Though it is hard for us to understand this, living as we are in the age of the chicken nugget, at the beginning of this century chicken was considered a luxury food. There is a modern echo of this in a phrase popular in my family: when someone is putting on airs beyond their station, my mother will say that "she eats maize but burps chickens", maize being the lowest of the low survival food in Cuba.

Nowadays, chickens are raised in massive factories that are subject to a commodity market and live with razor thin margins. Any small decrease in expenses may mean the difference between profitability and ruin. These factories are rather harrowing and I would not recommend a visit, ever. Crowded into small cages and deprived of normal behaviors such as food gathering and dust bathing, hens quickly develop pecking disorders that makes them essentially, peck each other to death in waves of what the poultry industry terms cannibalism though the chickens don't really eat each other. This is not good for business as dead, or even stressed chickens will not lay eggs.

The standard inelegant solution for this problem has been to trim the beaks of the hens with hot blades, electric sparks or even lasers. This solution causes great pain to the animals and has proven to be a cause of death and stress. Once more, you end up with unproductive chickens.

In the 1950s farmers noticed that the use of red lights in the henhouse tended to pacify the chickens, reduce their activity and hence minimize canibalism. The explanation is that when a chicken only sees red, it can't see the blood on another chicken and hence will not engage in pecking. Unfortunately the light levels had to be so low that the personel working in the coop could not see well enough to discharge their duties. There was brief attempt to outfit the chickens with red glasses, (more like goggles) but they tended to fall off or snag. In the 1960s a farmer by the name of Irvin Wise tried to use contact lenses for the first time to manipulate the chicken's vision to minimize pecking. Irvin's contacts were not red but blurred vision as empirical evidence had shown that birds with cataracts would not engage in pecking. The technology was not mature enough and the experiment failed as the chickens were either blinded by the contacts or the contacts would fall out too easily. Ten years years after, Irvin's son, Randall Wise, tries to revive his father's idea while he is attending Harvard Business School and even produces a case study around the concept but finds no venture capitalist that will fund his idea and goes into software development instead. He does very well at this and sells his company for a tidy sum to Lotus Development Corp. and having kept in touch all this time with the poultry industry, plows the profit into his new Chicken Contact Lens company AnimaLens.

Considering what had gone before, ranchers were skeptical in adopting the lenses, and time proved them right. Though the lenses fit much better and had less of a tendency to fall out, they were difficult to apply and still tended to blind the birds outright over time. The lenses were not gas permeable as soft contact lenses are, they interfered with the nictating membrane and combined with the ammonia gas generated by the urine from the massed chickens which is strong enough to corrode all metals but stainless steel would cause no end of pain for the birds. By the mid 90's the company had abandoned the product and the concept is pretty much abandoned now.

The moral of the story: If you are going to eat chicken or eggs, make it free range from a supplier you trust to be conscientious about applying that label only to products that meet the spirit of the term, not just the letter.

Earl W. Gleaves, Cannibalism Cause and Prevention in Poultry ,, 6/7/2004
New England Anti Vivisection Society,, 6/7/2004
Seeing Red,, 6/7/2004
Red contact lenses for chickens, a benighted concept,, 6/7/2004