On a warm evening last summer, a few hundred people crammed into the backyard of the Beverly Hills home belonging to Tracy Torme, son of crooner Mel.
As guests struggled to navigate past each other and the hors d'oeuvres, speakers took to a makeshift stage. The event was a fundraiser for Proposition 2, the state ballot initiative that would outlaw confining hens, pigs and calves in cages so small that the animals can barely extend their limbs.
"I know it's crowded here," shouted Jane Velez-Mitchell, a TV commentator and one of the organizers of the event. "But at least you can turn around!" The crowd cheered.
The treatment of farm animals has been on the radar of national animal welfare organizations for more than two decades. But no initiative or legislation has raised the profile of the issue like Proposition 2 has. The measure, aimed at protecting creatures that many urban Californians may never have seen up close, has captivated animal welfare advocates and galvanized their opponents well beyond state lines.
Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres promoted it on her program and co-hosted a gala fundraiser with her spouse, actress Portia de Rossi. Oprah weighed in last week,hosting both sides of the debate on her show.
Meanwhile, the measure's opponents have received hundreds of thousands of dollars not just from California farmers but also from out-of-state agricultural interests, concerned that their practices could be targeted next.
Proposition 2 would take hens, veal calves and pregnant pigs out of tiny crates and cages and require enough space for them to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs without hitting an enclosure or another animal, and turn around freely. Since there are few veal farmers in California and the state's largest pork producer has already said it would eliminate small crates, the initiative would mostly affect 19 million laying hens and the egg industry that farms them.
About 95% of those birds are kept in so-called battery cages, in groups ranging in number from two to 10 (where, yes, they establish a pecking order). The space per bird is slightly smaller than a sheet of letter paper.
The other 5% of farmed birds are cage-free. They mill in a big henhouse or, in the case of "free range" hens, roam outside in a field or yard.
The measure, which would not take effect until 2015, would have no effect on eggs imported into California for sale or use. Those could still be the product of caged hens.
For years, the Humane Society of the United States, which put the measure on the ballot, aided by Farm Sanctuary and other groups, has successfully used the initiative process to circumvent state legislatures to ban cockfighting, bear-hounding and other practices. The group has had veal and pig crates banned in other states but has never gone after hen cages. That's no small battle in California, the nation's sixth-largest egg producer.
When the independent research firm SurveyUSA polled on Proposition 2 in late September at the request of four TV stations, the results showed Californians favoring the measure by 72%, with 10% opposed and 17% undecided.
Both sides are well-funded, with roughly $7 million each so far. The Humane Society has poured in most of that on the Yes side, and the agricultural industry has funded the opposition. Each campaign has sent into the fray dueling veterinarians and spokesfarmers, all armed with facts and studies on poultry behavior, henhouses and bacteria levels in the manure in which uncaged hens enjoy "dust bathing."
Board-certified poultry vet Nancy Reimers, who speaks frequently for the opponents, says caged hens already have space for turning and flapping their wings, and seem content.
"If I'm going into a house of otherwise healthy hens -- in cages or not -- they sing," Reimers said.
Kate Hurley, a UC Davis veterinarian who wrote the Proposition 2 argument in the official state voter guide, scoffed.
"There is not, to my knowledge, a behavior called singing on the part of chickens that is an indication of good welfare," said Hurley, whose specialty is animal shelter medicine.
For supporters, the issue is simple: Treat all animals humanely, including those raised for food. They cite a 2005 UC Riverside study by poultry specialist Don Bell, showing that increased production costs to egg farmers would be small -- about 12 cents a dozen for cage-free eggs and 28 cents a dozen for eggs from free-range hens.
Opponents see it as a more complicated directive that could increase farmers' prices to their clients by a dollar -- which might mean $2 more for a consumer, according to third-generation egg farmer Ryan Armstrong. He and his brother run an egg farm in Valley Center with 600,000 caged birds and 60,000 uncaged birds.
If they allow all their hens the space to spread their wings without touching each other simultaneously, "we'd need another 200 acres of land," said Armstrong. The cost would put him out of business, he said.