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PETA targets abbey's egg farm.

Armed with the words of Pope Benedict XVI, an animal rights group is calling on a South Carolina Trappist monastery to shut down its egg production facility because, the group claims, the monks mistreat the monastery's 38,000 hens.

In a news release, the Norfolk, Va-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said the group's undercover investigation of Mepkin Abbey's egg production facility "revealed shocking cruelty to chickens."

Calling the abbey's facility "hell on earth" for chickens, PETA wrote: "Tens of thousands of hens at the monastery are painfully debeaked, crammed into tiny cages, and periodically starved."

In a letter to Mepkin's abbot, Fr. Stanislaus Gumula, PETA vice president Bruce Friedrich wrote: "As a fellow Catholic, I was saddened to learn that Mepkin Abbey is operating an egg factory farm."

In a telephone interview with NCR, Gumula rebuffed PETA's charges, denying any inhumane treatment of the chickens, and saying he sees no way to enter into a dialogue with Friedrich.

"[Friedrich] wants to throw his position down my throat," Gumula said. "We treat our animals very humanely."

Friedrich's letter said the debeaking method, common to the vast majority of the nation's egg producers, is painful and "enormously stressful" to the birds.

Debeaking, said Friedrich, is an industry term, and it does not involve chopping the entire beak off. It involves chopping the ends of their beaks off, which is why the debeaking may not be apparent in the photographs taken by the PETA source at Mepkin. According to poultry experts, he said, the pain is acute and chronic, lasting for more than a month.

Friedrich also said that Mepkin's practice of placing up to four hens in cages that "are roughly 12 inches by 18 inches" is unnatural to the animals. "This means that the animals never breathe fresh air, feel the sun on their backs, build nests, raise their young, or do anything else that God designed them to do," he wrote.

Friedrich quoted the words of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to a German reporter: "Animals, too, are God's creatures.... Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible."

Friedrich said PETA confirmed its allegations after it followed up a complaint by sending an undercover staff member to Mepkin, ostensibly as a retreatant, who secretly filmed the egg operations and recorded conversations he had with monks involved with the abbey's egg production.

Gumula said Feb. 20 that he was unaware of the undercover investigation, which Friedrich said was slated to be announced at a Feb. 22 news conference near Mepkin. Photos and video from PETA's undercover investigation are on the group's Web site at getac

Friedrich defended PETA's tactics: "There's nothing unethical about using undercover cameras to expose hypocrisy and cruelty to animals. The treatment of these hens is grotesquely unethical; using a camera to expose it is our moral obligation." "

In a letter, copied to Trappist Abbot Generals Dom Bernardo Olivera and Dom Mauro Esteva in Mariawald, Germany, Friedrich wrote, "Your cruel treatment of these poor animals, by the tens of thousands, would warrant felony cruelty-to-animals charges if dogs or cats were the victims. But chickens are intelligent animals who suffer and feel pain, just like dogs and cats do."

Friedrich said, "Chickens understand sophisticated intellectual concepts, learn from watching each other, demonstrate self-control, worry about the future, and even have cultural knowledge that is passed from generation to generation."

He asked that the abbey "please shut down this operation forever" once the current population of hens dies. "It is an ugly stain on your otherwise blessed community. Instead of raising funds for your abbey by abusing animals, please consider solely making foodstuffs that don't involve animals"

Gumula said the abbey about 30 years ago gave up on its "free-range" practice, which allowed the hens to move about on the floor, saying the hens are "in much better conditions now."

Under the free-range system, the hens "were susceptible to rodents, to snakes and all kinds of disease and bacteria," Gumula said.

Gumula said Mepkin's hens are "not on top of each other. The droppings go into a pit that we flush out daily. We're following all the guidelines of the United Egg Producers for the humane treatment of chickens that's based on a group of scientists that were not beholden to the egg industry."

Gumula said the egg production operation accounts for about 60 percent of the abbey's annual earned income. The facility produces approximately 9 million eggs annually, which are delivered to local customers in the Charleston, S.C., area, bringing in about $140,000 a year to Mepkin.

Consumers "are getting a much cleaner, wholesome product than what we were able to do when we had floor chickens," Gumula said.

Gumula said Mepkin's egg operation is "not a blight, and we're not treating them inhumanely, and for [Friedrich] to say that, I'm sorry, it's not based on reality.

"I'm not saying that he has to agree to the exact way that we do it, but for him to accuse us of doing things inhumanely; well, we're not. That's all I can say. We're going to differ, and I can understand certain sensitivities. But we're doing what we feel is best for the chickens themselves and for the consumer that's going to be eating the eggs."

North Carolina State University philosophy professor emeritus Tom Regan, an animal rights author and activist, compared the egg producers' definition of humane to a famous line in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland: "Words mean what I decide they mean, neither more nor less."

"Humane is a word that actually has on established meaning, and if you look it up, you'll find that it means to treat with kindness, mercy, consideration, compassion--very positive ways of treating another being," Regan said. "You debeak an animal; you put an animal in a cage, it can't turn around, it can't dust bath, it has no access to fresh air, every natural instinct is frustrated except they're being fed 24 hours a day, and you call that humane. That is merciful, kind, considerate, compassionate? I don't think so.... They're making up the meanings of words. What they're saying is not what they're doing."

[Patrick O'Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.]
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Title Annotation:NATION; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Mepkin Abbey
Author:O'Neill, Patrick
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 2, 2007
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