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March 2005
March Madness: There’s No Sunny Side to Easter Eggs and Bunnies

By Mark Hawthorne

 

Sad Bunny
Illustration by Mark Wells

Egg Beaters

Want to celebrate Easter without the cruelty? There are a number of compassionate alternatives, including dairy-free chocolates and plastic eggs filled with vegan candy. Your family might enjoy an animal-friendly project, such as decorating clay Easter eggs, creating papier-mâché eggs, or making your own chocolate eggs. For more information, check out www.peta.org/feat/403/eggs.html. You can also see United Poultry Concern’s “Celebrate Easter Without Eggs” guide at www.upc-online.org.
— M.H.

Like many people, I grew up celebrating Easter. While it wasn’t my favorite holiday, I did look forward to a basket filled with goodies, delivered by a generous rabbit who apparently had a key to our house. Colorfully decorated eggs were placed amid jellybeans and sundry chocolates. It was a few years before I learned who was really bringing these treats (a slight disappointment), and still years later that I discovered the horrors involved in egg production (profoundly disturbing).

The egg industry aggressively markets eggs in the happiest light possible. A typical egg carton will depict a smiling hen sitting on a nest, for example, or hens enjoying the sunshine. But the numbers themselves belie such false advertising. According to the American Egg Board, U.S. consumers on average bought 73.2 million dozen shell eggs a week during most of 2004. This increased to 85.1 million dozen the week before Easter, and peaked at 104 million dozen during Easter week (Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday). These billions of eggs were clearly not produced by cheerful hens with access to the outdoors; they came from a highly industrialized practice that regards chickens as units of production.

Many of us may think of modern egg farms as relatively harmless, especially compared to other factory farm practices, but pound for pound there is likely more suffering involved in producing an egg than any other animal-agriculture product. For one thing, almost all of this country’s 300 million laying hens spend their lives confined in tiny wire battery cages, with three to 10 hens per cage. A typical U.S. egg farm contains thousands of cages at an average density of 59 square inches of space per bird (about two-thirds the area of a letter-size sheet of paper). Hens need about 72 square inches just to stand up, 197 inches to turn around, and 291 inches to flap their wings. Hens in battery cages are packed in so tightly they cannot perform any of their natural behaviors, and they frequently die from uterine prolapse—the uterus is pushed outside the body as the hen lays an egg. Two million hens a year suffer this agonizing death.

I was a vegetarian but still eating eggs when I read John Robbins’ Diet for a New America. What I learned about egg production troubled me, so I wrote to United Poultry Concerns, hoping they could mollify my anxiety and tell me that some eggs were all right to eat, like free-range eggs. UPC’s Karen Davis set me straight. She quickly disabused me of the free-range myth, informing me that eggs produced and sold in the U.S. may be falsely advertised as “range,” because, to date, there is no commercial or legal definition for free-range eggs in this country. Although “range” implies chickens spending their days on open land, enjoying the sunshine and cleansing dust baths with their flock mates, U.S. egg producers generally mean that birds are uncaged but still confined indoors.

The chicken’s misery begins at birth, when he or she is among thousands of chicks hatched in an industrial incubator. At this point, agribusiness doesn’t even call them “chickens.” Instead, these birds are identified by their food value: “broilers” are chickens bred for meat, and “layers” are hens destined to produce eggs. Workers in the egg industry quickly separate the male and female chicks, literally throwing out the males. Because “egg-type” male chickens can’t lay eggs and are too small for the broiler chicken industry, they are either gassed, tossed into a machine that grinds them up while fully conscious, or flung into garbage bags to eventually suffocate. U.S. hatcheries killed more than 272 million male chicks in 2002.

Workers then begin what agribusiness euphemistically calls “beak trimming,” what protectionist organizations call “de-beaking.” Activist Erik Marcus has proposed calling the practice “beak searing,” since it more accurately describes the process: a worker places the beak of a chick into a machine that uses a hot blade to remove part the sensitive soft tissue of the beak—without any painkiller. Why is this inhumane treatment practiced? Because chickens have a refined social structure—a “pecking order”—that defines how their society functions, and when confined in small cages with nothing else to peck at, they often peck at each other.

Hidden in a warehouse-like building, packed into a small cage with as many as nine other birds, standing on wire, and with no access to the outdoors, the hen thus spends her brief life producing eggs for human consumption. She may suffer a variety of factory farm-related illnesses—including severe ocular and respiratory infections—but will receive no veterinary care. By the time she is 18 months-old, a hen is too exhausted to form saleable eggs. Factory farmers either sell her for meat or subject her to a common practice known as “forced molting.” For 10 to 14 days, her food and water are taken away and the lighting is dimmed to approximate the onset of winter. The already traumatized hen is thus shocked into producing eggs for another few months. If she survives, she’s finally sent to slaughter and her exploitation is complete. She lived, at most, two of the 15 years she would have enjoyed in nature.

Hopping Mad About March Hares
As many readers know, this month brings March Madness. I don’t mean the college basketball tournaments. No, I am referring to the people who will impulsively purchase a cuddly rabbit at their local pet store this Easter. Thanks to centuries of fertility legends, children’s stories, and consumer marketing, rabbits have become inextricably linked to this holiday, and it has become something of a tradition for pet stores to promote “Easter bunnies” for sale each spring.

Animal protection organizations like PETA and the House Rabbit Society continue to campaign against pet stores irresponsibly selling animals. Baby rabbits, for example, do not wean until six to eight weeks-old, yet some pet stores sell rabbits as young as four weeks. Since their digestive tracts have not properly formed, babies can suffer diarrhea, gastrointestinal complications, and even death.

Employees at retail outlets are generally not properly trained to care for rabbits, and, unlike a shelter or animal rescue group, pet stores do not screen people or seem to care much about what happens to the animals after they are sold. For all they know, an animal leaving the premises could end up being a meal, which is exactly what happened in January when a 16 year-old student in Ohio bought a rabbit and a guinea pig at a pet store, killed them, cooked them, and fed the animals to his classmates. (No charges have been filed against him.)

Rabbits are the third most popular companion animal in this country, which unfortunately makes them the third most common animal to be abandoned at shelters—or worse, dumped in a park, where they are usually unable to survive. Sadly, most rabbits end up dead or discarded before their first birthday. Many people don’t realize they require as much work as dogs or cats. These are social animals who make great companions for those willing to provide a secure, loving, indoor environment. Indeed, consigning a rabbit to an outdoor hutch or cage constrains their natural behaviors, subjects them to the danger of predators and inclement weather, and denies you the pleasure of their company. Rabbits flourish indoors, where they can run, dance, and play in safety. You can even train them to use a litter box. But these are not low-maintenance animals. Your home needs to be bunny-proofed, since rabbits, who are natural burrowing animals, have a strong biting instinct and will chew on your baseboard or nip through telephone cords. They also need frequent grooming.

Notwithstanding these caveats, rabbits make wonderful companions—especially for vegetarians because of their diet. Whether you live in a small city apartment or a spacious country home, adopting the quiet, gregarious house rabbit is extremely rewarding. Shelters across the country are always crowded with wonderful rabbits, but it gets worse after Easter, when the novelty of having a bunny has worn off. I urge anyone who is thinking about bringing home a rabbit, or knows someone who wants to, to please first visit www.rabbit.org. You’ll be saving money…and a life.

Mark Hawthorne is a volunteer with the San Francisco/Marin chapter of the House Rabbit Society (www.saveabunny.com). He lives with four rescued bunnies.

 

 


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