A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Putting the Egg Together Again

How to solve the crisis at the chicken mills.

By Michael Mountain

For all of human history – tens of thousands of years – the egg was a universal symbol of life. Last week, it became a symbol of death.

Chickens originally lived in the tropical forests of South Asia, where they would forage around on the ground during the day, and then roost safely up in the trees at night. They’re deeply social animals – proverbial mother hens, caring for their young under their wing.

When chickens were brought to the Mediterranean, they quickly became a symbol for Easter, the spring celebration of rebirth. (Easter is named after the mother goddess of the early Mediterranean religions.) Today, many astronomers think of the Big Bang as a kind of metaphorical egg, too, out of which the entire universe grew.

”They are delightful animals who lead very social lives.”

There are lots of remarkable things about eggs – like the fact that a chicken egg is a single cell. We think of cells as being tiny, and mostly they are. But not in this case. The ostrich egg is the largest cell on Earth.

Having a backyard flock of healthy, happy hens, laying their eggs as they forage about outside is one of life’s pleasures – even if the rooster insists on waking you up at first light. For many people, chickens are their pets. They are delightful animals who lead very social lives.

Chicken sanctuaries, chicken factories

One of the most passionate chicken lovers anywhere is Karen Davis, who looks after abused chickens at her own sanctuary and is the founder of United Poultry Concerns. On her website, she tells charming and heartwarming stories of the chickens she’s rescued and cares for. For example:

“The closest interspecies relationship I’ve observed among our birds is between the chickens and the turkeys. A few years ago, our hen Muffie bonded with our adopted turkey Mila, after Muffie’s friend Fluffie died suddenly and left her bereft. Right from the start, Muffie and Mila shared a quiet affection, foraging together and sometimes preening each other very delicately. One of their favorite rituals was in the evenings when I changed their water and ran the hose in their bowls. Together, Muffie and Mila would follow the tiny rivulets along the ground, drinking as they went, Muffie darting and drinking like a brisk brown fairy, Mila dreamily swaying and sipping, piping her intermittent flute notes.”


”When we treat animals like this, it’s going to blow back on us.”

Muffie’s new life with Karen is, of course, not the life of a chicken at a factory farm, where the birds are crammed into cages so small they don’t even have room to turn around. Proposition 2 in California gives them a few inches more space. But in the United States alone, at any given time, there are about 325 million of them suffering through a miserable existence. (Imagine you and me and everyone in the United States living our entire lives crammed together in a subway car in rush hour.)

In such conditions, bacterial disease spreads quickly and easily. To ward it off, the birds have their beaks cut off and are pumped so full of antibiotics to try to keep them from becoming sick that the antibiotics themselves have become a major health hazard, not only to them but to us when we eat them.

When you approach a typical factory farm, it’s reminiscent of a Nazi death camp: an endless row of faceless buildings, filled with millions of chickens, along with hundreds of laborers who work in appalling conditions. At a typical factory, when an egg-laying hen is so spent that she can no longer produce an egg, she’s scooped up, along with thousands of others on any given day, and tossed, still alive, into a portable grinder, to be turned into animal feed. (At least one of these places was known to use a wood-chipper.)

It doesn’t have to be like this

This is not the way it used to be. Even 30 years ago, it wasn’t like this. And it doesn’t have to be like this today.

There’s lots of talk about the need for more sanitary conditions and so on. But more than anything, this is really all about cruelty to animals. If you were to treat your pet bird at home as these birds are treated, you’d be convicted of cruelty and quite possibly end up in jail.

You don’t have to be an animal rights activist to know that this is just plain wrong. And you don’t have to be a great philosopher to know that when we treat animals like this, it’s going to blow back on us, one way or another.

We’ve already had one terrible scare: bird flu. The H5N1 virus was incubated in the shocking conditions of the bird markets of South Asia. Bird flu is still on the move: mutating and growing and threatening to team up with other viruses in ways that could be devastating to us humans.

Now we have another “incident” – with more than half a billion eggs being recalled. The latest news is that the offending bacteria appear to have been spread into other areas of food production. We don’t yet know the implications of that.
But the solution is so simple and, yes, practical. Treat the animals well. It doesn’t take much to do that. They’d be happier and healthier, and we’d be happier and healthier, too.

For more information, check out the Farm Sanctuary website. They care for abused farm animals, and they led the campaign to pass Prop 2 in California. Also see Karen Davis’s United Poultry Concerns. And for a recent article on “How Factory Farms Make You Sick,” go here.