Recently, a sixteen-year-old high school student in British Columbia contacted me and asked me to help him help chickens. “First off, I would like to thank you for running in this election [for the Animal Alliance/Environment Voters Party] and standing up for both animals and our environment,” he wrote. Then he requested my support for his petition, “Ban Battery Cages in Canada,” against the brutal treatment of factory-farmed chickens, which references the Canadian Coalition for Farmed Animals as its source.
As an animal advocate, I could not resist this appeal on behalf of billions of chickens. Ned’s petition is stellar. It reviews the condition of more than ninety percent of Canada’s egg-laying hens, detailing how these creatures are trapped in cramped wire “battery cages” for their entire lives, forced to exist in spaces smaller than an 8 ½ x 11 inch piece of paper.
These conditions are not only cruel, Ned writes, but they deprive hens of their natural behaviors of nesting, perching, dust-bathing, stretching their wings or even walking around, and the consequences can be dire. Chickens are fouled and sickened by urine and feces falling down from cages above them. Their feathers fall out and their skin is damaged. Their muscles waste from lack of use, their bones and skeletal systems become brittle, and their spinal cords deteriorate, leaving them paralyzed. Dying and dead chickens litter the cages and are often cannibalized by their surviving cage-mates.
“This is how millions of hens spend their entire lives in Canada, and yet nothing has been done to stop this,” Ned’s petition concludes. “We need to ban battery cages in Canada and make it mandatory for chickens to be raised in a free run or free range system. This is the humane and Canadian thing to do. … Please, for the sake of our animals and our people, do the right thing.”
I read through and signed the petition and agreed to promote it. Soon after, I connected with Ned by telephone and bombarded him with questions. What had driven this teenager’s desire to help chickens? And why had he chosen petitioning the government as the best way to achieve his goal?
“Oh, because at home we always ate free run eggs and one day I just asked my mom why. She gave me some information about battery cages, and when last October’s election was called, I looked at the platforms of all the different candidates, because I thought battery cages, and the way we treat chickens aren’t right, and that led me to your party, the AA/EV.”
“I’m a bit of the odd man out,” Ned admitted. “My friends also followed the campaign, especially about the legalization of pot issue, but I’m the only one who volunteered. And the petition came after the election, because petitions are important tools to achieve results. Look at Europe! Switzerland banned battery cages back in 1992!” Western Europe is way ahead of Canada in animal welfare, Ned and I agree.
And, because we also agree on the intelligence of chickens, and their right to live full, natural lives, I invoked the veganism I assumed we shared.
“Oh, I’m not vegan,” Ned said.
Not vegan? I was taken aback. How could someone so knowledgeable about chicken nature and culture, someone so compassionate about the treatment of animals, justify eating them?
Ned’s explanation was forthright. “We humans are animals, too, and animals have been eating other animals for centuries. I believe that if we treat them right and they live a full life, then there’s nothing wrong with eating them.”
There was more. “Hunting them is better than the food industry,” Ned said. “They live in the wild, and die without fear.” That’s certainly true, but it still implies that humans have the right to end a healthy animal’s life whenever they wish to. Which begs the question: what about veganism?
“I completely support and understand it,” Ned said promptly. “In fact, I’m considering it.
Not promising to do it, just considering it right now.”
How about committing to one meatless day a week? I suggested. It needn’t be a Monday; any day of the week would suffice, making it more convenient and easier for him to honour his commitment.
Ned did not hesitate. “I agree to one meatless day a week, starting next week,” he pledged. “And I also agree to take notes and let you know how I’m doing.”
I can’t wait to hear, and not just because each of Ned’s Meatless Days will save an estimated .54 animals, for a grand total of twenty-eight each year. It’s because I’m confident that this challenge will be so easy for him, and so satisfying that he’ll not only embrace it for life – his life and the lives of animals he cares for so deeply – but that he’ll find ways to reach out to other young people who’ll be inspired to follow his example. When they do, their Meatless Days will add up to thousands of animals saved from the horrors of factory farming and the terror and anguish of slaughterhouses.