PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY – Forty years ago, I stood with a few other students in a busy Oxford street handing out leaflets protesting the use of battery cages to hold hens. Most of those who took the leaflets did not know that their eggs came from hens kept in cages so small that even one bird — the cages normally housed four — would be unable to fully stretch and flap her wings. The hens could never walk around freely, or lay eggs in a nest.
Many people applauded our youthful idealism, but told us that we had no hope of ever changing a major industry. They were wrong.
On the first day of 2012, keeping hens in such cages became illegal, not only in the United Kingdom, but in all 27 countries of the European Union. Hens can still be kept in cages, but they must have more space, and the cages must have nest boxes and a scratching post. Last month, members of the British Hen Welfare Trust provided a new home for a hen they named “Liberty.” She was, they said, among the last hens in Britain still living in the type of cages we had opposed.
In the early 1970s, when the modern animal liberation movement began, no major organization was campaigning against the battery cage. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the mother of all animal-protection organizations, had lost its early radicalism long before. It focused on isolated cases of abuse, and failed to challenge well-established ways of mistreating animals on farms or in laboratories. It took a concerted effort by the new animal radicals of the 1970s to stir the RSPCA from its complacency towards the battery cage and other forms of intensive animal rearing.
Eventually, the new animal rights movement managed to reach the broader public. Consumers responded by buying eggs from free-ranging hens. Some supermarket chains even ceased to carry eggs from battery hens.
In Britain and some European countries, animal welfare became politically salient, and pressure on parliamentary representatives mounted. The EU established a scientific committee to investigate animal-welfare issues on farms, and the committee recommended banning the battery cage, along with some other forms of close confinement of pigs and calves. A ban on battery cages in the EU was eventually adopted in 1999, but, to ensure that producers would have plenty of time to phase out the equipment in which they had invested, its implementation was delayed until January 1, 2012.
To its credit, the British egg industry accepted the situation, and developed new and less cruel methods of keeping hens. Not all countries are equally ready, however, and it has been estimated that up to 80 million hens may still be in illegal battery cages. But at least 300 million hens who would have lived miserable lives in standard battery cages are now in significantly better conditions, and there is great pressure on the EU bureaucracy to enforce the ban everywhere — not least from egg producers who are already complying with it.
With the ban on battery cages, Europe confirms its place as the world leader in animal welfare, a position also reflected in its restrictions on the use of animals to test cosmetics. But why is Europe so far ahead of other countries in its concern for animals?
In the United States, there are no federal laws about how egg producers house their hens. But, when the issue was put to California voters in 2008, they overwhelmingly supported a proposition requiring that all farm animals have room to stretch their limbs fully and turn around without touching other animals or the sides of their cage. That suggests that the problem may not be with U.S. citizens’ attitudes, but rather that, at the federal level, the U.S. political system allows industries with large campaign chests too much power to thwart the wishes of popular majorities.
In China, which, along with the U.S., confines the largest number of hens in cages, an animal welfare movement is only just beginning to emerge. For the sake of the welfare of billions of farmed animals, we should wish it rapid growth and success.
The start of this year is a moment to celebrate a major advance in animal welfare, and, therefore, for Europe, a step towards becoming a more civilized and humane society — one that shows its concern for all beings capable of suffering. It is also an occasion for celebrating the effectiveness of democracy, and the power of an ethical idea.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead is reported to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The last part may not be true, but the first part surely is. The end of the battery cage in Europe is a less dramatic development than the Arab Spring, but, like that popular uprising, it began with a small group of thoughtful and committed people.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include “Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics,” “The Expanding Circle,” and “The Life You Can Save.” © 2012 Project Syndicate