The monks at Mepkin Abbey have supported their contemplative lives for 40 years largely by supplying eggs to local grocery stores. No more. The abbey has succumbed to a campaign undertaken last year by the animal-rights activist group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Too bad.
In announcing its decision to phase out its operation over the next year and a half, a Mepkin spokesman said PETA's campaign had become a distraction to the Trappist community: "While the monks are sad to give up work that has sustained them for many years, a hard and honorable work of which they are proud, the pressure from PETA has made it difficult for them to live their quiet life of prayer, work and sacred reading."
Clearly, that's what PETA had in mind when it started its high-profile campaign last year. Ironically, Mepkin Abbey has been a major benefactor for environmental preservation in Berkeley County.
Among PETA's stated ideals is the contention that animals are "not ours to use for food, clothing, experimentation or entertainment." Based on that position, PETA would likely view any egg-laying operation as animal exploitation and fair game. But throughout the campaign against Mepkin, the local response has been and continues to be almost fully in support of the monks and their work, and opposed to PETA's methods and conclusions.
One letter to the editor earlier this year, from Wadmalaw resident Celeste Albers, was particularly informative. Ms. Albers raises free-range chickens for eggs and described herself as a "green grocer." She addressed the specific complaints raised by PETA in its campaign, writing:
"I have known the monks for 12 years and am familiar with their operation. I know them to be caring and responsible people, and hardworking and honest. They would never deliberately mistreat one of God's creatures ...
"The monks collect the eggs by hand, wash, inspect, grade and pack them. The monks grind and mix the feed on site from local corn and soybeans. They interact with the hens daily. In today's largest egg operations, a human being almost never enters the hen house and the eggs are handled by machine.
"Let me address the complaints about debeaking and forced molting. Our hens are debeaked, as are nearly all hens in every sizeable operation. The tip of the beak is removed a few days after hatching. It does not interfere with the ability of our birds to scratch, peck and eat forage.
"It does prevent blood being drawn when they peck at each other. Believe me, you do not want to see how a chicken behaves when it sees blood on another chicken.
"We do not force molt, but it is a common practice in the industry. This is not 'starving' the birds but is simply a way to trigger the hens' natural inclination to stop laying and replace their feathers. The forced molt causes this to happen to all the hens at one time rather than in staggered intervals throughout the flock. They get a break from laying eggs for awhile, and when they start again, it is with renewed vigor.
"As for cutting off the feed, it is only long enough to trigger the molt and could be equated with fasting or cleansing as practiced by humans.
"In an ideal world, all hens would live a free-range life. In reality, we must all do the best we can. ... The abbey must accommodate an aging community of monks who are called to support themselves with meaningful work that fits their abilities. They provide the greater community with a high quality local food. I, for one, thank them for it."
Other Mepkin supporters have generally been more strident in their criticism of PETA, which, according to our report, had filed complaints with state and federal authorities accusing the abbey of unfair trade practices, including false and misleading advertising. Our account also quoted an attorney for the United Egg Producers, an industry trade group, who castigated PETA in a letter for its "distorted and misleading" assertions, "creatively edited" video and "repugnant" tactics.
PETA previously launched an advertising campaign comparing regulated animal operations in the U.S. to the destruction of European Jewry during the Nazi Holocaust. (It apologized after broad criticism from the Jewish community.) PETA also was sharply criticized by the civil rights community for comparing the condition of abused animals to human slavery.
In the Mepkin campaign, PETA has achieved the eventual shutdown of a small operation that has long supported a local religious community, while providing eggs prized by their customers for their freshness and quality.
In our report, a PETA official expressed delight in the Mepkin announcement and offered to help the monks in the transition "in whatever way they want."
We'd say they've done quite enough already.