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The reasoning behind Prop. 2 -- Is it for the birds?

October 20, 2008 | 10:58 am

Pssst -- jail break tonight. Pass it on

We legislate by committee here in California, where anyone with the cash and clout can use the ballot initiative process to write laws our legislators didn't. One of the more unusual choices on the November ballot is Proposition 2, which requires that chickens, pigs and calves have enough room in their enclosures that they can stand, sit and turn around. Animal activists are solidly behind the idea, which has our own George Skelton, who grew up in rural Ojai, weighing both sides:

Polls have shown Proposition 2 winning handily. But I'm guessing most voters haven't really focused in, that they've had a lot more on their minds lately than the treatment of chickens.

I've been torn myself. I like chickens and respect them. But they're tough to warm up to.

Growing up on a small orange ranch in Ojai, I did my share of shoveling chicken manure, collecting eggs, and serving up corn mash and table scraps. Many a Sunday, my brother and I would be sent to the chicken pen to select and prepare the dinner entree for our mother to fry.

We'd wield the hatchet and not give it a second thought. These aren't cuddly critters. Mean is their routine. Chickens, after all, invented the pecking order, the original organization chart. And they'll peck persistently on a weak colleague.

Ours were "free range" chickens, to use today's highfalutin terminology. We'd let them roam the orchard during the day, pecking for seeds and insects. At evening, our border collie-Australian shepherd would herd the birds back into their pen and they'd strut into the sheltered roosting area for the night.

It was a good life for the chickens -- an Old McDonald's Farm existence that has little relationship to today's factory egg farms.

Today, commercial egg-layers are crammed four, six, eight to a cage, depending on the size, each bird with less space than an 8-1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper. No perching. No dust bathing. That's the bad.

The good, farmers counter, is that California cages are relatively sanitary because the manure falls onto conveyor belts. The eggs are carried away by other conveyor belts. And the building is climate-controlled to the chickens' liking.

The rest of George's column is here.

— Veronique de Turenne

Photo: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times