Yesterday –or maybe it was two days ago, time begins to lose its accountability- someone sent me a PPS (pictures and words) titled “The Eggs You Eat”. I knew what I was in for if I opened it, and I opened it anyway. I watched, each moment more pained, the photos of four or five hens cooped together in spaces too small even for one, of beaks cut with hot pliers so that the birds could not peck each other fighting for what little space they could, of wings and breasts featherless and bleeding from incessant rubbing by wires that band the cage, of animals too exhausted to even stay on their feet from laying day in and day out as many eggs as possible. My chest hurt when the pictures finished. ‘Please’ I thought, ‘please, please don’t send me these things anymore’ I whispered knowing they would continue coming and I would continue opening them. The ending instruction was to send it to others so they too might be informed. I discarded it completely: on what human being would I inflict this pain that I so abhorred in my own chest? My children? My friends? Who? And to what end? What is it I understand from this? Can I answer that question? Let me try.
I understand: there are human beings doing this to animals, to hens, so that eggs can reach the markets in our cities and towns and be consumed by people who no longer have the space or the desire to raise hens of their own. I understand that these humans, the producers, see this suffering day after day and no longer really see it. I understand that if it were one hen or ten they might feel compassion, but when it is 100,000 white hens, every one identical to the one beside it, they forget they are in the presence of live beings and they simply count the eggs. (A memory flits through my mind. I am seven years old and spending the weekend at my uncle and aunt’s house. They have land, fields that they plant to grow vegetables and pens where they keep chickens for eating and hens for laying eggs. My uncle has chased and caught a chicken; it will serve for tomorrow’s noonday meal. I watch as he grabs it by the head so the bird stops squawking, lays its neck on a stoop and brings the hatchet down with a clean blow. And then I see the unexpected: the chicken’s body racing around the pen, shooting blood out of where its head used to be. I feel sick and the image will haunt me for months to come, and return every once in a while to remind me of what violent death looks like. Much later, when I watch the movie of Marie Antoinette being beheaded, I wonder why her body does not do the same and race around the raised scaffolding bleeding its headlessness onto the cheering crowd.)
I understand that the person who put together the document wants to do something about it. At the end of the exposition, the author offers a “solution”. He or she suggests we stop buying commercial eggs. If we want to eat eggs we should buy only ecologically produced ones (chickens in large pens, hunting and pecking to their heart’s content is the suggestion) and in this way make it clear to the unfeeling industrial egg producers that we are not in agreement with their treatment of hens.
My heart is so heavy when I finally close the computer down and get into bed that I cannot sleep, so I rise and begin to write this in my notebook. And along with the hurt, there appears also doubt. Is this the way? Boycott the egg industry? A question arises: how many of us would have to do that in order to succeed? Are there that many persons not only willing but able to buy ecologically produced eggs, which apart from being harder to come by are also more expensive? Are there enough ecologically produced eggs to fill the existing demand? And what of the eggs consumed through secondary products such as bread and cakes and soufflés and pastas and… everything else that is breaded, coated or cooked with an egg? What about eating in restaurants and hotels? Should orphanages stop buying commercial eggs? If first world countries cut down on their industrial egg consumption, won’t the producers just send their extra eggs to the starving populations in third and fourth world countries? And how long will it take for the egg industry to really begin feeling the crunch?
Then I picture an army of irate ecologists and animal protectors storming delivery trucks filled with eggs and beating the unsuspecting yolks to a pulp. It could become war. Does the documentary I just viewed imply that the egg producers are the enemy? Is it a declaration of war against these “unfeeling” beings? Is it equivalent to the War on Drugs or the War on Terrorism: The War on Hen Abusers? At each question, I become more and more uncomfortable. Is the reason I don’t want to watch this kind of document just because it is painful and I feel so powerless, or because it invites me to sit in judgment on fellow human beings and that is even more painful. What are we looking at here… really.
What can I know about this situation which I can hold as true? First, that the owners of the egg-factories and the people who work there DO NOT awaken every morning with a smile, thinking: “Oh Boy, today I get to cause extreme suffering to 100,000 sentient beings, My Favorite!” Even the person who produced the internet document would have to admit that. So we can safely presume that it is not their intention to produce suffering. Then the suffering is perhaps only a by product of… ignorance? Innocence? What? The other implied suggestion could be that it is their greed that is producing the suffering and blinding them to it. The owners of the egg industry are greedy and that is why they don’t care about the hens. Can we know that? There doesn’t seem to be that much propaganda to get people to consume more eggs, which certainly would be the case if greed were the motive: “An egg a day keeps the doctor away” could be a starter (after all think of all the abused apple trees that are only planted to produce as many apples as possible each year and are cut down for firewood when they stop producing without any consideration for their feelings!). No, seriously, if greed were the principal motive behind the abuse of laying hens, then one would expect the industry to be realizing all kinds campaigns promoting the use of eggs in every possible situation, not just consumption: Wash your hair with 10 fresh yolks and get that blond sparkle that turns them on; Include whole eggs in you child’s finger paints to insure he gets his daily ration; Recent studies show that all forms of domestic animals –parrots, canaries and fish included- benefit from the daily consumption of eggs; Protect the paint on your new Mercedes with a coat of Egg-white shine every day, etc. Actually, the publicity that eggs get is exactly the opposite, mainly due to their high content of cholesterol.
So if we rule out intention, and greed doesn’t seem to be the motivator either, can we then suppose that they are simply trying to satisfy a growing demand and make a living at the same time (and yes, making a living is different depending on who is making it: Donald Trump or my doorman, with me floating somewhere in between, closer to the doorman)? In other words, are these just normal people, doing the best they can every day with what they KNOW in that moment, which is all any of us can do? So the question would seem to be: Is there a way to satisfy the actual and future demand of eggs without submitting hens to physical torture? And if there is, why don’t we suggest this to the egg producers and then they could use it to sell even more eggs (These eggs come from happy hens; Our hens have pension plans for when we retire them; Our hens are so happy you can hear the egg cackle as it fries; We don’t cut the beaks off our hens: they’re so happy they love their neighbours, etc.)?
If I find it hard to believe that a person, who would “overlook” the suffering of thousands of sentient beings in his or her care, is a normal person I can look to myself. I can go there. And as long as I can go there, I have work to do. So I ask myself: “Where have I overlooked the suffering of another sentient being for my own personal gain?” And I sit quietly, reviewing my life, looking for the places where I might have been guilty of doing the same. Yes, I can find them.
There was the time I allowed my two year old son to cry for over an hour in his crib because I wanted him to go to sleep so I could read. There was a time when I used a friend’s problem to illustrate something in my writing without even thinking it might hurt her as it did. I have never been a vegetarian and every mouthful of protein I consume probably has some animal suffering behind it which I prefer to ignore. Once, on a beach, I bought 8 live lobsters because lobster tails in the restaurant were very expensive (greed). I proceeded to cook them in a very small pot and the degree of suffering to which I subjected them is unmentionable (plus no one in the family could eat them later). I could go on, but it isn’t necessary. What I can see from each and every one of these examples is that if I knew or had known how to do it better, I would have.
So, for today, I do my part, I heal whatever concerns me. I write a letter to the friend I offended with my exposure. I have already made amends to my son even though he does not remember the ordeal so I simply send him an SMS saying I love him. I am open to eventually becoming a vegetarian or finding sources of animal protein that do not imply suffering for the animal. And, over and above that, I am willing to understand that if the owners of the egg industry knew another more humane way to satisfy the demand, they might well adopt it. And that for me would be the challenge of Animal Protectors: to learn enough about each area so as to propose more humane and kinder ways of providing the market with the produce it requires.
I have not saved any hens, but there is one less gram of cruelty in the world: mine. Ah, at long last I can sleep… on a down pillow, feeling ever so grateful to our fine feathered friends who made this possible.