“Are backyard eggs ethical?”

As the information becomes more freely available, people are becoming more aware of the extreme cruelty involved in the egg industry, and so are choosing to raise their own chickens and consume their eggs. This is a positive step away from supporting industrial animal agriculture, and it is certainly better than buying from a store or a farmer directly, but it is still not ideal.

While chickens do produce eggs on their own with no encouragement from us, the volume they produce is highly unnatural. This is because chickens have been intensively bred to overproduce eggs for human consumption. The Wild Jungle Fowl, the closest wild relative to our domestic hens, lay somewhere between 10-15 eggs per year in only two clutches, whereas our modern farmed chickens can lay more than 300 eggs per year. This is extremely energy intensive for the chickens concerned, and is the loss of these calories and vitamins can cause a wide range of health problems. It is better for the chickens if they are allowed to eat their eggs instead, so that they can restore their invested calories, protein and energy. This means that the chickens are benefiting from their own production, rather than us.

We’ve all been conditioned to think of a chicken eating their own egg as strange, but chickens will actually do this anyway without any human intervention. In fact, if you type “chickens eating their own eggs” into any search engine you’ll be presented with almost nothing but advice articles and problem pages from farmers to try to get their chickens to stop doing this, or as they put it, to “break them out of this bad habit.” That “bad habit” being their natural way of regaining lost calories and energy from overproducing eggs. If you have hens and they don’t do this by themselves, cracking the shells will usually do it, otherwise chickens love to eat eggs mashed up or scrambled. Either way, feeding eggs back to the chickens means that they get to benefit from what they produce, rather than us taking it from them.

This concept that it matters who benefits from what hens produce is an important one, and it’s the primary reason why taking eggs from captive hens is unethical. An animal shouldn’t have to pay “rent” for their care, and they shouldn’t need to be exploited for us to keep them safe and healthy.  Whether or not animals are being treated well is irrelevant, because their producing something for us to enjoy should not be a requisite for us maintaining their welfare. This is not a case of a symbiotic relationship, as is often claimed with animal farming, since chickens do not have the capacity nor the opportunity to enter into this relationship willingly, nor are they able to leave them if they would rather you didn’t take what they produce. Using another being for your own personal gain is clearly exploitation, and even if that isn’t the primary reason you keep chickens, we shouldn’t need to find ways to benefit from our relationships with animals in order to care for them properly.

Taking eggs from backyard hens is not even close to being the most significant animal rights issue in the world, but it is part of a wider narrative where animals are subject to us and it is okay to take from them whatever we want so long as it benefits us. Whether or not animals are being treated well is irrelevant, because their producing something for us to enjoy should not be a requisite for us maintaining their welfare. Considering the fact that chickens clearly benefit from eating their own eggs, taking them because we like the way they taste is a clear demonstration that we think that think of our desires and preferences as inherently more important than theirs. Rescued chickens should be pets and companions, treated no differently and valued no lower than our dogs or cats. It is not for us to decide that it is okay to take something from them which they make, which they spend energy and time producing, just because we like the way it tastes.

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