Half a dozen free-range chickens were scratching on a narrow patch of grass at a farm in Potomac Monday afternoon, looking for insects, seeds and other things to eat.
The chickens, with names like Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe, seemed happily oblivious to the four cloth chicken dolls stuffed into a cage on the grass before them. But for the humans gathered at Rosie’s Farm Sanctuary, the visual made for a stark tableau.
Several animal rights activists came to the farm Monday to discuss the Humane Society of the United States’ top legislative priority for the upcoming Maryland General Assembly session: a bill that would require all chicken eggs farmed and sold in Maryland come to come from birds who were not cooped up in so-called battery cages.
“These battery cages are incredibly cruel,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of the Humane Society’s Maryland office.
State Sen. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick) and Del. Jen Terrasa (D-Howard) are preparing legislation that would make Maryland the 11th state to prevent the sale of eggs from chickens who spend their days in battery cages, which are designed to house up to 10 egg-laying hens and are often arrayed in long rows in a chicken coop. If it becomes law, Bevan-Dangel said, the bill would cover roughly 2 million chickens raised in Maryland and another 6 million chickens from out of state whose eggs are sold here.
“This is the most consequential piece of legislation in Maryland for animals, in terms of the number of animals impacted,” she said.
Young, a longtime animal rights activist who helped her father establish a kill-free pet shelter in Lycoming County, Pa., more than three decades ago, introduced the bill in this year’s legislative session, but it failed to get a vote in the Senate Committee on Education, Energy and the Environment, where she serves. Bevan-Dangel said animal rights activists viewed this year’s legislative push as an educational effort but are intensifying the struggle in advance of the 2024 session, including a House sponsor for the first time.
“We’ve always had an ambitious agenda because the legislators have shown they’ve been very supportive of animal rights,” she said.
The setting for the news conference, on a hillside of a rolling 5-acre rescue farm that was set up as a nonprofit about a year and a half ago, was fitting, and friendly, camera-ready sheep and other animals wandered by as the activists were speaking. The timing of the news conference was also not coincidental — coming at the beginning of Thanksgiving week, when millions of Americans are looking forward to eating turkey, chicken, ham and other meat delicacies.
Michele Waldman, who established Rosie’s Sanctuary as a home for dozens of farm animals, said the nonprofit is designed to educate the public about the kinds of animals who are abused in the marketplace. The farm offers tours to school groups, other organizations and individuals who are interested in animal rights. Waldman said she gets daily entreaties to shelter animals that are being abused, but said there are only so many the farm can accommodate.
“As you can see,” she said, gesturing to the chickens, “they just love to forage. They spend half the day doing this.” These particular birds were rescued from an Orthodox Jewish festival of atonement in Brooklyn, N.Y., where they were scheduled to be ritualistically waved over people’s heads and then slaughtered.
Young and Bevan-Dangel said animal rights is only one aspect of the legislation.
“There are health and safety reasons,” Young said. “There’s scientific evidence that caged birds are more likely to produce eggs that produce salmonella and possibly other health hazards.”
“If COVID taught us nothing, it’s that close proximity can be an incubator for disease,” Bevan-Dangel said. She also cast the legislation as a consumer rights bill, noting that the price of cage-free eggs would drop if all the eggs on the market were produced in the same way.
When the bill was up for a hearing earlier this year, the Maryland Farm Bureau opposed it in part on the grounds that the legislation would be too costly. In written testimony, the Farm Bureau estimated that if it became law, the bill would result in a 41% increase in cost of production to retrofit the existing barns and an 119% increase in labor.
“By moving to a cage-free operation, the hen mortality rate increases significantly due to more bacterial habitat being introduced in the barn,” Colby Ferguson, the farm bureau’s government affairs director, said in his testimony. “Lastly, these farms are contracted with out of state companies that will just drop their contracts with the farms and then these farms will have to create a new demand for their eggs in a market where there is already an oversupply of cage-free eggs. This bill would put the few egg-laying farms, that farm this way, out of business.”
Ferguson also offered another reason why farmers objected to the legislation: “We oppose any legislation that would interfere with the right of farmers to raise livestock and poultry in accordance with commonly accepted agricultural practices,” he wrote. “Regulations imposed on agriculture shall be based on economically sound and scientifically proven research to ensure that agriculture, including livestock and poultry industries, remains viable and continues to be a strong economic base for Maryland. All regulations shall be subjected to a rigorous scientifically justifiable cost/benefit analysis.”
Opposition at the hearing also came from the Maryland Rural Council, the Wicomico County government and a few individuals.
Young said she and Terrasa are trying to tweak the language from the previous bill to make it more palatable to the agriculture industry and other opponents. Bevan-Dangel said the bill as originally written would not have outlawed cages altogether or prevented farmers from housing chickens indoors.
By Josh Kurtz