scared, crying chicks, each one shrieking more loudly for their mother than the next. But in this violent place, no mothers would be found.
Emma was tossed onto a conveyor belt. The male chicks next to her would be picked out and thrown down into a dark hole, with blades churning and blood spraying everywhere. They would sometimes watch as their own bodies were ripped up into a thousand pieces, ground up into pet food.
Emma heard these terrified cries. She, and all the other chicks, had a sense of what those cries meant. Chickens have a well-developed sense of communication at birth, with at least 24 distinct sounds and meanings -- well beyond a human infant. There was no need for this sophisticated language, however, for Emma to understand her brothers’ cries. Every animal on this planet understands the language of fear.
So, when Emma herself was seized, and her heads shoved in the direction of a loud, burning machine, Emma must have thought -- perhaps even hoped -- that her end had come. The terror, darkness, and uncertainty of her short life would come to an end.
But Emma would live on, as this machine would only take her beak, and not her life.
THE GROWER BARN
In a panicked, mutilated state, Emma was trucked off in a bin with thousands of her sisters to the “grower” barn. Disease, infection, and bleeding were rampant. Hundreds of the chicks would be dead on arrival. But the ones who survived would face their next ordeal: the pullet cage.
Here, Emma would be forced to spend the next 140 days of her life, stuffed shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other birds. But unlike the more mature birds of the layer barn, the young hens in this barn were skittish and agitated. The slightest movement from one end would send bodies and wings crashing everywhere. Fractures or other severe injuries were common. Disease was even more common, as the stress, confinement, and filth compromised the young birds’ immune systems.
Emma did not grow as quickly as the other chicks. Perhaps she lost some early battles over food or water. Perhaps she took the blow of being denied her mother especially hard. But the result was that she was unusually small. By her fifth week, she was beginning to lose feeling in her right leg, perhaps victim to a viral infection that attacked her nerves. She tried to stay in the corner, away from the birds, to ensure that she would not be trampled or bludgeoned when the fights broke out. By her eighth week, her leg had stiffened to the point that she could barely move it. She could only access food and water once every few days, when the others happened to leave her enough space that she could break through, for a moment, to quench her thirst. By her tenth week, she could no longer stand. She was collapsed on the wire floor, her legs splayed out painfully, and all she could do was roll to the left or the right, smashing her face into wire, when the other birds walked next to, or on top of her, in their frantic struggle to survive.
Over the next few days, Emma became starved and dehydrated. Her head, her wings, and her entire body would become covered with contusions and cuts, as birds trampled on her body and her face. Death was coming, and it was slow and painful, a combination of deprivation and blunt force trauma.
But as the days and nights blurred into one, as she fell into a delirious haze, an unexpected light appeared in the darkness.
“She’s seriously injured.”
“Oh my god…”
“We need to help her!”
And with that, Emma’s life suddenly transformed. Emma was the one in a billion who would be saved.
The system failed Emma. The New York Times falsely said she was “living the good life.” The American Humane Association fraudulently certified her prison “humane.” And the government failed in its promise to prevent birds like Emma from suffering from illegal confinement.
That left Emma dependent on our ragtag, grassroots team of volunteers and whistleblowers for her rescue. We carried her out, carefully holding her paralyzed leg. When we got outside, we quickly wrapped her up tightly in a blanket, to keep her warm, and rushed her to the car waiting outside the farm.
We gave her water, which she eagerly drank, and tried to give her food, which she was at first too weak to take down. Then we drove off to our triage site, where we dropped baby food into her mouth through a syringe and gave her fluids after weeks of dehydration. We washed off her backside, which was filthy with diarrhea. And we rushed her to the vet, the first chance we got, and found that she was likely suffering from Marek’s Disease. Emma would need constant care if she was to survive, much less walk again.
But Emma’s spirit was still high. She would chirp and wiggle and clean her feathers every chance she got. We made her a swing to stand on, with harnesses to hold up her useless leg. (One of the most adorable scenes from her recovery occurred when she was sitting attentively in her box, watching along with us as we reviewed videos that explained how to make a device for her to stand.) But she would fuss over the harness, so it was eventually replaced by a “towel donut” made by wrapping multiple towels in concentric circles.
Each day she became stronger. Each day she would make a little bit of progress in her struggle to stand. And then one day, she did it. She stood. The smiles on our faces -- the smile on my face to this day -- when I see Emma hopping around with one partially paralyzed leg are as important to remember as the torment of her captivity. Because those smiles -- and Emma’s happiness -- show us the true meaning of “humane.”