Man’s inhumanity to hens

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Just in time for that November holiday, when birds of all kinds of feathers are slaughtered in the nation’s annual paean to gluttony, comes news of perceived foul play by fowl farmers. A San Diego veterinarian has been taken to task by animal rights activists for sanctioning a cruel and unusual death for hens.

For centuries, farmers’ wives had to chase down the chicken, goose or turkey and wring its neck-taking care not to get pecked, kicked or wing flapped in the process. In order to level the playing field, the birds were often fed grain soaked in whiskey. Safer for the dispatcher, more humane for the dispatchee. If the farmer himself did the deed, the fowl destined for the holiday table was more likely to be guillotined or dispatched with a shotgun.

It seems that in the thick of the exotic Newcastle disease outbreak last winter, poultry ranchers, veterinarians and agriculture officials met and considered using a wood chipper to destroy quarantined birds.

Desperate measures for desperate times.

Having heard this, an opportunistic egg rancher rented a wood chipper and used it to terminate 30,000 hens, not because they were diseased, but because they no longer laid eggs. No eggs from 30,000 hens at once? I’m no expert, but this sounds like a case of mass menopause, like Baby Boomers all having hot flashes and mood swings en masse. In the old days, hens of a certain age, passed their egg-laying prime, would have wound up in the stew pot. Dead nonetheless, but not victims of mechanized massacre. Well, that was before factory farming caught on.

Corporate culling is ruthless. County Animal Services filed a complaint against the veterinarian who sanctioned this messy business. He said he really believes the chipper is more humane, quicker and more painless than gassing. Activists are calling for his removal from the animal welfare committee of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Whether or not they prevail in avenging the chicken chipping, animal welfare groups had good news last week. Whole Foods Market announced it would adopt humane animal treatment standards, the first major grocery chain to do so. I’m glad. I’ve bought free-range turkey and chicken (and their eggs) for years, not because I get all misty eyed about chicken cruelty, but because I believe they’re healthier, roaming around naturally and not being fed antibiotics and reprocessed chicken parts. That may be a bit selfish on my part, but the result’s the same. What’s better for me is better for the birds.

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who recently progressed from garden-variety vegetarian to vegan, reportedly said, “It’s pretty horrible what’s going on with animals in America.”

Hear, Hear. I only hope this policy change means that I won’t have to check the labels on every package to make sure there’s no bad stuff used in the production of these animals. Awhile back, the American Humane Association agreed to monitor a program certifying humane treatment of farm animals with a label “Free Farmed.” I applauded that but have to admit I haven’t been looking for the label. By the time I figure out what’s in the food, or what’s not in it, I can spend an hour and a half clogging grocery store aisles reading nutrition labels. I already spend an inordinate amount of time reading newsletters like Environmental Nutrition and Nutrition Action whose researchers have done the label analysis for me. I guess it’s not enough to just stick with organic.

Of course, I’m not so concerned about the welfare of veggies. Free range lettuce? Do strawberries suffer when they’re picked or if they’re planted too close together? Isn’t it enough to know the fields weren’t fumigated with methyl bromide? Heads of cabbage crammed into crates for transport? What is the capacity for suffering of a beet? I can’t even go there.

My holiday table will sport a free-range turkey, humanely plucked (the kids have forbidden Tofurkey), dressing (whole wheat) and gravy (nondairy), organic cranberries, squash, potatoes, green beans, almonds, and apple, celery and walnuts for the Waldorf salad. After which everyone will fall asleep only to wake for the pumpkin pie (crust made without hydrogenated oils).

Will anybody care? Probably not. But I’ll sleep better believing everything was humanely grown. Hope I don’t dream about those poor old hens.