Free range zoo

Ostrich Dustbathing - much less silly looking than a chicken doing the same

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

2 responses to “Free range zoo

  1. Thanks for this very informative post, Mike. I had no idea why the cages were started. I assumed it was to make factory level egg farming more efficient. My chickens are moderately free range, and they seem to be ok, except we do get occasional pecking deaths. We try to reduce occurences with ample space and ensuring full darkness at night. As you say, it’s all about tradeoffs.

    • Thanks for the comment Nathalie. That is a big part of the reason I started to work on the blog….to help people understand the profession of egg farming, and the reasons things are the way they are. Just out of curiosity, how many chickens do you have? One of the biggest influences on pecking and aggression is flock size. By splitting your hens into groups of about 20 or less (if thats possible in your situation), you will allow them to “know” each other, and then less dominance aggression is necessary, since the pecking order is well established. Your effort to control light intensity is absolutely right, and has likely decreased your pecking problems a lot.

      Mike the Chicken Vet

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