In Focus Hens offered second chance when production eases

16-02-2016 16:25 | Ruth Fraňková

Every year, some five million hens from Czech egg farms end up in slaughterhouses despite being just over a year old because their egg production starts to decline. The Initiative Slepice v Nouzi or Hens in Need attempts to save at least some of the birds, finding them a new home where they can spend the rest of their lives in more decent conditions. RF has more in today’s edition of In Focus:

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Photo: Miroslav ZimmerPhoto: Miroslav Zimmer The initiative Slepice v nouzi was established more than a year ago and to this day, it has found a new home for several thousand hens that would otherwise have ended up in slaughterhouses. The project was established by Petr Dobrý, who left his lucrative post of manager for a global company in order to do something he considered more meaningful. Today, he makes a living by running an online store selling environmentally friendly products, and devotes much of his free time to saving hens from factory farms.

“I have noticed that many people admire birds that fly to the feeders in their gardens. However, not many people actually care about the millions of chickens closed in egg farms. So I decided to help these animals, since no one else seemed to be interested in them, although they are essentially the same as the birds on the feeders.”

One of the main aims of the Hens in Need initiative is to point out the dreadful conditions of chickens raised in cage-hen egg farms. Most of the animals spend their lives on an area of approximately the size of a sheet of paper and although their average lifespan is about five years on average, they are usually slaughtered much earlier, at around 16 months, as soon as their egg production starts to decline.

Thanks to Petr Dobrý, at least some of these birds are given a second chance by being offered up for adoption:

“The adoption process is quite simple. You just fill in the adoption questionnaire on our website. We regularly visit farms to buy hens and then we hand them over to you. But you can also find a list of egg farms on our website and buy a chicken directly from the farmers, which is easier for us. The average price of a chicken is around 50 crowns.”

The hens are usually handed over to their new owners in a very poor state, featherless and frightened to move freely in the open, but after a few months of good care and proper nutrition, they change beyond recognition, rewarding their owners with quality free-range eggs.

According to Mr Dobrý, the adoptive hen-owners represent a cross-section of the society, from mothers with children to elderly people, who used to breed hen during their childhood and want to give it a try once again.

What they definitely share is enthusiasm for their newly discovered hobby. They exchange their experiences and advice on the Hens in Need Facebook page. They also post pictures of their new pets, some of them sporting special hand-knitted sweaters to keep them warm until they regrow their plumage.

Photo: Barbora KmentováPhoto: Barbora Kmentová Those who don’t have the time or space to keep a couple of hens can opt for a virtual adoption, that is donating money that will help cover the costs of the project. Petr Dobrý estimates that to this day, they have bought around 4,000 hens from factory farms. It is of course just a fraction of the overall number that ends up in slaughterhouses each year, but Mr Dobrý says the interest of people has definitely preceded his initial expectations:

“There are several of us working for the initiative, and we do everything after our regular working hours. I have to say that the interest currently exceeds our possibilities. It is not just the number of people interested in buying hens. We have been approached by a company which decided to provide us with crates for free, and by an advertising company which does the PR for free. It shows that people are not indifferent to the fate of farm animals and they are trying to help.”

Apart from chicken adoption, the Hens in Need initiative offers an online map featuring private providers of free-range eggs and it is involved in a number of projects trying to raise public awareness on the subject of egg farming.

One such project, End the Cage Age Today, is run by the Czech branch of the international NGO Compassion in World Farming, which is working to improve farm animals' welfare. I spoke to their Czech representative Romana Šonková:

“In the Czech Republic, commercial egg production is very intensive. There are some four million farmed hens and about 84 percent of them are kept in so-called enriched cages while in the EU the number of caged hens makes nearly 60 percent of all farmed hens and the number is almost 300 million, so the figure is really huge.

On the other hand, we can see that in some countries, such as in the UK, Germany or Scandinavian countries the number of cage-free hens is bigger than in the Czech Republic.”

So would you say that Czechs are interested in the origin of eggs when they are shopping for them in supermarkets?

“I would say that Czechs do care about the welfare of hens or the origins of eggs. Unfortunately when they choose their eggs in the supermarket, they mostly forget about the animals and go for the cheaper option.

“We have a clear egg labelling system, which is really brilliant and could improve the welfare of hens in the EU, because every egg has a code on the shell with the first figure indicating the method of production.”

“But people are sometimes misled by the idealistic pictures on the boxes, even though most of the eggs in the supermarkets come from cage farms.”

Photo: Štěpánka BudkováPhoto: Štěpánka Budková So would you say that Czech consumers decide mainly on the basis of the prices of the products?

“I would say that there is not much awareness about why they should pay more for ethical choices, including eggs. So if there are more educational campaigns promoting more ethical products, the situation would improve.”

Finally what does your organisation do to promote free range egg-farming in the Czech Republic?

“We are really trying to raise awareness about the way eggs are produced, about hens' welfare. We are trying to explain to people through our communication tools like website and other social media that hens are sentient animals who can suffer very much if their needs are not met and equally they can enjoy life. They are more intelligent than we think, in fact.

“And we also have a team which pushes retailers to go cage free and free range and we award the companies who commit to do this by our good egg award.”

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