A little over six months ago Orangutan Project staff decided to take the plunge into the world of hen care-giving and we haven’t looked back! As an organisation we are primarily focused on the conservation and care of endangered wildlife on Borneo. However, as people who care about animals we strive as individuals as well as an organisation to alleviate animal suffering in any way we can. This is why it never sat well with us that in order to provide sustenance for the animals at the centre we were in effect supporting the battery hen industry. So we decided that in addition to orangutan, macaques, sun bears and binturongs (to name just a few of the species at the centre), we’d extend our role as animal caregivers to hens and we got some “backyard chickens”!
We built a lovely chicken coup and a very generous yard in preparation for their arrival. We initially decided we would rescue ex battery hens. However, sadly they did not live very long at all. One by one they would become ill and many were humanely euthanized by our vet because we didn’t want them to suffer. We provided them with the best possible care we could but our vet felt that perhaps they had weakened immune systems as a result of factory farm life. It is documented that chickens and turkeys destined for the slaughterhouse are often infected with salmonella, campylobacter and E coli as well as other bacterial infections. They contract these illnesses as a result of the filthy and cramped conditions where they are raised. In fact, battery conditions are so cramped and unhygienic that most hens suffer from respiratory conditions and ammonia burn and many subsequently die as a result of the high level of ammonia they are exposed to which is emitted from their excrement (Poultry welfare in developing countries, pgs 1-2). Although we looked after our ex battery hens as best we could we were able to provide most with only a few short weeks of happy life before they passed away. Interestingly our ex battery hens all laid eggs for a couple of days after they arrived with us and then never laid again. One can only imagine then what drugs or practices they were being exposed in battery conditions to make them lay every day.
Although we were obviously saddened that we could not provide a happy life for ex battery hens we decided it was still important to have happy hens. So we sourced three free range hens from a local farmer. We have one ex battery hen called Molly and we have called the new girls called Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell and Rachel Hunter (they’re very pretty and have long legs). They are just lovely, full of character, each with their own very distinct personality. We feed them on a rather gourmet diet. Their favourite treat is mealworms which they go absolutely crazy for. They know the container the mealworms live in and they get VERY EXCITED when they see us walk anywhere in the vicinity of said container. We like to hide the worms in their sandpit or under a pile of dead leaves so that the hens can exhibit their natural behaviours and scratch at the floor to unearth the littles wrigglers that they love so much!
We love observing the behaviour of the hens as they go merrily about their day, foraging and chatting away to each other. The social interactions can be quite delightful and entertaining and it is obvious that there are individual personalities and relationships at play. However, in many cultures around the world hens are a food source. We sometimes detach ourselves from the idea that the meat or the eggs we consume came from intelligent and sentient beings whom, in the case of factory farmed individuals, had a miserable life. A common notion that helps our societies condone our consumption is the idea that hens are unintelligent, unthinking beings who therefore don’t suffer in the way we or our typical “companion animals” would suffer.
However, anyone who has taken the time to observe chicken behaviour will know that this notion is false. New science has revealed quite remarkable insights into chicken behaviour, memory and emotions. Not that an animals’ level of intelligence should dictate how kind we are to them of course, but sometimes we have to allow ourselves to be knocked off our human pedestal long enough to remember that we are not the only creatures on the planet who have emotional lives. It is now documented that chickens are not only self-aware but also recognise and remember the social status of other members of the group and their place in that hierarchy. They form close bonds with conspecifics and empathise with those in distress. This discovery was made by Smith and Johnson (2012) who saw that domestic hens had both a physiological and behavioural empathetic response to their chicks. This was evidenced by the fact that they possess one of the key attributes of empathy; the ability to be affected by and then share the emotional state of another. This is a distressing thought when we consider that chickens in deplorable factory farm conditions are routinely exposed to the stress, trauma and death of their flock mates and this surely has an emotional and stressful effect on them. Basic compassion combined with these facts make us all the more determined not to support the battery farm industry.
Tyra, Rachel and Naomi lay very consistently, most of the time they lay an egg a day. We obviously don’t do anything to force this. If they don’t lay they don’t lay and that’s fine. We have intentionally started with just a few hens, we may add to the hen family but we want to keep the flock small to ensure that every individual is happy and healthy. At the moment Tyra, Naomi and Rachel provide us with enough eggs to feed the four slow lorises, two tree shrews and the young civet at the centre, these animals require egg every day. With the produce from the girls we also have enough to spare for the five binturongs and the monitor lizard who have eggs a couple of times a week.
The reality is that we probably won’t ever get to the point where we are able to consistently meet the eggy requirements of every animal at the centre as this would require us to have many more hens. At the moment the outcome of our Happy Hen endeavor is that we have enough eggs to feed the animals who require this protein source every day and this allows us to be more choosey about where we source the rest of our eggs. For instance, with the daily needs met we can now source extra eggs as needed from local kampongs (villages) where the chickens are free range.
Here at Orangutan Project we don’t let any opportunity to strive towards self-sufficiency go by so we save the egg shells and crush them up to feed the worms who are busily making vermi-compost for our organic fruit and vege farm and the chicken poo ends up in the compost too so the girls are definitely contributing to the cause! Thanks chooky ladies!
By Bron Browning
Poultry welfare in developing countries, pgs 1-2, poultry development review, food and argriculture organization of the united nations.
Smith, Carolyn L. and Johnson, Jane, The Chicken Challenge- What contemporary studies of foul mean for science and ethics, Between the Specie, Vol> 15 (2012)> Iss. 1, p.84.