Is it Ethical to Eat Eggs or Dairy from Backyard Animals?

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Down to Earth Advice from Four All American Vegans

We are typical American family: Mom and Dad, teenaged daughter and a pre-teen son. We live in the burbs. We drive a mini-van. We eat white bread, love baseball and a good barbeque on the Fourth of July. To look at us, you’d never suspect that we are vegan, and that’s just the way we like it. Why? Because we are living proof that the stereotypes so often associated with veganism just aren’t true. Not only can you be a vegan and relate to the average American, you can be the kind of vegan the average American can relate to as well.

Contrary to the images that come to mind when most people hear the word “vegan,” we aren’t health food nuts. We aren’t obsessed with Omega 3s or “gluten free” and we couldn’t care less what grains ancient people used to eat. We don’t visit Ayurvedic or homeopathic “healers.” We aren’t Hare Krishna or Buddhists. We are typical Americans who have made the simple choice to swear off eggs, meat and dairy products, and to consume the abundantly available alternatives to those foods instead. In fact, if you peeked inside our house while we are eating dinner you might not be able to tell we are vegan by looking at our food, either. Our meals look the same as those most Americans eat and in many cases taste very similar, but they are made with alternatives to animal ingredients instead of real ones. We eat hot dogs and hamburgers with French fries, fried “chicken” with mashed potatoes and gravy and BBQ ribs with cornbread and coleslaw. For dessert, we enjoy cookies, cupcakes, jello and, of course, apple pie a la mode.

As long time vegans, the authors of a vegan cookbook and the parents of two vegan-since-birth kids (our daughter, Riley is 18, our son, Willoughby, is 14), we are asked a lot of questions about being vegan. Some of them are simple questions about vegan products, such as “Are there any vegan chewing gums?” or “Do you have any recommendations for a good egg replacer?” Others involve social issues pertaining to veganism such as “How do you handle holidays with non-vegan family members?” or “How do you respond when friends or family are unsupportive of your choice to raise your kids as vegans?” Because some of these issues are common ones, we decided to make our answers public, to start a “Ask a Vegan” column to post our answers to these and other common questions we are asked and to encourage the submission of others.

Is there something about veganism you’ve always wanted to know but didn’t know who to ask? Have you been researching veganism and have questions about it, but are feeling a bit overwhelmed or intimidated by all the dogma unrelated to veganism that is so often associated with it, such as having to swear off processed foods, white flour or sweeteners that don’t meet someone’s preferred glycemic index? If so, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll keep it simple. We’ll keep it convenient. We’ll keep it ethical. And we promise to never, ever scold you for loving your food deep fried or covered with a sugary glaze. In fact, we’ve only got five rules: 1. No meat, 2. No dairy, 3. No eggs, 4. No honey, and 5. There are no other rules.

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Here’s two questions we received about eating eggs and dairy products from backyard animals. The first wrote:

Hey, I am not a vegan but have been looking into it lately. I was wondering about the animal thing. Most vegans when making their case talk about the meat industry, which I agree is barbaric. but hypothetically, since I have always planned on buying a few acres in the country and having a few chickens, pigs and cows.

And by the way i am not talking about the humane killing thing either. What if you treat the animal as a normal pet such as a cat or dog but also take some eggs? and in the case of the cow, milk? and for meat in general when the animal dies naturally of age or whatever because at some point they will die. When that happens what is the vegan view on eating the dead animal when it was your personal animal, and it died naturally years after you got it. and the egg and milk thing too.

The second wrote:

I’ve always wondered why don’t vegans eat eggs. I’m not talking about the factory farms, where male chicks are blended alive, but about eggs from hens grown in the backyard. Does this harm anybody? Do you still consider it slavery and exploitation?

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Thank you for your questions which, given their similarities, we decided to answer together. Basically, what both of these comments come down to is whether it is possible to humanely raise animals for the purposes of acquiring milk, eggs and meat. The problem with the question, and the reason the answer is no, is because the question is based on incorrect assumptions that color how people view animals historically raised for food and their products, including the false view that we “need” these products, the way we (again, falsely) think about the basic biology of these animals, and confusion as to how we would in fact relate to them were we to get to know them personally.

We’ll start with cows. Although their association with milk means that most people tend to regard cows as born for the very purpose of producing copious amounts of milk, in reality, cows are like any other mammal, and produce milk only in response to giving birth and so they might feed their babies. Left in a natural state, a cow will only lactate to feed her calf, will only produce enough milk required to feed that baby, and will only produce that milk so long as there is a demand by the calf. The suckling action of the cow’s baby is what stimulates milk production, suckling that gradually diminishes and then stops entirely as the calf grows into adulthood. On farms—whether industrialized or even those now falsely labeled as “humane”—a continuous, hearty milk supply is ensured by keeping cows in an almost constant state of pregnancy and immediate post-partum delivery. Often, the cows are artificially inseminated on devices the industry refers to as “rape racks.” When their babies are born, they are immediately taken away so that the milk that the mother cows intend for their calves can be given to humans instead. Mother cows cry in anguish at the loss of their babies and the calves, at the loss of their mothers. If the calves are female, some may be kept to become milk cows themselves. If allowed to stay with their mothers, they may be fitted with a nose ring studded with spikes so that every time the baby tries to nurse from her mother, the mother gets a sharp poke in her tender breast, and learns to associate her own child with pain, and flees her. This tender relationship of love, mutual affection and motherly protection—so psychologically vital to the mother and child alike, just as it is for human mothers and their babies—is willfully destroyed. Truly, it is sadistic and cruel. If the babies are male, they are usually taken immediately away from their mothers to either be slaughtered or raised for “veal,” a process which entails keeping them alone in darkness and intensive confinement and feeding them an iron deficient gruel that causes diarrhea but turns their flesh a pale white.

Of course, such treatment doesn’t seem to describe the manner in which you, given your tone, would be inclined to treat any cows you might acquire, however, consider what, in fact, would be necessary in order for someone to keep an animal for her milk: acquiring a cow from people who do treat their animals this way, keeping the cow in a constant cycle of pregnancy and birth, removing the calves so that they do not take the milk, and forcing the cow to produce more milk than her body was designed to naturally produce. Milk production takes a heavy physical toll on cows, and can lead to health problems relating to resulting calcium deficiency and the risk of udder infections. In short,you’d still be enslaving and physically exploiting another living being for your own, personal gain. Given the prevalence of delicious dairy alternatives made from soybeans, rice, nuts and grains, why do that? The perceived “need” for milk is so unequal to the high price it’s production extols on our humanity.

Like cows, chickens, too, suffer from the deep confusion fostered by their habitual association with eggs. Again, the way in which chickens are treated is what encourages an unnatural rate of egg production, not something unique to their biology that makes them egg laying machines. Chickens are birds, and like all birds, they will only lay eggs when they are not rearing young. The entire process—from building a nest to laying eggs, incubating them, and rearing them once they hatch, takes time, time that naturally spaces out the rate of egg production. In the wild, a chicken would not produce an egg every day or every few days, but, rather, every few months, no more than about 10 per year. When humans immediately take away eggs recently laid by a chicken, the normal cycle of laying, brooding, and rearing is interrupted, and the chicken’s body is triggered to lay more eggs. Egg production and egg laying are physically demanding processes which themselves can lead to serious, life threatening problems. Calcium depletion causes by the need to continually create eggshells is not uncommon in egg laying hens, causing the egg shells to become too soft to pass. This condition, known as “egg binding,” means that a hen becomes unable to lay her egg. If not treated, this condition can lead to a slow, agonizing death. And consider the mental anguish inflicted on a hen. Those eggs are her babies, and yet every time she produces them, they are taken away by those to whom they do not belong. Chickens futilely try to discourage this theft by making loud noises of protest and batting egg snatching human hands with their wings, to no avail

Moreover, acquiring chickens for your farm would most likely mean supporting two of the cruelest kinds of animal agriculture facilities there are: chicken breeding facilities where roosters are kept in a constant state of near starvation, and chicken hatcheries where male chicks, consider useless to the egg and meat industries, are literally thrown into giant blenders called macerators which pulverize them to death. The little chicks for sale at feed stores where most backyard farmers buy their egg laying hens come from these facilities, often arriving there by being shipped alive in boxes though they are fragile, newborn babies susceptible to chill, in need of the protection of their mothers and no doubt, utterly terrified. How would supporting such industries or the risk of life-threatening harm forced onto your hens through artificially induced, compulsive egg laying be compatible with your stated goal of treating them as you would a pet, like a cat or a dog?

As for eating the dead bodies of any animal you might live with who then dies of natural causes, pause to consider if that is something, in the end, you would really want to do. Imagine an animal you have spent years coming to know and care for dying. Chickens and pigs and cows and every other animal raised for food are individuals, and if you truly took good care of those animals, got to know them for the unique creatures that they are, eating them after death would, hopefully, be the very last thing on your mind. Consider also that death rarely happens peacefully in one’s sleep, and is almost always preceded by illness. As someone taking good care of the animals who lived with you as you claimed you would do, you would most likely have them under veterinary care and be giving them medications before their deaths: drugs designed to combat their disease, or pain killers to ease their suffering. You might even opt to humanely euthanize them at the end to spare them the very last, painful moments of anguish as their bodies shut down. The process of dying is often hard work and a process which can take a huge toll on the body. If you truly did right by such animals, not only would their bodies no doubt be physically compromised and possibly unsafe to consume given the presence of pharmaceuticals, but honestly, you’d be mourning their loss, not salivating over their corpses. Desecrating their bodies for consumption would not only feel disrespectful and wrong, but, hopefully, thoroughly repugnant.

Of course, if what you want is the company of animals like chickens, cows, and pigs—something we can relate to—you can always run an animal sanctuary. There are always many animals who have been rescued from the abusive treatment inherent in all forms of animal agriculture which need a loving and safe place to live, a place where they will be treated not as machines to be exploited, but as individuals to be loved and cherished.

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