Yearning for Grass.

If you have purchased eggs at the grocery store, or if you have had a Thanksgiving turkey from the grocery store, chances that you have eaten the product of a debeaked bird are almost a hundred percent.

Debeaking is a practice in which a half to a third of a bird’s beak is removed.  The procedure is carried out with no anesthetic, and is done using a heated blade, usually driven by a machine.  Debeaking a bird is not like trimming your nails; the bird has blood vessels and nerves inside the beak.  The wound bleeds, and the beak does not grow back.  It’s like trimming your fingernails, if you also took off the tip of your finger.

Debeaking is practiced to keep chickens and turkeys from pecking each other to death and engaging in cannibalism.  These birds do not do this as a matter of their own natural instinct.  Both turkeys and chickens are social birds and live in flocks in the wild.  They depend on one another for protection and help in finding food.  They don’t do well raised alone, because they crave the company of the flock.

The reason these particular birds will kill and eat one another is very simple.  They are miserable.

The chickens are miserable because they are crammed into cages that are too small for them, often so small that they cannot stretch their wings or even stand up.  They have several cage mates, and do nothing all day but eat from a trough and lay eggs.  The food is provided by machine, and the cages are rarely, if ever, cleaned.  The birds are raised on wire, a term meaning that the surface that they stand on is a wire mesh that allows droppings to pass through.  The mesh inevitably becomes caked with droppings.  In order to increase production, they are sometimes starved or made to live in complete darkness to force a molt.

The chickens are not able to make nests for their eggs, to scratch the dirt and hunt bugs, or any of the things a normal chicken would do every day of their lives.

After a couple of years, the egg laying starts to taper off.  The chickens don’t stop laying, but they have been laying so many eggs for so long, they’re no longer able to produce like they were before, and the ones that didn’t die from disease or crowding at the bottom of a wire battery cage are slaughtered and turned into animal feed, or often just killed and discarded.

And so, they peck.  The pecking and the cannibalism is normal behavior for chickens lacking in space or nutrition, chickens in distress.

Chickens don’t have to be raised that way.  They can be out on grass, scratching and nesting and flapping their wings and socializing with their flockmates.  Raised in this way, the rates of cannibalism are extremely low.  Chickens on grass don’t have to be debeaked.

When I think about this sort of thing, I see parallels to the human world.  I see efficiencies that result in greater production at a lower cost, people who work harder and make less money.  I see personal space dwindling; smaller aisles in the grocery store, narrower seats on public transportation, and narrower parking spaces.  I see people dying under the feet of their fellows for want of just a little care.

And much like the chickens, all of this is just for money.  Also much like the chickens, it’s not even money we get to keep.

We work and work, and families often have to have two incomes in order to make ends meet.  We don’t get to do the things that we used to get to do; after work, there’s cooking and housework and bills and cleaning to be done, and if you have children you have to take care of them, and we go to bed knowing that tomorrow will be more or less the same as today, except most of us will be just a little bit deeper in debt.

So we are living on wire, and we peck each other.  In some cases we peck each other to death.

We experience particularly high rates of depression, estimated at thirty percent or more… if you know more than three people, chances are good that you know someone that struggles with depression.  Eleven percent of Americans are on antidepressant medication.  Antidepressant use in the United States has increased by 400% in the last twenty years, and within that same span of time, we have seen productivity increase and wages (adjusted for inflation) stagnate.

Now, it’s possible that the increase in medication and the high rates of depression reflect an increase in detection and treatment.  I think it’s at least possible, however, that the increase in the use of antidepressant medication represents a sort of chemical debeaking, that it’s possible that the lives we’re leading are making us unhappy, and that the medication is a necessary step to prevent us from hurting each other or ourselves.

I would like to think that there’s a different solution.  I would like to think that we don’t have to sit, crammed into wire battery cages, just yearning for grass.

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