We took the kids to the African Lion Safari. It’s a gigantic zoo here in Ontario that you drive through, and it allows you to see animals in an approximation of their natural habitat. It was great, and the family got to see wild animals close up….a bonus was that the baboons neither soiled nor disassembled my car.
Only I would see a see a parallel to laying hens here. What started it was seeing an ostrich egg, and thinking of the omelet it would make….a one egg omelet would fill a pan!! Problem is, you’d only get a panful of omelet a couple of times per year.
The parallel was the failed attempt to mimic the natural environment. Don’t get me wrong, the animals were well looked after, healthy, and had all the amenities….I respect what the Safari does. The problem is that you cannot have “tame” wild animals.
The same holds true for chickens. Regardless of the housing system, flock size, location or attention given, chickens are kept in unnatural circumstances. They have to be, unless all the eggs we need can be collected from ground nests in the jungle.
All we can do, similar to the zoo, is to provide the things we think are most important to the animals, and compromise on the things that they will miss least. As more research is done, scientists are constantly re-evaluating the most important needs, and developing ways to provide for them.
There’s one thing to remember, however. People who want to will ALWAYS be able to criticise any method of keeping chickens, since there will always be something missing. For instance, once egg farmers started keeping chickens in large enough groups to lay a significant number of eggs, the most pressing welfare detriment was disease. This was in the 1940s. Often, up to 50% of the flock would be sick or dying. To deal with this, cages were developed. Disease rates plummeted, and mortality dropped to negligible levels.
The downside to cages are obvious, and movement and freedom are now the biggest problems facing laying hens in this housing system. Now, the egg-laying world is working on mitigating these deficits. Progress is being made. The issue, from my point of view, is that people unfamiliar with the history of laying hens have forgotten why birds moved to cages in the first place. We cannot go back to high disease rates and mortality in order to give hens more freedom.
Smart people are working on the problem, and progress is being made. It is important to remember that everything is a trade-off, and reverting to an older time is often not progress.
Mike the Chicken Vet