Animal Activism – which is it: Unaware of their ignorance or misled by their knowledge?

Matthew Scully, former speech writer for President George W. Bush wrote Dominion, The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals and the Call for Mercy” where he stated “He who is unaware of his ignorance will only be misled by his knowledge.” When animal activists today criticize the production practices of today’s farmers producing meat, milk, or eggs, they are being “misled by their knowledge”. Unfortunately, some farmers and one egg group are also “unaware of their ignorance” in thinking a compromise with animal activists will result in a peaceful co-existence. This is the lesson learned in the European Union. For more than 30 years I have tried to reason with animal activists, explaining the reasons for today’s conventional farming practices.

My area of expertise is chickens where besides the years of hands-on experience, I have two degrees in Poultry Science and started a Ph.D. in animal science with a special emphasis in animal welfare. While all housing systems have their advantages and disadvantages, conventional egg production with chickens in cages provides an environment for a safe and wholesome egg to be produced. Modern, conventional cage systems provide a safe and wholesome product for today’s consumers while addressing the physical needs of the chicken. Eggs coming from modern conventional cage systems are the cleanest and safest in comparison to any in the world. The majority of eggs produced today in the U.S. come from chickens on wire floors, off the ground, so the chicken is not in contact with feces. A balanced diet composed principally of corn, soybean meal along with essential vitamins and minerals are provided throughout each day along with fresh water. No hormones are ever provided. Antibiotics are only used to overcome illness. Temperature is regulated as well as the amount of light each day to simulate springtime conditions, patterned after the spring when wild birds lay their eggs. Chickens kept outside in the winter may experience frozen combs and wattles, or certain diseases from a compromised immune system as a result of cold and damp conditions.

Today’s egg facility has an enhanced biosecurity system that helps protect the chickens from illness such as Avian Influenza (AI), Coccidiosis and ectoparasites such as fowl mites. Dusting areas for chickens in enhanced cages may make some feel the chickens are happy with this “natural” behavior, but chickens dust to rid themselves from these biting insects. Are those who advocate dusting “misled” or “unaware of their ignorance”? Caged environments where the chicken is not walking in the dirt and among feces is less likely to experience these ectoparasites. The Organization of International Epizootics notes that AI can spread by means of waterfowl carrying the virus without them manifesting the disease. One gram of infected feces from waterfowl can infect millions of chickens with the virus. Housing chickens in conventional systems is an added layer of protection for the chickens from the spread of AI. In Germany, the authorities recognized this threat and required that chickens kept outdoors must be brought indoors by March 1, 2006. Those in Germany who insist that all chickens should be cage-free and free-range chickens, are they being “mislead by their knowledge or unaware of their ignorance?”

Animal activists hold up a regular size sheet of paper 8 ½ inches by 11 inches and say this is all the space a chicken is allowed. Is this true? Certainly not. Chickens are housed in colonies with 5-7 birds per cage so the amount of space accommodates the grouping. Animal activists say chickens cannot spread their wings in caged environments. Is this true? Certainly not. Chickens are housed in colonies and I’ve seen many times where the chicken in one of those colony environments have fully spread its wings.

Perhaps another more accurate way of determining space is not square inches per animal, but square inches per pound of liveweight. At 67 square inches per chicken (average weight of 3.4 lbs) would provide 19.7 inches per pound of chicken. Let’s apply that 19.7 inches per pound to hogs and cattle. Using an average weight of 250 lbs. per hog would allow 4,925 square inches per hog. With 5 hogs penned together (using the more accurate analogy to chickens) would provide 24,625 square inches per 5 hogs. This is a pen that measures (144 in x 169 in) or 12 x 13 feet. Even by the standards of free-range thinkers, that’s plenty of room for the hogs to do their “natural” activities. Cattle at 1200 lbs. liveweight, 5 to a pen, would be in a pen that measures (240 in x 480 in) or 20 x 40 feet.   When you add that a nutritious diet and clean water is provided throughout the day, it shows the farmer is caring for his animals.

All of animal agriculture should recognize that campaigns are being developed to do away with the production of meat, milk and eggs. By “dividing and conquering” the individual animal industries through campaigns at Universities, retail, restaurants, state capitols, and in Washington, DC with the U.S. Congress, the animal activists are scoring steps toward their goal of eliminating animal products from our diets. The leaders in animal agriculture should follow the course of speaking out in defense of animal agriculture before we become a society of vegans. If and when that happens, we can ask ourselves: we were unaware of our ignorance and so we were misled by our knowledge.

Ken Klippen, National Association of Egg Farmers