An article in a California newspaper says in response, not so much, really: room for a dust bath, a place to perch, a nest. Absent those three basics -- the nest especially -- chickens get stressed, animal behavior experts say.
But most egg-laying chickens live without any of those things, in bare cages like the ones stacked four rows high in the J.S. West and Cos. barn in Merced County, California.
Nearly 150,000 white chickens pace and murmur here, eight birds in each four-square-foot wire box. A fine dust sticks in the throat. It's 10:30 a.m. and the egg counter on the wall already has topped 59,000.
The Humane Society of the United States was cited as saying caged chickens suffer -- and it's gathering signatures to put a measure on the November 2008 ballot that would make California the first state to ban barns outfitted like this one.
The story goes on to say that the proposal, which would take effect in 2015, rides an international wave of opposition to farm-animal confinement. The European Union is already in the process of phasing cages out altogether by 2012, and in the past two years dozens of food-industry trendsetters, from Ben & Jerry's to Burger King, have pledged to buy some or even all of their eggs from hens raised cage-free.
But the Humane Society's proposal in California -- and the fear that similar regulations will follow elsewhere in the country -- has scrambled the nation's $6 billion egg industry.
Farmers, including many already deep into the cage-free business, say a ban on cages would run many of them out of business, drive up prices and restrict consumer choice.
What's more, they say, banning cages wouldn't do much to improve the lot of California's 19 million laying hens.
In a rare move for an industry in which each visitor to a chicken house raises the chances of a ruinous disease outbreak, some farmers have opened their barns to reporters, an effort to demonstrate that while a caged life may not give a hen everything she wants, she's likely to be cleaner and healthier than her average cage-free counterpart.
California first state to ban cramped cages?
What do chickens want? An article in a California newspaper says in response, not so much, really: room for a dust bath, a place to perch, a nest. Absent those three basics -- the nest especially -- chickens get stressed, animal behavior experts say.
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