Who's chicken?

Frizzle, a rescue chicken enjoying the sun at    Edgar's Mission   .  Edgar's Mission is a farm sanctuary outside Melbourne, Australia.  Picture:  Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Frizzle, a rescue chicken enjoying the sun at Edgar's Mission. Edgar's Mission is a farm sanctuary outside Melbourne, Australia. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

By LAURA-JEAN SCHNEIDER


For a farmed animal who collectively outnumbers all other species of birds in the world, it’s surprising we don’t know more about chickens.[1] Typically, consumers equate chicken with meat - and that’s no surprise, since it’s touted as healthier and less expensive than red meat. The advertising works: chicken is the UK’s favourite flesh: 1,300,000,000 chickens were consumed last year, with each person eating 3.5 kg more chicken than in the last decade. Ninety six per cent of people also consume eggs, to the tune of 1089 million a year.[2]

But what happens behind the scenes - before the chicken salad, the barbecued wings, or the breaded nuggets? Meat corporations work hard to separate live animal from processed product because it’s uncomfortable to recognize the food on your plate as anything else. The truth is, however, that chickens and humans share the ability to empathize, and even dream in similar waves. Like attentive human parents who speak to their babies in utero, hens communicate to their chicks while they are still in the egg. Chickens are known for their ability to count, make educated choices, and have a strong collective presence: recently, a flock of hens dispatched a fox that had invaded their enclosure.

Demand drives production, and the sheer numbers of meat chickens consumed means they must be raised in an environment that maximizes volume. In the UK this is the magic equation: one fertile egg + 4 kg of feed = a 2kg chicken in 35 days. Most of these chickens are the Ross variety: genetically engineered to gain weight as quickly as possible, most birds cannot even walk by the time they are slaughtered, their legs unable to support their bodies. [3]

This inability to ambulate works in the factory farm’s favour: each chicken gets a space the size an A4 sheet of paper to live in.  The chickens move less, eat less and maximize their feed, making them more cost effective. They are fed antibiotics, so the close quarters cause less illness.  [4]

When activists from  Animal Equality  carried out open rescue for hens in battery cages, they discovered this dead bird with blood pouring out of its beak.. Only five out of 160,000 hens were rescued. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, Animal Equality.

When activists from Animal Equality carried out open rescue for hens in battery cages, they discovered this dead bird with blood pouring out of its beak.. Only five out of 160,000 hens were rescued. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, Animal Equality.

There is no need to clean cages or remove the dead — millions die from heart attacks annually in the UK — because the turnover is so rapid. Within a calendar year, 20 million chickens arrive to slaughterhouses already dead. [5] The survivors are shackled by their feet and passed through a gas chamber or an electrified water vat that kills or stuns them, before their heads are removed and the rest of the butchering process commences. (While the UK has strict laws about rendering meat animals unconscious before killing them, exceptions are made for religious ritual killing.) [6]

Hens selected as egg-producing layer chickens turn into meat when they are no longer ‘productive’;  88% of these animals end up at slaughterhouses with broken bones. Many have had their beaks — which have nerves — tipped with a hot knife to prevent them from anxiously pecking each other in the close confinement of a laying barn.

So the chickens suffer terribly but it’s worth investigating the other - unintended - ramifications of our chicken consumption. While poultry isn’t as destructive for the environment as beef, it  still “require[s] three times more land and emit[s] three times more greenhouse gas emissions than beans.”[7]

Activists demonstrate during an all day vigil outside of Maple Leaf Poultry in Toronto, as part of Farm Animal Rights Movement’s World Day for Farmed Animals. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

Activists demonstrate during an all day vigil outside of Maple Leaf Poultry in Toronto, as part of Farm Animal Rights Movement’s World Day for Farmed Animals. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

Carol J Adams, in her book Neither Man Nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals, points out that the meat, dairy, and egg industry is inherently pre-occupied and critically reliant on female reproduction. Chickens are forced to produce eggs, which produce meat birds who are forced to eat themselves nearly to death. Egg layers are bred to lay until they are depleted: hen chicks are kept to replenish the flock and male chicks are literally discarded, gassed, thrown in dumpsters, or ground up alive.  

If the statistics shared above were printed on the packaging of chicken meat or egg cartons, it’s likely consumption would drop. Developed nations have the luxury of choice.

“Quality of life” is a phrase that certainly extends past humans. And yet even if — like the 1 per cent of chickens raised organically in the UK, with higher welfare standards — perfect production was possible, would it warrant the death and distress of so many other living creatures? Chicken meat and eggs are not necessary to human survival; we have simply developed a taste for them. Making a choice to reduce or eliminate the use of poultry products shows a long-term awareness for the environment, and a conscious approach to food consumption. 


 

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