Backyard Chickens: Expanding Our Understanding of ‘Harm’

backyard chickens

photo: Andrea White

This article was co-written with Charles Horn.

Our Unexamined Prejudice about Backyard Chickens

The first question we get from people who meet our rescued chickens is “do they lay eggs?” Laying eggs is clearly what defines them for most people. Even otherwise well-informed people are under the spell of contrived and false “egg industry” perceptions of chickens.

We often get asked, “what is the harm of eating the eggs of backyard chickens who will just lay them anyway?” In fact, many chicken keepers claim that they have a “symbiotic” relationship with their hens. In exchange for good treatment, they see their “reward” as the eggs that their chickens lay. Sounds like a “win-win,” but we will see later in detail why this logic does not pan out. In order to fully understand our impact on these birds, we must look way beyond treatment.

The Harm of the Hatcheries

Let’s start where nearly all chicks are born: in hatcheries. When we buy chicks, we are directly and financially supporting hatcheries who are responsible for a whole host of staggeringly cruel practices. Their most egregious offense is the maceration (grinding up alive) and suffocation of billions of baby male chicks — 6 billion globally every year. Those who adopt or rescue backyard chickens instead of buying from hatcheries withdraw their support from the hatcheries but still face several important ethical considerations in answering the question, “what’s the harm in collecting and eating the eggs that our adopted chickens lay?”

The Harm of Breeding

Chickens bred for egg laying are irreparably harmed by the selective breeding that has forced them to lay an unnatural and unhealthy number of eggs — between 250 to 300 a year — resulting in a host of painful and life-threatening reproductive diseases and premature death. Consider the fact that most egg laying hens, even the so-called “heritage” breeds, will only live 4 to 6 years on average (assuming they are allowed to live past their one- to two-year egg laying prime) and will likely die of complications caused by egg laying. In contrast, undomesticated chicken hens living in their natural habitat have been known to live 30 years and more. They lay eggs just like other wild birds do — for purposes of reproduction — and only a few clutches per year; around 10 to 15 eggs total on average.

Benefiting from Harm

There is a well-known legal concept called the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree which applies to the consumption of chicken eggs as well as the secretions and flesh of other animals. As law professor Sherry Colb explains, “If someone has committed a wrong in acquiring some product, … it is wrongful to utilize and enjoy the ‘benefits’ of that product just as it was wrongful to commit the harm that resulted in the product’s acquisition in the first place. In other words, one becomes an accomplice in the initial wrongdoing by taking the fruits of that wrongdoing and utilizing them as a source of pleasure, information, etc.”

In fact our justice system recognizes that gaining some pleasure or benefit from the source of someone else’s suffering is immoral. We would consider it objectionable to, say, rescue a dog used in a dog fighting ring and argue that, since he is already trained and bred to fight, that in exchange for adopting him and providing him refuge, we allow him to fight other dogs and place bets on him. Or perhaps we let him be a guard dog somewhere that could potentially put him in harm’s way. He might as well “earn his keep” since he’s going to be a fighter anyway. But of course we would never use this logic with a rescued dog. Even if we are not the direct cause of the chicken’s suffering, by eating her eggs, we are benefiting from what harms her, that is, her “rigged” reproduction, which would not even be possible without the industrial scale genetic manipulation and breeding practices we already claim to oppose, on the grounds that they are horrifically cruel.

“Plantation” Logic Applied to Backyard Chickens

As mentioned earlier, backyard chicken keepers often portray their relationship with their chickens as a “win-win.” They provide their chickens with a great life and, in return, their chickens provide them with eggs. There are at least two problems with this position. First, it ignores the fact these eggs exist only because of the systematic manipulation and re-engineering of the chicken hen’s reproductive system which forces her to produce an unnatural and unhealthy amount of eggs. Secondly, it is impossible for chickens to give their consent to such an arrangement. It assumes that they desire to make a sacrifice for us, but in reality, their intensive egg-laying — and the adverse consequences that come with it — is simply forced upon them by no choice of their own. But, what if we adopt or rescue backyard chickens? Well, as author Charles Horn points out, “If the desire is there to eat the eggs, did that consciously or subconsciously go into the decision to adopt in the first place? If so, the intention was never just one of providing refuge; it was also one of exploitation.”

An Exception that Invites More Exceptions

By creating an exception for eating the eggs of adopted chickens, we then open the door to other exceptions being made. As Horn points out, “If it’s okay to eat, is it okay to gather and sell? Is it okay to adopt many chickens and make a business out of it? Again, we’re seeing how we still have a mindset of exploitation here and just how easily the slippery slope can lead people toward animal agriculture. If not them, someone else surely will, because the mindset of exploitation is still there.”

Identifying as an “Egg Eater”

Connected to the slippery slope we create by making exceptions for eating certain eggs from certain chickens are the many implications of identifying ourselves as “egg-eaters” as a general matter. It often creates a “domino effect” which is fueled by at least four realities that work together to cause the domino effect. 1. We send a powerful message of affirmation to others simply by eating eggs — regardless of their source — even those laid by the hens in our backyard. 2. Egg industry marketing has tried and tested methods of seducing well-intentioned and caring consumers and fabricating feel good brands and stories that will falsely suggest that their eggs come from places like our backyard.

3. Most consumers are still grossly misinformed about egg farming and cruelty to animals, and egg marketers of course use this to their advantage. And finally, 4. consumers have a powerful incentive to believe in the humane myth with which these marketers manipulate us, with their feel-good packaging, signs and advertising at the point of purchase that resemble or allude to the kind of conditions that we associate with backyard settings.

The sad reality is that most caring consumers targeted by this marketing buy into the myth, both literally and figuratively. Or they order eggs in a breakfast eatery where happy hen motifs adorn the walls, and they falsely associate this experience with a backyard hen scene, when, in reality, even the most upscale restaurants get eggs from hens raised in absolutely deplorable cage conditions.

As author Hope Bohanec points out, “when someone eats eggs from their own hens, they then identify as an egg-eater and don’t limit their consumption of eggs to just the supposed ‘ethical’ eggs from their hens. They will eat other eggs as well in a restaurant, at a friends house, etc., so they are still supporting the cruel egg industry, even though they may identify as only eating ‘ethical’ eggs, it is unlikely that those are the only eggs they are eating.”

Reinforcing the False “Egg Industry” Stereotype

backyard chickens friendship

photo: Pete Crosbie/Willowite Sanctuary

Eating the eggs of backyard chickens also reinforces their egg industry role as “layers” or egg-laying machines, as if to suggest that this is their primary purpose in life, which is incorrect. The fact is that natural egg laying for chickens is no different than it is for many other birds. What’s changed is that modern breeding has forced chickens to produce an obscene amount of infertile eggs. Beyond egg laying, chickens lead rich and complex social lives, have many interests and are keenly self-aware. They have long-term memory and clearly demonstrate that they anticipate future events. They form deep bonds with other flock mates and other species, like dogs and humans. And yet even if they didn’t possess all of these advanced cognitive abilities, they are sentient beings who feel pain and pleasure much like we do. And sentience, not intelligence, is the basis for how we should treat others.

By eating eggs, we imply that the worth of chickens amounts to what they can produce for us as a food source, rather than focusing attention where it should be: on chickens’ intrinsic worth as individuals. “Just as we don’t see human beings or human secretions as a food source, similarly we shouldn’t see any sentient being or their secretions that way either,” writes Horn.

The Logic of Not Wasting Eggs

The popular notion that it is wrong to waste chickens’ eggs by not eating them is based on the presumption that their eggs are actually ours to waste, further reinforcing the anthropocentric notion that the eggs belong to us, not them. So, based on this logic, if we discover abandoned and unfertilized turtle eggs or duck eggs or robin eggs, we are also compelled to steal them and make a meal out of them so as not to let them “go to waste.” If we look more closely at this logic, we find that the issue is not one of food wasting, but of cultural conditioning. The reason we perceive only chicken eggs as edible, and don’t insist on collecting the eggs of other species, is cultural conditioning. Breeding hens into existence in order to control their bodies and take the eggs that belong to them has become a socially acceptable practice, just as slavery was a socially acceptable practice throughout our history and up until just a short time ago.

What Do We Do With the Eggs If We Don’t Eat Them?

When we let go of the anthropocentric notion that chickens’ eggs belong to us, then what could we potentially do with the eggs, if we instead wanted to do something to benefit these most exploited of birds? Well, we can hard boil the eggs and grind up the shells. We can add the shells to the chickens’ grit to give them back some of the vast amounts of calcium that is leached from their bones to produce all of those shells. We can also feed their eggs back to them in order to restore some of the protein and other nutrients they lose in the process of laying far more eggs than their bodies were ever intended to produce.

Putting harm aside, we might want to stop and think a bit more about what kind of relationships we are cultivating with our backyard chickens as well as what message we are sending out to the world. Must every relationship we have be contingent upon getting something in return? Sometimes we can just show kindness and compassion. Sometimes we can just appreciate others for their intrinsic worth and not base their value on what we can get out of them. And in the case of chickens, this could never be more desperately needed, considering all of the suffering we force upon some 40 billion of them around the world every year for our tastebuds.

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About Robert Grillo

Robert Grillo is the founder and director of Free from Harm. As an activist, author and speaker, Grillo focuses awareness on the animal’s experience and point of view, drawing on insights from sociology, psychology, popular culture, ethics and social justice to bridge the gap between humans and other animals. As a marketing communications professional for over 20 years, Grillo has worked on large food industry accounts where he gained a behind the scenes perspective on food industry marketing.

3 comments

  1. Hello.

    This article, specifically the paragraph, “The Harm of Breeding”, helped me to change my mind about eating backyard chicken eggs or any eggs.

    I already knew about the egg industry and male chicks and thought that if I got eggs from family farms, I’d be making a difference. But it never dawned on me that those chickens come from the same hatcheries. What really did it for me was pointing out that they are bred to produce 250-300 eggs per year and that undomesticated chickens produce only 10-15 eggs per year.

    Ding! The light went off. Well, yes, that makes sense. Birds don’t produce 250-300 eggs per year! So, I thought, well then, I’ll find undomesticated chickens if I want eggs.

    And then it clicked! Wait, I wouldn’t go out and take an egg from a wild turkey, why would I take an egg from a chicken?

    Oh.

    Sometimes it takes me a bit to understand things, but I keep reading and learning. And when I read your article, it put things in a perspective I can easily understand and really get.

    So, thank you. I have been searching for a way to help me stop eating eggs. And now I am clear that eating eggs is something I don’t do anymore. Thank you! :)

    • Thank you for your positive feedback on my article Susan. I’m glad parts of it resonate with you. It’s been on my mind for a long time to write this but the ideas were hard to articulate until now! I’d also like to refer you to our official egg page which is a really good resource all about eggs and the hens who lay them. See http://freefromharm.org/eggs-what-are-you-really-eating/.

  2. I have been vegan for a year and a half now. In the last 6 months I have started eating chicken eggs again as I have friends who have backyard chickens and I thought it was ok to eat the eggs as the chickens lived in happy conditions and there are no health risks to my body associated with eating eggs every now and then. In the last month or two it has been playing on my mind as to whether or not eating the eggs was wrong and if it compromised all my moral values. I started to think where the chickens actually came from in the beginning. I wondered if they came from conditions similar to those of the factories where I refused to eat eggs from. I also became aware of how domesticated chickens lay unhealthy amounts of eggs. I have now read your article which was the nail in the coffin of my egg eating habits. I have been letting my tastebuds override my conscious. Thank you for writing this article, it is very well written and informative. I do not need eggs to live and I will go back to being able to say I’m vegan without that little pang of guilt about my ‘backyard hen’ egg eating. Thanks so much Robert :)

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