My coming to terms with animal suffering

We can recognize the problems with battery-cage eggs without compromising any of our other values.

Jason Ketola

In my last column I told a story of how my heart was opened to volunteer work and activism by a boy named Ed. This week I’ll continue my self-indulgent streak by sharing a story about my feelings toward animals; and yes, this story will be filled with similarly self-deprecatory facts. My intent isn’t to turn all of my readers into animal activists but rather to suggest a way we might approach the issue of cage-free, eggs versus battery-cage eggs.

I didn’t always care about animals. In fact, prior to becoming vegan almost seven years ago, I used to relentlessly make fun of vegetarian friends. I can’t remember anymore whether I was defensive about my own meat eating (probably), but I certainly couldn’t understand the diet. If you had removed Hot Pockets, breakfast pizzas and chicken tenders from my diet, you wouldn’t have been left with a whole lot, maybe just Tater Tots and pasta. The vegetarian diet therefore seemed as unmanageable to me as it seemed unmanly.

So, what led me to start caring about animals? It wasn’t any of the obvious: I didn’t get a vegetarian girlfriend, my friends didn’t suddenly start thinking it was cool and I didn’t even see the infamous “Meet Your Meat” video showing some of the atrociousness of modern animal agriculture. Actually, what led me to start caring was a chance encounter with a rat at math camp.

As part of a summer math and science camp at the University, we were given a tour of various research labs, and one day we were led through some of the research facilities in Moos Tower. Demonstrating research on the freezing of skin cells, a graduate student held before us a very animated rat that had some kind of metal contraption stretching the skin on its back. In order for us to inspect the rat, he would have to sedate it. When he stuck the syringe into the rat’s abdomen, the rat let out the most horrific, piercing scream.

Others in the group were merely disquieted by the sight and sound, ready to leave the room, but my own response was different. I felt like this rat had talked to me. No, not in the pet psychic kind of way. But the rat had made clear just how agonizing its life was at that moment. This was no longer just subject 10,973; this was a creature going through some severe trauma. Funny enough, we were ushered out of the room before we could inspect the rat.

It’s ironic that such a universally disparaged creature would set me on the path to making lifestyle choices based on concern for animals. I think what affected me most was a realization of just how important experience with animal suffering was in my thoughts about them. I realized that my previous thinking about animals in the abstract had failed to capture anything approaching the actual experiences of those animals.

Chickens aren’t an animal many people think much of, and certainly they don’t carry much moral weight in most of our minds when compared with humans, but take the issue of battery cage eggs, for example. The practice of cramming chickens into row upon row of tiny metal cages for egg production has received a remarkable amount of coverage in the Daily this semester. Here’s a chance for all of us to thoughtfully reflect on our relationships with these animals.

Firsthand experience of battery-cage facilities may be difficult to come by, but pictures of the battery-cage facility that provides University Dining Services with the majority of its eggs can be viewed at Compassionate Action for Animals’ (a group of which I am a member) Web site, Reacting to battery-cage egg production doesn’t require equating chickens to humans. All it requires is noticing the real despair that is an egg-laying hen’s 17-month lifespan in a battery cage, noticing the suffering in the fact that she will spend roughly 30 hours in her cage to produce just one egg, and imagining just how much worse it would be if she were to incur any of the myriad injuries associated with this method of egg production; for instance, broken bones from osteoporosis or prolapsed uteruses, not to mention the fact that the hen will never even fully extend her wings once in the cage.

Naturally, not all of us will react the same way to this information. For those who want to eat eggs from chickens living in substantially better conditions, it’s only a minor expense to purchase Certified Humane cage-free eggs, the standard promoted by the Humane Society of the United States. Even so, it’s not even necessary to eat eggs to be healthy. If you’re like me, reducing your consumption of animal products may have the benefit of expanding your culinary horizons beyond Hot Pockets and breakfast pizzas.

We can recognize the problems with battery-cage eggs without compromising any of our other values. We just have to see the wretchedness of the enterprise for what it is.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]