Lovely and elegant Doris pictured here is one of four adopted hens. She had major surgery over a year ago to save her life. The surgery consisted of removing her oviduct and a mass of infected egg material that was blocked in her abdomen. One third of her body weight was removed during the surgery. It was successful. However, she never lost her desire to be a mother.
Just the other day, I saw her turning with her beak the egg just laid by another hen and roosting on this egg for close to an hour. And she’s been doing this on a daily basis over a year since the surgery. These actions express an expectation that the egg contains an embryo and will eventually hatch into a chick if properly nurtured. Mother hens are known to turn their eggs in precise positions 30 times every day to ensure the healthy birth of a chick.
Today, egg laying hens do not raise their young. Instead their eggs are taken from them and hatched in artificial incubators. As a result, hens are deprived of the very thing that comes most naturally to them: motherhood. Hens have been mothers for at least the same length of time that the earliest fossils of chicken ancestors have been found: some 50 million years ago!
Our engineering of the hen’s biology to maximize egg production has doomed her body to a variety of life-threatening conditions such as the one that afflicted Doris. And in the complete absence of maternal care, her chicks are deprived of their most basic physiological and psychological needs.
If Doris were living on a farm under these circumstances, she would not have received veterinary care and would have instead been shipped off to slaughter at the tender age of 2 — the prime of life for a hen, who otherwise would live at least 10 years, if not 15 or more. And that is the reality of the commodified hen in all kinds of egg farming today — from factory farm to small family farm. Doris’ survival remains for me a symbol of what’s possible for us in terms of our relationship with and knowledge of these complex and fascinating birds that I have learned so much from.