On July 7, members of Manitoba’s animal rescue community received a call about a live hen found at the Brady landfill, atop a pile of hundreds of dead hens dumped at the site earlier that day. After rescuing the bird, now named Lola, rescuers were called back later that same day for a second hen, now aptly named Phoenix; both of whom are now safe at local animal sanctuary The Good Place.
Upon hearing about the chickens, a Winnipeg Free Press reporter went digging into where the animals, both live and dead, could have come from. But neither Manitoba Egg Farmers nor Manitoba Chicken Producers claimed to have any information. The rep from Manitoba Egg Farmers, however, didn’t sound surprised that a bunch of hens were dumped at the landfill, according to the reporter. The egg industry has taken a hit during the pandemic.
At a time when issues such as biosecurity, food-production transparency and animal treatment are weighing on the public’s mind more than ever, the mystery of two live chickens and piles of dead ones appearing at the dump clearly shows just how much work animal agriculture has to do regarding public trust. And yet, it appears the industry is moving in the opposite direction.
In mandate letters from the departments of justice and agriculture in March, the Manitoba government stated its intention to review legislation and enforcement policies relating to on-farm trespassing. Since last year, activists around the world, including in Canada, have been entering animal farm operations to document and expose hidden and often shocking conditions to the public.
As a result, both Alberta and Ontario have passed laws to incredibly increase fines for such actions, as well as for whistleblowing. These laws, deemed "ag-gag" by some legal experts, seek to further shroud an already hidden and often misleading industry into more secrecy, leaving consumers deeper in the dark, and animals at greater risk.
This is not something Manitoba consumers need. In fact, a 2016 American study published in the journal Food Policy found that public awareness of ag-gag legislation actually reduced the perceived trustworthiness of farmers, increased negative perceptions of current farm-animal welfare conditions, and increased support for greater animal-welfare regulations. Most ag-gag laws that have passed in the U.S. in recent years have since been declared unconstitutional.
One reason activists have been entering farms in Canada is because there are no actual laws governing the treatment of animals on farms. "Standard" farming practices — including many that much of the public would consider cruel — are typically exempt from provincial cruelty laws. Under Manitoba’s Animal Care Act, for example, animal agriculture is listed as an "accepted" activity in which an animal may be allowed to suffer from serious injury, harm, extreme anxiety or distress.
Instead of laws, animal agriculture operates under a voluntary, industry-created code of practice. Interestingly, that National Farm Animal Care Council code dictates that when farms perform mass on-farm "depopulation," often via CO2 gassing (in times of disease outbreak, natural disaster or a major market fluctuation, as we are seeing now), "Death must be confirmed before disposal of birds."
And yet, here we are with two live chickens, which have likely endured the unimaginable, symbolizing just how much we need greater transparency in animal farming, how much we need actual laws to govern the treatment of animals on farms, and how much we don’t need laws to further conceal the industry.
Manitoba’s chief veterinary office states it is aware of and investigating the situation regarding the two hens, and won’t comment at this time. But birds are not protected by law, farmed animals in general are considered mere property and pandemic-related market fluctuations matter more than the lives of animals. So I wouldn’t expect much.
Jessica Scott-Reid is a Winnipeg writer and animal-rights advocate.