Pet Doctor: Was Chicken Little right?

Jon Klingborg

If you remember the story, Chicken Little began to panic after an acorn fell on her head. "The sky is falling," she cried as she ran for her life. Before long, she had most of the barnyard animals in an uproar, convinced that the end was near.

California's battle over Chicken Little's coop -- called Proposition 2 -- mandates so much space for each bird that it effectively eliminates cages for laying hens. This change in chicken housing has created a showdown between animal welfare groups and the people who raise the food we eat.

Prop. 2 advocates assert that current cage space for the average laying hen, approximately two-thirds the size of a piece of notebook paper, is inhumane and causes suffering in the birds. Adversaries of Prop. 2 say that the chickens must be happy and safe, because they are productive and disease-free. Interestingly, both sides suggest that their system is less likely to foster killer bacteria (e.g. salmonella) or aggressive viruses such as the deadly avian flu.

Fifty years ago, Americans spent one-third of our income on food, these days groceries account for one-eighth of the average budget. This reduction in food costs has occurred because farmers have been able to raise the food we eat more efficiently and less expensively. However, with some modern farm practices, it is the animal that pays the "expense," -- living in crowded, stressful and unnatural conditions.

Are modern farming practices a form of animal cruelty?

Measuring an animal's well-being or happiness has proven difficult.

Do we look at the animal's production (eggs from chickens, milk from cows) and say "if she's productive, then everything must be OK?"

Studies to show whether or not "happy chickens live in California" have produced mixed results. When one looks at the behaviors chickens show when they are stressed (feather plucking, cannibalism, cage pecking etc.) there seems to be more stress and conflict at the extremes -- tightly crowded conditions or not crowded at all.

The challenge is to find a balance between the needs of the human animal and those of a chicken. It will cost more money to raise cage-free birds, and that cost will be passed along to the consumer. It is possible that eliminating cages and (presumably) making chickens happier will increase the cost of eggs to a point where some people cannot afford them.

If Proposition 2 does succeed, it likely will result in the California egg laying industry moving out of state and possibly out of the country. Advocates believe that passage of Prop. 2 will actually start a domino effect across the nation of alternative housing situations for chickens. They don't think it will have a huge economic impact on California's industry because all of the states will essentially be on a level playing field -- or "roosting on the same perch," if you prefer.

Prop. 2 sets a standard that many U.S. cage-free facilities don't even meet, because it requires that a chicken must be able to spread its wings without touching another bird. When I asked a high-ranking Humane Society official about that double-standard, he said that the cage-free chickens had "vertical space" -- they could jump in the air and spread their wings for their few seconds of flight. Am I just hen-pecking, or does this concept of "vertical space" not quite meet with the spirit of Proposition 2?

Will the sky fall and the egg industry collapse if Proposition 2 passes? No one knows for sure. But it will be your decision to make on Nov. 4.