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Laying eggs is what clearly defines chickens for the majority of the population. Whenever I end up in a conversation discussing my rescued companion chickens, whether it be at the shops when buying their greens and fruit, or at the vet with other clients who are sitting waiting with their cat or dog, one of the first things people often say to me is “Oh you must get lovely fresh eggs!” They even assume I only have female chickens at home, because it’s hard for people to comprehend keeping chickens if you weren’t getting something back from them.

I have been privileged to have had 100’s of ex egg and meat industry chickens as friends over the years that I’ve been rescuing and rehoming. Anyone who knows or has lived with chickens, will be aware of just how intelligent, curious, sweet, gregarious, cheeky and social they are, with complex cognitive abilities and intelligence 1. They have friends, enemies, love their babies, get mad, sad, happy and frightened, just like we all do. They feel pain, sorrow, love, sadness, happiness, fear, cold, warmth and hunger, just like we all do. There is nothing better than to sit and watch a recently rescued ex egg industry hen, indulge for the first time, in the natural instincts that have been denied her, dustbathing, foraging, sunbathing and nesting.

But chickens are the most en masse abused land animal on the planet. They are routinely and legally confined, abused, tortured, both physically and emotionally, mutilated, exploited and slaughtered by the egg farming industries, all because of consumer demand.

We use and abuse them, all for a product that we do not need and that can even be bad for our health. An egg.


Removed from Scruncher on the operating table due to selective breeding to produce 20 times more eggs than her body would naturally
2 whole shell less eggs, 8 membranes from old eggs, 1 huge cyst on part of her oviduct
another smaller cyst also on the oviduct, infected and necrotic
Credit: Vegan Rising

Over the generations, hens have been genetically altered for excessive and unhealthy levels of egg production. The breed most commonly used in egg production in Australia – the Isa Brown – has been genetically selected for high egg output, laying up to 300 eggs a year. They are exploited for their reproductive systems in every facet of the egg industry, battery caged eggs, organic eggs, barn laid eggs, free range and even backyard eggs. Therefore, there are ethical concerns in all egg laying systems.


It all starts with the parent birds who are kept in sheds to breed and create fertile eggs. In the parent bird sheds, there is usually one rooster to approximately every 10 hens. The roosters have been artificially bred to become sexually mature much earlier than they normally would, they have adult sex hormones driving them, without the neurobiological maturity of an adult bird. The unnatural living conditions in these breeder sheds, has eliminated the rooster’s usual courtship dance around the hen that tells her to crouch into a sexually receptive position. When the hen fails to crouch or tries to escape from being mounted by the rooster, he may attack her and force her to mate. Being confined to an area in the shed, the hen has nowhere to run to escape these attacks. The roosters continually rape the hens, who get ‘rape rub’ sores, where their feathers wear off to red raw skin, which never heals due to continuous mating.

The eggs are collected from the breeder sheds and are taken to hatcheries for incubation. Breeder hens are sent to slaughter after approximately one year of living in this hell and are then replaced by a new flock of younger hens, or “pullets”.


Debeaked hen trapped in a free range egg farm

Once sorted or ‘sexed’ at the hatchery, males are killed the day they are born, as it is not profitable to raise boys, as they do not lay eggs. It is legal to macerate (grind alive), gas or suffocate male chicks. In Australia, up to 12 million male chicks are killed annually.2 The females are debeaked, that is, they have their sensitive beak cut back by a mechanised hot blade. When they are forced to live in unnatural social settings, they display aggression and this also may lead to cannibalism. The egg industry’s answer to this was to invent a device to cut off the ‘offending weapon’, their beak. The young ‘pullets’ are then raised in grower sheds until they are old enough to be sold to the egg farm facilities. They will be sold to free range, barn laid, cage and organic farms.


In Australia, as you read this, 11-12 million ‘battery’ hens are currently confined to small wire cages which are stacked row after row in large sheds with hundreds of thousands of other hens.3. They will spend 1 year to 18 months in a sloping wire bottomed cage, with 4 to 6 cage mates, each with about the size of an A4 piece of paper to live on, with no stimulation and not even enough room to spread or flap their wings.


Barn laid hens are not in cages and are usually kept in windowless sheds with up to 50,000 other hens. They are also debeaked because they become aggressive and frustrated, as it’s hard to establish a natural pecking order with 50,000 other hens. The stocking density is so high that they have very little space to move about. The male chicks are still killed. On egg farms where the chickens are housed indoors without access to normal light, they are tricked into thinking it’s always spring. Indoor lights are left on for 12-16 hours a day during peak lay. Moulting is cruelly induced in these birds through feed withdrawal. In a natural environment, hens undergo a moulting process in which they shed all their feathers and prepare their bodies and reproductive system for the next laying cycle. On egg farms though, hens are starved for up to two weeks and forced to moult to induce laying

Extreme inactivity and unnaturally high egg production results in osteoporosis in many hens, leading to weak and broken bones. Due to excessive strain from laying an unnatural number of eggs, many hens will also suffer prolapses, where their insides pop out. They do not receive any medical attention whatsoever in any of the egg laying facilities as it is not cost effective to do so.


By definition of Australian standards, free range hens must have “meaningful and regular access” to an outdoor range during daylight hours and be free to roam and forage outside.1,500 birds per hectare was the recommended maximum, but from April 2018, egg producers could have a maximum of 10,000 hens per hectare of land in order to be accredited as “free range” — that’s the equivalent of one hen per square metre. Free range hens are still debeaked, killed at 18 months of age, suffer illness and disease and the male chicks are still killed on the day they are born.


Organic is nothing to do with any concern for the wellbeing of chickens, it’s about the consumers desires to eat eggs that have come from chickens who were fed no antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal by-products. Organically raised hens are still often debeaked, are slaughtered at 18 months of age, suffer illness and disease without veterinary attention and the male chicks are still killed on the day they are born.


Macerating day-old chicks alive is standard in all systems including so-called “free-range”, “backyard”, “organic”, and “ethicurean”,
Credit: Aussie Farms

People who keep backyard hens for eggs often say to me, “I love my hens, they are well looked after, have a great life and they give me eggs every day”.

Backyard hens only exist because of the genetic engineering of their reproductive system which forces them to lay unnatural numbers of eggs. If backyard hens were to lay say, 20 eggs a year as their body is intended to do, would people still be so keen on keeping them and giving them a ‘wonderful life’? I think not. Most people keep backyard hens because they want something in return. “Fresh eggs”.

Those who do not consume eggs and have backyard hens who have been rescued from the egg industries, only do so because these industries exist in the first place and homes are needed for the ones lucky enough to be liberated from those disgusting places, away from the cruel existence they are being forced to endure. Male chicks are still ground up alive for all backyard hens. The hens still suffer from a range of fatal diseases and complications due to the unnatural laying of an egg nearly every day. Many people do not seek medical attention if their backyard hen becomes ill. And when they die, they will happily ‘replace’ them with another. Eating the eggs from backyard hens also reinforces that laying eggs is the primary purpose in life for hens. They are so much more than an egg.


Chickens can live for around 10 years, but most layer hens in Australia are sent to slaughter as soon as they are deemed “spent” somewhere between 12 and 18 months of age, regardless of whether they are in a free range, barn laid, organic or caged system. They are ‘depopulated’ from the cages and sheds, by being caught by the legs and tossed into transport crates. Due to their poor condition by this stage, often their legs and wings will be broken during a depopulation. They are then transported, often over long distances in all weather extremes, to a slaughterhouse where they sometimes will sit for 12 hours until the workers arrive. The hens are roughly grabbed from the crates, shackled upside down by their legs which by this stage are often already broken and are processed through an electrified stunning bath. Many raise their head, miss the stunning bath and move on fully conscious to the blade that slits their throat. Some also miss the blade and are dunked alive, into the scalding tank that is to remove their feathers. Remember, this is how all hens end up from all of the egg laying facilities, free range, barn laid, organic and caged hens.

Hens wait in transport crates at the slaughterhouse. She along with many others choke or suffocate before reaching the kill floor.
Location: Star Poultry Keysborough, Vic
Credit: Gary Hall


People often say, surely there are laws to prevent all this cruelty and abuse? In Australia, there are CODES OF PRACTICE set out by the Primary Industries Standing Committee. These are guidelines, not laws, they are ‘suggestions’ for how chickens should be treated in the animal agriculture industries.

The Code of Practice recognises that the basic requirement for welfare of poultry is a husbandry system appropriate to their physiological and behavioural needs. It states that the basic needs of poultry are: readily accessible food and water to maintain health and vigour; freedom to move, stand, turn around, stretch, sit and lie down; visual contact with other members of the species; accommodation which provides protection from the weather and which neither harms nor causes distress; prevention of disease, injury and vice, and their rapid treatment should they occur. 4 The codes are not enforced or monitored.


We don’t need extensive and expensive reports and studies carried out on chickens used in the egg industries to know that what we subject them to is so wrong, so barbaric, that if it were done to our companion dogs and cats, we would be charged and jailed for animal cruelty.

The consumer has the ultimate power to help end this awful suffering. Eggs can be replaced in any diet with many of the amazing alternatives that are available today. The internet is a wealth of information for those seeking to make kinder choices in their lives.

“If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it” Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do

Author: Liz Dealey
Occupation: Client Resolution Officer in the finance industry
Founder of Melbourne Chicken Save

Trudy (RIP) and Lizzie
Credit: Stefano Belacchi

  1. Rogers (1995), ibid n 13, 219; Carolynn L Smith And Sarah L Zielinksi, ‘The startling intelligence of the common chicken’, Scientific American (2014) 310(2).
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