Colony cages are no better than battery hen cages,
despite the spin, argues former Green MP Sue Kedgley.
Flashback to April 2011 when Sue Kedgley talked to caged
hen protester Carl Scott during his month-long vigil at
Waikouaiti. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Two years ago, I was invited by the Egg Producers Federation
to have a look at some new ''colony'' cages that Mainland
Poultry had installed in its huge facility outside Dunedin.
The Government is proposing to replace battery hen cages with
these new colony cage systems under its new Code of Welfare.
It has announced that within a decade all egg producers will
have to switch from battery hen cages to colony cages
instead. I am still not quite sure why I was invited to look
at the new colony cages - especially since the industry has
since refused all media requests to see them. Perhaps they
hoped that I would be impressed by the new, so-called
''enriched'' cages and would endorse them as being a great
improvement on battery hen cages.
But instead of being impressed, I was horrified. Inside the
massive, artificially lit, industrial shed I visited, 45,000
hens were housed in wire cages that were piled on top of each
other, from floor to ceiling, as far as the eye could see. It
looked a grotesque, sterile, noisy and nightmarish
environment for hens to spend their lives in.
At first glance, the cages looked no different from the
battery hen cages I had been shown in the shed next door.
But on closer inspection, there were some small differences.
The cages were larger - about 3m in length. But instead of
three to four hens in a battery cage, there were 60 hens in
each cage - which means that each hen has only marginally
more than an A4 sheet of paper worth of floor space There was
a metal bar, a few centimetres off the floor, where hens
could perch. And a piece of black rubber, about the size of a
door-mat, with some flaps around it, at one end of the cage,
where the 60 hens could compete to lay their eggs. At the
other end of the cage there was another piece of black rubber
where hens are supposedly able to ''dust bathe''.
But that was all. Otherwise they were the same as the sterile
battery hen cages next door. The hens were still forced to
stand on sloping wire floors, and develop crippling feet
injuries and foot deformities as a result. They were still
unable to exercise, run or fly, and suffer from brittle
bones, osteoporosis and bone breakages and fractures as a
result. Many also suffer feather loss and sore spots on their
bodies, as a result of rubbing on the wire cages.
The Government spin machine would have us believe that these
new colony cage systems are a humane and acceptable way of
Let me assure you, they are not. You only have to watch a hen
in its natural surroundings - communicating with its own
family, having dust baths, scratching around for food,
sunbathing and grooming to realise how unnatural life inside
a cage must be, where they cannot satisfy their basic need to
exercise, search for food, be part of a family, or look after
their young. Hens are curious and sociable creatures, with a
surprising intelligence, and their own language and way of
communicating with each other. Scientists have identified 25
to 30 distinct calls that hens have, and say they could have
many more. They respond very differently to large and small
predators, and there are all sorts of anecdotes about the
cleverness of hens.
So, imagine how they must feel when they are locked up inside
cages, even colony cages, for all of their lives.
Fortunately, surveys show that most New Zealanders oppose the
practice of keeping hens in cages - especially when there are
perfectly acceptable ways of raising hens on free-range farms
Most New Zealanders are not going to be conned into thinking
that colony cages are any more acceptable than battery hen
cages. That's why it would be a huge, strategic and costly
mistake for egg producers to invest in the new colony cage
systems. The Egg Producers Federation claims it would cost
$3.5 million for an egg producer to convert battery cages
into colony cages.
That's a big investment to make - especially as it would
probably be a futile one, because egg producers will
inevitably be forced by public opinion to get rid of these
new caged systems as well.
It would be far more prudent and sensible for egg producers
to listen to public opinion and switch to barn and free-range
systems instead of investing in new caged systems. Let's hope
they realise this, even if the Government doesn't.
- Sue Kedgley is a freelance writer, columnist and
consumer advocate. She was a Green Party MP from 1999 to