Content Warning: Animal Cruelty, Death.
Chick (egg) hatching is a popular activity in classrooms across the country. Having a hands-on approach to learning encourages student engagement, especially when the subject is an adorable baby chicken.
But what happens to the chicks after the project is over?
Beyond that, is it humane – or efficient – to use these animals for educational purposes in schools?
Why Do Schools Participate In Chick Hatching?
Growing eggs in an incubator for 21 days allows children an up-close and personal look into the “miracle of life.” Most commonly offered to elementary school children, it’s a colourful way to teach them about egg anatomy, caring for animals, and life cycles. Instead of simply reading about the process in a textbook, students can interact more closely with the subject.
Teachers also enjoy being able to offer “the cute factor.” In general, children love animals. They want to be around them and treat them kindly. Bringing animals into the classroom is meant to foster compassion and empathy for other living beings.
The Truth About “Humane Chick Hatching”
All of this sounds good in theory, but the reality is darker. Every year, sanctuaries are bombarded with phone calls from parents or teachers trying to find homes for the chicks. There simply aren’t enough farmed animal sanctuaries to take in all the chicks continually hatched in schools.
Teachers often tell their students a variation of, “the chicks are going back to their home at the farm, where they’ll live a happy life with their mom and dad.” Most chicks come from hatcheries or large-scale operations that produce and kill animals for food.
In truth, many farms will not take the chicks back after the program is finished. Since it’s impossible to know what the chicks have been exposed to in classrooms, they are considered a contaminated biohazard unfit for human consumption.
If the farmer does take the birds back, they are frequently killed immediately and rendered for dog food, if not simply thrown out. There are accounts of teachers being told to just kill the chicks themselves by snapping their necks or throwing them in the garbage.
To give a brief glimpse into the egg industry, since males don’t lay eggs and are viewed as a waste product, it’s standard industry practice to grind them up alive, suffocate them, or gas them. They usually do this at hatcheries, which is where farmers buy the chicks they grow in their barns or use for laying eggs.
Children are also subject to whatever goes wrong during the hatching experience. Being raised in this makeshift environment lends itself to all kinds of illness and deformities, including organs being stuck to the shell or intestines growing outside the body. Students can arrive back at school after the weekend to find an upsetting sight. If a child handles an egg incorrectly and feels responsible for the death of a chick, how could the experiment be considered worth it?
Chicks are meant to be hatched under the care of a mother, who rotates the eggs and uses her body to regulate the temperature, humidity, and ventilation. If the incubator chicks survive hatching, we deprive them of a mother and their brief lives are far from natural. The BC SPCA is against chick hatching in schools “due to the welfare issues associated with inappropriate handling and environmental conditions.”
On top of all this, there’s a risk of Salmonella. This is dangerous for anyone, particularly young children who are less likely to carefully wash their hands after handling the eggs or chicks. Canada has seen outbreaks because of chick handling before.
The Conversation No One Wants To Have
If chick hatching is an ethical classroom activity, why do we hide the reality from the students? If we are not willing to have these conversations with children, that is telling in itself.
The fact that teachers often tell students the chicks are “going to live a happy life with their mom and dad” indicates the ideal outcome is one where the animals get to enjoy a fulfilling life. While this is not what happens, opting for this story shows people care about animal welfare. No one wants to think of animals suffering.
On rare occasions, the teachers themselves or a family at the school will have their own backyard chickens. In this unlikely scenario, there’s a possibility of a very limited number of chicks being spared for a while. Even then, no one wants to talk about the typical fate of all these chickens once they are no longer “productive.”
Instead of exemplifying compassion, chick hatching programs teach children to objectify sentient beings. It’s another shiny new toy that will be played with but then discarded and forgotten a week later. These chicks are living animals capable of suffering, and we desensitize children to that by treating them as disposable commodities.
The Humane Alternative
In today’s world, we don’t have to resort to harmful activities to educate and entertain students. We can teach children all about chick hatching without sacrificing animals for the purpose. While there are useful YouTube videos that show the process, many teachers feel that a tangible teaching tool is more effective.
For this reason, P.E.A.C.E. Humane has developed a mobile app called Chick It Out, that interactively leads students through the chick life cycle. This app is the educational, realistic, and engaging solution teachers and parents are looking for, along with “the cute factor.”
What Lesson Do We Want To Offer Students?
If we don’t need to harm animals to educate, how can we justify it? In what way would that embody the kindness we want students to strive for? Technology has provided tools for us to model the empathy and appreciation we want to instill in children.
Children thrive when connecting with nature and animals, especially in these early stages of development. But observing eggs in an incubator is not an authentic look into the natural world.
Instead, we can choose a setting where the animal’s needs are met and their well-being is celebrated. Examples include nature walks, sanctuary visits, and other places that promote the true meaning of humane: compassion.
As Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”