By Shradha Chhetri
New Delhi: Imagine being confined in a space where you can’t even stretch your hands and are made to languish there? Even the thought of it is depressing, but that is how tens of thousands of hens in several poultry farms are kept cooped up in the country.
Egg-laying hens for commercial egg production are confined in ‘battery cages’ which restricts not only their movement but has an adverse effect on their health.
“Hens are creatures who love to perch, flap their wings without touching each other or the side of the cages, dust bath and explore open spaces. But these poultry farms only provide a floor space for each hen, which is equivalent to the size of a single sheet of A4 sized paper,” Jaya Simha, managing director, Humane Society International (HSI), told IANS.
HSI, which works on animal protection issues, has launched a campaign to prohibit the use of battery cages in India where 70 percent of the commercial egg production is undertaken in farms which adopt inhumane production techniques.
The battery cages, named so because several of the cages are stacked together, are made of wire. The stacks can be three to five tiers high, with a minimum of five hens made to stay in one cage and lay eggs.
“Once the natural behaviour of the birds is restricted it has an adverse impact on the health of these birds. Their legs get stuck in the cages, the tips of their beaks are cut off so that they do not hurt each other. They lose their feathers due to abrasion and may even experience bone breakage when removed from their cages,” added Simha.
Research has shown that chickens dust bathe on average for 20 minutes, which helps them balance the oil levels in the plumage to keep their feathers in good condition. Hens in the normal course feed from the ground but in the cages they are forced to take their feed from a feeder.
The congested living environment causes the hens to develop severe disorders.
“In severe cases the hens also develop a condition called Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome (FLHS) which is characterized by excess deposits of fat in the hen’s liver and abdomen, which can even result in massive bleeding and death,” he said.
While the adverse effect of battery cages on the health of hens is immense, it can also prove harmful to humans who consume the eggs. The pollution in the living environment caused by the accumulated dropping of the birds also cannot be ignored.
“It has been well established that eggs obtained from such battery cages are more likely to harbour the Salmonella bacteria, a major cause of food poisoning in India,” said Simha.
“The accumulation of bird droppings around the area where these farms are located pollute the air with ammonia and housefly infestation accompanied by the spread of foul smell,” he said.
Such confinement and cruelty also violates the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.
“The government has already prepared guidelines and is now issuing a letter to different states where such poultry farms exist,” an official in the ministry of environment and forests told IANS.
India is the third largest producer of eggs in the world with Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab and West Bengal being the major contributors. In contrast, there are poultry farms where individual entrepreneurs are offering free range farm facility where the birds are allowed to roam free and follow their natural movement.
“We provide the birds with a life as close to their natural lifestyle as possible. All these birds are given free outdoor access spread in an area of almost four acres,” Manjunath Marappam, the owner of the Happy Hens Farm, told IANS.
“‘Happy Hens Farm’ in Karnataka and ‘Keggs Farm’ in Gurgaon are such farms where hens can walk, run, forage, dust bathe, perch and roost and peck at the bugs, grass and grains from the ground,” he said.
“Hens in our farms also have the opportunity to lay their eggs in nests, which is a very important and natural behaviour that they experience. Studies have proven that hens which do not have access to nest while laying eggs (like in the battery cages), show signs of frustration and distress,” added Marappam.
However, eggs from free range farms cost double that of battery farms. Eggs from a battery cage farm may cost Rs.5 each, while the other ones cost Rs.10.