According to news reports, last month’s (September) downpour in Telangana caused the death of 40,000 chickens. In one news report, the "losses" mentioned are only in relation to the farmers and their incomes. As important as these losses are to cover, also important is the tragic suffering and eventual death of 40,000 animals — as well as the agony these animals endured while alive.
The lack of concern for these animals is the latest example of how far removed most people are from their food supply. And the sad truth is that we have completely disrupted the natural lives of chickens.
India is the world’s third largest egg producer – a status achieved through the proliferation of "factory farms" where intensive farming methods seek to maximise production of animal-derived products, at the cost of the animals' well-being.
In egg farms, birds are confined into wire enclosures called "battery cages" that are usually arranged in rows, one upon the other. These cages are so tiny that each bird has less space than an iPad on which to live. The birds are starved for space to the extent that they cannot even spread their wings or turn around. Their claws grow gnarled and can twist around the wire floors of the cages, causing debilitating and painful injuries.
The cramped confines result in the hens lying above their own waste, which is almost never cleaned. This is the daily life for 220 million hens across India who spend their short lifespans of 1-2 years in this horrific manner. When their bodies give up from years of forced egg-laying, these birds are yanked out of their cages and carried upside down by their legs for slaughter.
What makes this worse is that chickens are, in fact, highly intelligent and sentient beings. Research collated by Humane Society International throws light on some remarkable facts about these birds.
Chickens are social animals; they interact with each other using a diverse array of 19 different vocalisations. In fact, mothers "talk" to their babies even before they hatch. A mother hen will protect her young and will teach them what to eat and how to avoid predators.
|In egg farms, birds are confined into wire enclosures called battery cages that are usually arranged in rows, one upon the other. (Photo: HSI India)|
Chickens are keen observers, and even chicks learn to distinguish between "good" and "bad" food by simply observing others around them. Chickens are even known to be able to count, tell time and recognise other members of their flock, as well as human faces.
And yet, in factory farms, the basic interaction between mother and young is denied to these birds, as little chicks are hatched by the thousands in industrial-sized incubators.
Allow a hen to run free and you will see that she is a remarkably curious creature. She will scratch the ground foraging for treats, perch high in the trees, flap her wings and indulge in some dust bathing.
To a hen, nesting is a very serious affair. She will look out for a quiet corner that is free from disturbance and lay her eggs there, protectively brooding over them till they hatch. In fact, when given a choice between nesting and feeding, she is likely to choose the former. However, in factory farms, space to run, forage and nest remains unattainable.
The abhorrent manner in which these interesting, social, smart birds are treated is not only morally reprehensible but is also illegal as per the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. Section 3 of the act states the duties of the persons in charge of animals, Section 11(1)(d) declares that transporting any animal in a manner that causes discomfort, pain or suffering is a punishable offence, and Section11(1)(e) expressly prohibits confining any animal in a receptacle or space that prevents freedom of movement.
And yet birds continue suffering in cruel cages.
As humans, we believe that our intellectual and emotional capacities grant us pride of place in the animal kingdom. And yet, industrial agriculture continues abusing animals in a manner that belies equally valuable qualities such as compassion and kindness.
In the words of renowned philosopher Peter Singer, "All the arguments to prove man's superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: In suffering the animals are our equals."