PETA calls for monks’ repentance

Times Staff Writer

Quoting the pope and Roman Catholic teachings, the nation’s largest animal-rights group has accused a Trappist monastery in South Carolina of raising hens for its egg business in an inhumane manner.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA -- which secretly videotaped the hens -- demanded Wednesday that the state attorney general and agricultural officials investigate Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, S.C.

The group criticizes the monks for keeping their hens tightly caged, and accuses them of misleading consumers with the text on their egg cartons, which hails the abbey’s agricultural operation as part of a “centuries-old tradition” that exemplifies “caring cultivation of the earth and its creatures.”


“The way that these monks treat God’s creatures is a sacrilege,” said PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich, who believes the religious order has a moral obligation to set a high standard.

The 21 monks of Mepkin Abbey have responded with bewilderment. They say that they follow egg industry standards and are open to suggestions, but that they do not understand why they have been singled out.

Solitary men who dedicate much of each day to silent prayer, they rarely leave their grounds, 3,000 acres of forest, field and gardens along the Cooper River, north of Charleston. Selling the eggs -- and organic compost from the chicken manure -- helps sustain their order.

On their website, the monks say they treat their 21,000 hens as “God’s precious creatures.” Their methods of farming -- including confining the hens to wire cages -- are so common in this age of industrial agriculture that more than 95% of the eggs sold in this country are produced virtually the same way.

But after reviewing undercover footage PETA took of the egg farm, consulting with poultry scientists -- and receiving thousands of letters from outraged PETA supporters -- the monastery’s abbot agreed Wednesday to consider changing the system.

In a letter requesting written suggestions from PETA, Father Stan Gumula pledged to “deliberately, carefully and scientifically” consider the advice.

“At this point, we are doing the best we know how,” Gumula wrote. “We, too, are looking for ways to better treat our hens.”

PETA has not formulated its suggestions. But there are bound to be quite a few.

Backed by several prominent animal scientists, the group maintains that modern egg production is cruel from start to finish.

In the facilities that produce laying hens, most male chicks are killed shortly after birth. (They’re not raised for meat because they haven’t been bred to produce the large breasts demanded by the broiler industry.) Most females have the tips of their beaks cut off when they are a few days old. Industry scientists say the procedure causes pain and stress, but deem it necessary to prevent the birds from pecking at one another during a lifetime of confinement.

Egg industry guidelines call for each hen to have at least 67 square inches of space, less than a sheet of paper. They must be able to stand upright, but generally cannot spread their wings, build nests, peck dirt or take dust baths, all natural behaviors in the wild. Because they cannot exercise, their bones often weaken and become subject to fracture when they’re transported to slaughter at about 2 years of age.

The industry says hens do best in cages because they’re kept clean and away from parasites. “If you give them too much space, they become overly aggressive,” said Diane Storey, a spokeswoman for United Egg Producers.

The industry’s top scientific advisor, Jeffrey Armstrong, said that although there were “advantages and disadvantages to every system,” current methods adequately balanced hen welfare, producer efficiency and demand for low-priced eggs. “At some point, society may say we don’t want birds in cages, but that’s not what society’s saying now,” said Armstrong, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University.

But the abbey’s critics -- energized by the PETA video -- insist that the monks should be held to a higher standard. They point to comments Pope Benedict XVI made before he was elevated to pontiff. He condemned the notion of hens living “so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds.”

PETA’s undercover video was shot by an activist who asked the monks if he could stay a few days at the abbey for spiritual renewal.

While there, he covertly filmed several robed monks working in the hen sheds, including one who told the investigator that he would euthanize two birds with broken legs after he finished his daily chores. (The abbey maintains that both birds were already dead.)

Another monk said a shed of hens had recently been deprived of food to induce them to molt, a practice the United Egg Producers recently banned.

The monks routinely welcome guests to the abbey -- though not to the hen sheds, to avoid spreading diseases; it’s unclear how the investigator got in.

In letters to Charleston’s Post and Courier and the abbey, several local residents expressed outrage that PETA’s investigator had taken advantage of the order’s hospitality. “How could anyone be so mean as to attack Mepkin Abbey?” one wrote.

The monks themselves continue to give tours and open guest rooms to pilgrims.

“They follow the rule of St. Benedict,” spokeswoman Mary Jeffcoat said. “They welcome every visitor as they would welcome Christ.”