Meet the Chickens
Chickens are inquisitive, interesting animals who are as intelligent as mammals like cats, dogs, and even primates.1 They are very social and like to spend their days together, scratching for food, cleaning themselves in dust baths, roosting in trees, and lying in the sun. Dr. Chris Evans, administrator of the animal behavior lab at Australia’s Macquarie University, says, "As a trick at conferences, I sometimes list [chickens'] attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys."2
Chickens are precocious birds. Mother hens actually cluck to their unborn chicks, who chirp back to their mothers and to one another from within their shells!3 The intelligence and adaptability of chickens actually make them particularly vulnerable to factory farming because, unlike most birds, baby chickens can survive without their mothers and without the comfort of a nest - they come out of the shell raring to explore and ready to experience life.
But the more than 9 billion chickens raised on factory farms each year in the U.S. never have the chance to do anything that is natural to them.4 They will never even meet their parents, let alone be raised by them. They will never take dust baths, feel the sun on their backs, breathe fresh air, roost in trees, or build nests.
Chickens raised for their flesh, called "broilers" by the chicken industry, spend their entire lives in filthy sheds with tens of thousands of other birds, where intense crowding and confinement lead to outbreaks of disease. They are bred and drugged to grow so large so quickly that their legs and organs can't keep up, making heart attacks, organ failure, and crippling leg deformities common. Many become crippled under their own weight and eventually die because they can't reach the water nozzles. When they are only 6 or 7 weeks old, they are crammed into cages and trucked to slaughter.
Birds exploited for their eggs, called "laying hens" by the industry, are crammed together in wire cages where they don't even have enough room to spread a single wing. The cages are stacked on top of each other, and the excrement from chickens in the higher cages constantly falls on those below. The birds have part of their sensitive beaks cut off so that they won't peck each other as a result of the frustration created by the unnatural confinement. After their bodies are exhausted and their production drops, they are shipped to slaughter, generally to be turned into chicken soup or cat or dog food because their flesh is too bruised and battered to be used for much else.
Because the male chicks of egg-laying breeder hens are unable to lay eggs and are not bred to produce excessive flesh for the meat industry, they are killed. Every year, more than 100 million of these young birds are ground up alive or tossed into bags to suffocate.
Chickens are slammed into small crates and trucked to the slaughterhouse through all weather extremes. Hundreds of millions suffer from broken wings and legs from rough handling, and millions die from the stress of the journey.5
At the slaughterhouse, their legs are snapped into shackles, their throats are cut, and they are immersed in scalding hot water to remove their feathers. Because they have no federal legal protection (birds are exempt from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act), most are still conscious when their throats are cut open, and many are literally scalded to death in the feather-removal tanks after missing the throat cutter.
The Chicken Flesh Industry
Chickens are arguably the most abused animal on the planet. Each year in the United States, 9 billion chickens are killed for their flesh, and 245 million hens are raised for their eggs.7,8 Ninety-nine percent of these animals spend their lives in total confinement - from the moment they hatch until the day they are killed.9 More chickens are raised and killed for food than every other farmed animal combined, yet not a single federal law protects chickens from abuse- even though two-thirds of Americans say that they would support such a law.10
Chickens raised for their flesh, referred to as "broiler chickens" by the meat industry, spend their lives crammed into massive, windowless sheds that typically hold as many as 40,000 birds.11 Chickens can function well in groups of up to about 90, a number low enough to allow each bird to find his or her spot in the pecking order. In crowded groups of thousands, however, no such social order is possible, and in their frustration, they relentlessly peck at each other, causing injury and death.
The intense confinement and overcrowding on factory farms also results in unimaginable filth and disease. A Washington Post writer who visited a chicken shed says that the "dust, feathers and ammonia choke the air in the chicken house and fans turn it into airborne sandpaper, rubbing skin raw."12 Michael Specter, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, also visited a chicken shed and wrote, "I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe... There must have been 30,000 chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn't move, didn't cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way."13
These journalists could leave, but chickens are forced to breathe ammonia and particulate matter from feces and feathers all day long. Many suffer from chronic respiratory diseases, weakened immune systems, bronchitis, and "ammonia burn," a painful eye condition.14 According to a report from the USDA, 98 percent of chicken carcasses are contaminated with E. coli bacteria by the time they reach the market, largely because of the filthy conditions in the sheds where they are raised.15 On factory farms, they are fed large quantities of powerful antibiotics to keep them alive in conditions that would otherwise kill them: Chickens are given nearly four times more antibiotics than human beings or cattle in the United States.16
Chickens are also genetically manipulated and pumped full of drugs to make them grow faster and larger- the average breast of an 8-week-old chicken is seven times heavier today than it was 25 years ago.17 Because of this unnaturally accelerated weight gain, these very young birds frequently die from heart attacks and lung collapse, something that would never happen in nature. According to Feedstuffs, a meat industry magazine, "[b]roilers now grow so rapidly that the heart and lungs are not developed well enough to support the remainder of the body, resulting in congestive heart failure and tremendous death losses."18
In addition, chickens on today's factory farms almost always become crippled because their legs cannot support the weight of their bodies. In fact, by the age of 6 weeks, 90 percent of broiler chickens are so obese that they can no longer walk.19 Many crippled chickens on factory farms die when they can no longer reach the water nozzles.
The breeding animals who give birth to the 9 billion broiler chickens killed in the U.S. were referred to as gallus neglectedus, or "neglected chickens," by Dr. Joy Mench, a poultry scientist at the University of California, because their welfare is completely ignored.20 Like the broiler chickens to whom they give birth, breeder chickens are confined in filthy sheds without access to sunlight, fresh air, or anything else that they would enjoy in nature.
When they are young, hot blades are used to cut large chunks off of their sensitive beaks so that they won't peck each other out of frustration caused by the intense confinement. Sometimes their toes, spurs, and combs are also cut off. The birds are not given any painkillers to ease the agony of this mutilation, and many debeaked chickens starve to death because they are in too much pain to eat.
Breeder chickens are forced to live on factory farms for more than a year. Because they live so much longer, they face an even higher risk of organ failure and death as they grow larger and larger. In an attempt to fix this problem, the industry drastically limits the feed given to breeding birds, keeping the animals in a constant state of hunger and frustration. When the birds drink more water to try to relieve their hunger, factory farm operators often reduce the available drinking water so that they won't have to clean up wet manure.21 Some farmers shove thin plastic rods through the delicate nasal cavities of male breeding birds. The rods stick out of both sides of their faces, preventing them from reaching through the wire barrier to eat the females' food.
After more than a year of deprivation and confinement, the bodies of these breeding birds are too worn out to produce enough chicks for the farmer to sell. Frail and exhausted, they are loaded onto trucks and sent to slaughter.
The Egg Industry
The 340 million chickens raised for their eggs, called "laying hens" by the industry, endure a nightmare that lasts for two years.22 A large portion of each hen's beak is cut off with a burning-hot blade, and no painkillers are used. Many birds, unable to eat because of the pain, die from dehydration and weakened immune systems. After enduring these mutilations, hens are shoved into tiny wire "battery" cages, which measure roughly 18 by 20 inches and hold five to 11 hens (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Safeway allow a maximum of five birds per cage), each of whom have a wingspan of 32 inches. Even in the best scenario (five hens to a cage), each hen will spend the rest of her life crowded in a space about the size of a file drawer with four other hens, unable to lift even a single wing.23
Battery cages are stacked on top of each other, and excrement constantly falls onto the birds in the lower cages and into huge manure pits that line the sheds. The stench of ammonia and feces hangs heavy in the air, and disease runs rampant in the filthy, cramped sheds. Many birds die, and survivors are often forced to live with their dead and dying cagemates, who are left to rot. The light in the sheds is constantly manipulated in order to maximize egg production. Periodically, for two weeks at a time, the hens are only fed reduced-calorie feed. This process induces an extra laying cycle.
Male chicks are worthless to the egg industry, so every year, millions of them are tossed into trash bags to suffocate or are thrown into high-speed grinders called macerators while they are still alive.24
After two years in these conditions, the hens’ bodies are exhausted, and their egg production drops. These "spent" hens are shipped to slaughterhouses, where their fragile legs are snapped into shackles and their throats are cut. By the time they are sent to slaughter, roughly 29 percent of the hens are suffering from broken bones resulting from neglect and rough treatment.25 Their emaciated bodies are so damaged that their flesh can generally be used only for chicken noodle soup, companion-animal food, or "canned, boned, and diced" meat, much of which goes to the National School Lunch Program (these purchases are in jeopardy, however, as students have been injured by accidentally swallowing bone fragments).26
Transport and Slaughter
Chickens who survive the horrific conditions of broiler sheds or battery cages are transported to the slaughterhouse. Workers rush through the sheds, grabbing birds by their legs and slinging them into crates for transport. Tens of millions suffer from broken wings and legs from the rough handling, and some hemorrhage to death. The journey to the slaughterhouse may be hundreds of miles long, but chickens are given no food or water and are shipped through all weather conditions. People who spot chicken-transport trucks on the highway frequently report seeing the heads of dead and dying chickens protruding from the crates.
After this nightmarish journey, the bewildered chickens are dumped out of the crates, and workers violently grab them and snap them - upside-down by their ankles - into shackles, breaking many birds' legs in the process. The terrified animals struggle to escape, often defecating and vomiting on the workers. An undercover investigator at a Perdue slaughterhouse reported that "the screaming of the birds and the frenzied flapping of their wings was so loud that you had to yell to the worker next to you."
Once in the shackles, the upside-down birds are dragged through an electrified water bath meant to paralyze the animals, not render them unconscious. In her renowned book Slaughterhouse, Gail Eisnitz explains: "Other industrialized nations require that chickens be rendered unconscious or killed prior to bleeding and scalding, so they won't have to go through those processes conscious. Here in the United States, however, poultry plants - exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act and still clinging to the industry myth that a dead animal won't bleed properly - keep the stunning current down to about one-tenth that needed to render a chicken unconscious."27 This means that chickens are still fully conscious when their throats are cut.
After the blade cuts their necks, blood slowly drains from the dying birds. But many birds flap about and miss the blade. These birds may have their throats slit by the "backup cutter," but workers testify that it's impossible for them to catch all the birds who miss the blade. According to USDA records, millions of chickens every year are still fully conscious when they are dunked into the scalding-hot water of the defeathering tanks.
According to Eisnitz, most hens used for their eggs are "neither rendered unconscious nor paralyzed [by the electric bath]. After a year or so of laying eggs, their bones are so brittle that immersion in electrically charged water would cause them to shatter."28 These birds, who feel pain just like cats and dogs, are scalded to death in the defeathering tanks.