Designing a kinder world…

Posted January 08 2021
Bred to churn out eggs, Wilhelmina was destined for a painful and miserable life on a factory farm. But now this sweet and curious hen is free, surrounded by kindness.

Chances are when you hear the word “designer”, your thoughts conjure up a person who plans or creates something from go to whoa. It could be anything from clothing and jewellery, buildings and architecture, household goods and décor, to parks and gardens. But rarely would one’s thoughts turn to animals. And rightly so, one would think, for these are after all are beings of nature – or are they?

In 2008 the BBC aired a ground-breaking yet heart-wrenching documentary that was to unfurl a tsunami of outrage over the welfare issues that plagued “designer”-bred dogs. The documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed laid bare the disabilities, extreme conformation features and diseases thrust upon many a hapless “designer”-bred animal. Animals whose defining characteristics and features, purely for “aesthetic” appeal, caused them to suffer. And sadly, sometimes fatally so.

Hearts were bruised as a previously naive public watched on through tear-filled eyes, witnessing cute bugged-eyed King Charles Cavalier Spaniels whose skulls were too small to accommodate their brain; majestic German Shepherds whose ability to walk a normal gait was an impossible dream due to congenital and painful hip dysplasia; and sweet little Pug and Boxer dogs, whose squashed-in faces made breathing a gasping and strenuous task. And as the program rolled on, this list of unkindnesses grew and grew.

However, in the aftermath, action grew too, with the RSPCA, The Dogs Trust and the PDSA (the UK’s leading veterinary charity) pulling their support of the Crufts Dog Show in protest. The BBC, despite 40 years of televising this event, the largest and arguably most prestigious one on the canine calendar, ceased to do so as the KC (Kennel Council) called for a review of the code of ethics for pedigree dog breeds.

“Great news”, animal lovers around the world uttered as animal welfare had finally pawed its way into the social conscience and was thrust onto the radar of breeders at long last.

But what of the fate and daily reality of the largest number of “designer” animals in human care – birds, and more particularly, poultry. Numbering at around 24 billion, according to! Compared to the human population of just under 8 billion, this figure is even more staggering. And concerning.

“Designed” for either exponential flesh or egg production, these animals’ suffering has not only slipped under the guardrail of animal protection but through gaping holes in societal ethical thought as well. These gentle, inquisitive and intelligent birds suffer greatly for what their bodies have been designed to produce for humans.

Curious and sweet little birds like our recently arrived Wilhelmina, an ISA Brown hen – found by the side of a busy arterial road into Melbourne – are designed through carefully selected genetics for exponential egg production of over 300 eggs per year – way, way beyond that of their wild ancestor, the Red junglefowl of South East Asia. And although this has brought about cheap eggs, the birds have paid the enormous and ultimate price for this.

The ISA Brown hen is one of the most common types of egg-laying hen world-wide, “ISA Brown” being more of a brand than a breed for this hybrid bird. ‘ISA’ is an acronym for “Institute de Selection Animale”– the French company that developed the animals in 1978 as a bird for optimum egg production. The ‘Brown’ simply refers to the colour of the hen’s feathers. There is a lesser-known ISA White hen as well.

By inadvertent design they suffer a range of congenital maladies from musculoskeletal problems including osteoporosis (due to calcium loss through eggshell production), reproductive issues that so often tragically prove fatal in rescued birds, liver and kidney problems (so too a result of exponential egg production), along with a great propensity for cancers and tumours. All are shockingly tragic conditions which not only break the hearts but banks of those who come to love and care for these little feathered wonders.

Adding insult to inherited diseases and disabilities is a laundry list of health issues resulting from the inhospitable housing conditions and brutal husbandry practices afforded these animals – animals who, given the chance, will display a rich repertoire of emotions that, were they covered in fur and equipped with four legs, could be mistaken for your beloved cat or dog.

But amidst this tale of despair, every now and then there are glimmers of hope through tales of rescue and redemption for the “ones who got away” – the fortunate ones.

Tales just like that of our spunky little Wilhelmina, whose arrival at our sanctuary sang joy and hope into our hearts. And why hope? Because amongst the many vehicles that would have sped past her on the road that day, one stopped. Being seen for who she truly was, meant Wilhelmina exchanged a life of endless physical production for one of boundless possibilities as she was swept up in a blanket and shrouded in love.

The state of her recently severed beak, the pale colour of her small and immature comb and her weight all pointed to her being around 4 months of age, the age at which hens destined for egg production are cramped en masse into cages then trucked off to large factory-like warehouses where they will be severely confined for the next 18 boring months of their un-natural lives – lives devoid of meaning, purpose and any form of enrichment.

And such is the lack of meaningful laws for animal protection that when it comes to “found” chickens, few councils, shires or municipalities have in place legislation, let alone procedures, to accommodate or secure happy outcomes for them.

It is worth noting that chickens are selectively bred for one of two purposes: eggs and flesh. Those bred by “design” for their flesh also suffer a range of health issues, both physical and psychological, as a result. Killed as blue eyed and chirping babies at around 5 weeks of age, their huge body mass belies their short and miserable life. Many do not even make it to their “target” slaughter date, instead succumbing to one of the unavoidable consequences of their genes. Witnessing the suffering these hapless animals stoically attempt to walk through, as painful as walking becomes for them, it is difficult to understand how our species could have become so callous and cruel – callous and cruel not only to the animals themselves, but to those who find themselves in the hands-on business of ending their short lives – the slaughterhouse workers. For it would appear the birds are not the only ones whose lives are seen not to matter in poultry production.

But dear sweet Wilhelmina – yes, you can read our love for her exuding in our writing about her – has wasted no time in finding a perch in our hearts and on our arm. Do not be fooled by her size, for it has nothing to do with her personality. And if you were to ask her what she wants to do when she grows up (because that is something this young pullet will now get to do), our money is on being an eagle: a majestic eagle because she just loves to perch and ride around on our arm and take in the world from this most advantageous vantage point.

And she made sure we were aware of this in no uncertain squawking terms. Once we understood this (because sometimes we humans truly can be smart), we have had no problem moving Wilhelmina about in her new world, a world we have so carefully and kindly designed in her interests, not ours.

It truly is hard to fathom the enormity of the suffering that our quest for cheap protein has thrust upon the millions, no billions, of other equally endearing little Wilhelminas out there. Each one is possessed with an individual personality they will sadly never soar to. But the answer to this does not lie with giving them more space, token forms of enrichment or even better genes.

The answer lies in giving them kindness.

Because that is what we humans are truly designed to do, and what better time to do so than now?