More that Meat: The Lives of Broiler Chickens
In the United States, more than nine out of every ten land animals killed for meat are "broiler" chickens. Most broiler chickens live abusive lives, from the farm to the slaughterhouse, where almost one million are killed every hour.
ON THE FARM
"Factory farms", known for raising large amounts of animals in minimal amounts of space, breed nearly 9 billion broiler chickens a year in the United States. These chickens spend their lives in warehouse-like sheds, stocked in such high-densities that they are denied many important natural behaviors, such as the abilities to nest, roost, or ever flap their wings.
These sheds, called "grower houses", confine up to 20,000 chickens at a density or approximately 130 square inches per bird. Grower houses are usually windowless, with temperatures controlled through forced-ventilation. Barren except for sparse amounts of litter material on the floors and rows of feeders and drinkers, these sheds provide environments that only frustrate broiler chickens, decreasing their welfare and depriving them of natural inclinations. Many chickens will die from disease and stress related to these overcrowded conditions, however, profit margins encourage the continued use of grower houses.
THE LIFE OF A BROILER CHICKEN
Each year in the United States alone, almost 9 billion chickens are raised and slaughtered for meat. Most of these "broiler" chickens are selectively bred, a process perfected over many generations to produce the most meat on a bird in the shortest period of time, using the least amount of feed necessary. Modern broiler chickens reach market weight in half the time it took chickens in the 1950s, while consuming one-third the amount of feed.
While increasing productivity, selective breeding severely jeopardizes the welfare of broiler chickens. At six weeks of age, most broiler chickens have such difficulty supporting their abnormal body weights that they spend almost 90 percent of their time lying down, usually in their own waste. Selective breeding can also lead to lameness and other fatal defects such as respiratory disease, big liver spleen disease, weakened immune systems, ascites, and acute death syndrome. Ascites, a condition in which the heart and lungs do not have the capacity to support an overgrown body, is common in broiler chickens.
Some chickens are born to be broiler "breeders." These chickens have the same genetic predisposition for fast growth, as well as the painful conditions of lameness and heart disease. However, to limit their growth rate, they are fed only a quarter of the amount of food of broiler chickens, leading to undernourishment and nutritional deficiencies. If provided an unrestricted diet, most breeders would not survive more than one year. Breeders are also limited to as little as six hours of light per day, to both reduce costs and to control the age of sexual maturity. The darkness not only increases stress and frustration, but often causes blindness in the birds. To reduce the effects of confinement, breeder chickens undergo a serious of mutilations. This includes the removal of beaks and toes, as well as the removal of combs and leg spurs on males, to minimize the increased aggression related to confinement and starvation. These surgeries are usually performed without anesthetic. Breeders are kept alive significantly longer than their offspring, 16 months versus 7 weeks, resulting in much longer suffering. The leg deformities and skeletal disorders that develop before death in broiler chickens become life-long conditions for breeders. So severe can the failures of bones, ligaments and tendons become that almost 50 percent of breeders most be slaughtered prematurely due to complete lameness or infertility.
The environment created by grower houses is detrimental to the physical well-being of broiler chickens. The confinement of large amounts of chickens in inadequate space results in the rapid deterioration of air quality within the sheds. Chicken excrement accumulates quickly on the floors, and as bacteria break down the litter, the air becomes polluted with ammonia, dust, and fungal spores. High ammonia levels can cause painful skin conditions, respiratory problems, pulmonary congestion, swelling, hemorrhage, and blindness. Ammonia also destroys the cilia in the chickens responsible for preventing other bacteria from being inhaled. During winter, when the ventilators are closed to conserve heat, ammonia levels may reach 200 parts per million; healthy ammonia levels should never surpass 20 parts per million.
Broiler chickens live stressed and frustrated lives, confined in sheds that cannot offer even enough space to stand, turn around, or spread their wings. The ammonia levels created by the poor ventilation in grower houses limit the broiler chicken's sense of smell, rendering them unable to truly perceive their environments. Metaphorically, they are forced to look upon a dark room through dark glasses.
IN THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE
Broiler chickens spend an average of 45 days in the grower sheds. Once they have reached market weight, they are transported to outside facilities for slaughtering. For the birds, the journey to the slaughterhouse is physically and psychologically abusive. Catching teams load the chickens at rates of up to 1,500 birds an hour, injuring many in the process. From dislocated hips and broken wings to internal hemorrhaging, the chickens suffer due to the lack of care on the part of the catchers. During transport, the chickens are denied food, water, and shelter. The crates are often improperly covered, and the birds are exposed to high winds and cold temperatures. The unfeathered parts of their bodies become red and swollen, and sometimes even gangrene. Many chickens die during the trip from hypothermia, or from heart failure associated with stress.
Broiler chickens are not protected by federal regulations during slaughtering. They do not have to be rendered senseless before they are killed. In the processing plant, chickens are shackled by their legs and hung upside-down. They are stunned through the use of an electric water bath, but the success of the stun is often reduced due to individual differences in birds. Many chickens are slaughtered without being stunned at all. The chickens' throats are slit on a circular blade before being placed in a scalding tank meant to loosen feathers, but if they are not properly stunned, they often miss the blade, resulting in the birds being boiled alive and conscious. Many alternatives to these inhumane slaughterhouse practices exist, from the use of mechanical harvesting or herding, to a more caring, gentler way of manually catching chickens.
Broiler chicken factory farming produces waste that has environmental consequences; read more from the Pew Environment Group.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Free-range chickens are one great example of refinement. Refining your diet by choosing free-range chickens helps ensure chickens live a better life. Click here for information on where to find chickens from farms that have higher standards of care.
Grocery stores now have a large assortment of substitutes to replace those traditionally obtained from animals who are intensively confined. You can find many of these alternatives in your local grocery store.
If we reduce the consumption of chickens by just one meal a week, approximately one billion chickens would be spared the suffering that occurs with intensive confinement operations.