Chickens endure more suffering than most other farmed animals.
• …they live and endure some of the worst conditions on farms.
• …such a high number of them are killed: approximately 550 million chickens are slaughtered in Australia annually. [i] This figure does not include egg-laying hens who are killed when their egg production slows down, nor does it include the hundreds of millions of male chicks who are gassed or crushed alive simply because they can’t lay eggs for the industry to sell, and do not gain weight quickly enough to be raised for meat.
The reality for chickens
Chickens are raised for either meat (referred to as ‘broilers’) or eggs (known as ‘laying hens’).
The broiler chicken industry in Australia has exploded since the 1950s, when approximately 3 million birds were slaughtered annually and a roast chicken was reserved for special occasions. Now the industry is an “intensive, highly mechanised operation” [ii] and broiler chickens have been bred to grow much more quickly than they would naturally. To increase the industry’s profitability, chickens are now reared to reach slaughter weight in a much shorter time. In Australia, it takes chickens just 35 days to reach 2.5 kilograms; in 1970, it took 65. At just 35 to 55 days weeks old, they are sent to slaughter, baby birds in adult bodies. [iii]
This unnatural rate of weight gain puts increasing pressure on the chickens’ legs. Many of them are unable to support their own body weight and eventually collapse, suffering a condition known as “splayed leg syndrome”. Struggling to stand, the birds often squat on the ground where high concentrations of ammonia from their faeces burn the chickens’ legs and breasts, causing painful hock burns and a condition known as “breast blisters”. Four percent of broiler chickens—or 18 million birds a year—die even before they are to go to slaughter. [iv]
The majority of broiler chickens live in large sheds or barns and are known as “barn-raised”. In Australia, the average new shed contains 40,000 to 60,000 birds and raises approximately 320,000 at a time. [v] As the birds grow, the space available for each chicken diminishes.
An investigation carried out by Animals Australia at one of the country’s largest chicken meat producers:
There are farming systems within Australia for producing eggs: caged, barn and free-range. Additionally, regardless of which system they are raised in, hens are considered “spent” once their egg production slows down, and are sent to slaughter at about 18 months old despite having a natural lifespan of at least seven years.
In the wild, a hen would lay around 60 eggs a year. In today’s egg production industry, hens are bred and reared to produce more than 300 eggs a year. This excessive production drains the chicken’s body of calcium and causes her to develop brittle bones disease.
Footage of battery cage farm in Australia:
55% of egg-laying hens in Australia are kept in cages on enormous factory farms, some containing as many as 500,000 birds in multi-level sheds. [vi] Each cage houses 3 to 5 hens, who will spend the majority of their short lives there. Investigations by Animals Australia have shown that sometimes more than the “acceptable” number of hens are packed into each cage–There isn’t much space per bird—slightly less than a sheet of A4 paper—and so the hens are unable to engage any of their most basic natural behaviours; they have no room to walk, nest, dust bathe, or forage for food, and they do not even have enough space to spread their wings. [vii] The system uses artificial lighting, which is set for prolonged periods, to encourage hens to lay more.
Pace Farms, the largest egg producers in Australia, describe themselves as “state of the art” and claim that they hold themselves to “the highest standards in animal husbandry.” A photo from one of their farms shows otherwise:
Ailments of all kinds are common among these birds. Because the battery cages are stacked row upon row, 2 to 8 cages high, chickens in lower cages are covered in the faeces of those above them. Foot disorders are frequent as the birds struggle to stand on the tilted wire floors. Many chickens lose the majority of their feathers as frustration and anxiety cause them to rub against the bars of their cages; additionally, being trampled by their cage mates contributes to feather loss. Severe osteoporosis and broken bones are common, as is premature death. [viii]
Barn systems consist of sheds that can hold up to 16,000 chickens in total, normally housed in groups of 4,000 – 6,000 (RSPCA 2013). The chickens have more space in these systems, but they still do not have access to the outdoors and the overcrowding creates similar welfare issues that are found in caged hens.
What about 'Free-Range'?
‘Free-Range’ systems—whether for egg-laying birds or those raised for meat—are often advertised as being cruelty-free. What many people don’t realize, however, is that ‘free-range’ is not a legally certified label, and therefore what constitutes free-range can vary dramatically depending on farm. [ix] The unfortunate truth is that even free-range hens are still predominately confined in overcrowded barns, and due to lax regulations, outdoor access can be difficult for many hens, and the outside area allotted can be anything from large and grassy to small, completely bare, and difficult to access. [x] The amount of space allotted to each bird in these outdoor spaces also varies; the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry (a voluntary national guide) designates a maximum stocking density of 1500 chickens per hectare, but some free-range farms have up to 20,000 per hectare. [xi]
When it comes to chickens raised for meat, those designated free-range suffer from the same genetics as their factory farmed counterparts. Chickens are still raised to reach their goal weight early, straining their limbs and resulting in respiratory problems, heart attacks, and a condition known as “splayed legs.” As Terry Swagerty, farm expert at Washington State University explains, “They’re not bred for mobility. They’re bred for hogging down food.” They are not allowed outside until they are 21 days of age, and are sent to slaughter at the same age as factory-farmed chickens: 35 to 55 days old. [xii]
‘Free-Range’ eggs are similar to free-range meat in that there is no nationally-defined standard and certification schemes are voluntary. As a result, there have been multiple incidents of misuse of the ‘free-range’ label. [xiii], [xiv] Due to inadequate pop-holes for outside access and the protection of these exits by dominant hens, few of the chickens are outside at any given time, and many never go outside at all. Once again, this overcrowding leads to similar welfare problems of aggression and feather-pecking, and because “free range” is so loosely defined, many of these birds are still subject to debeaking. [xv]
Manipulations and mutilations
Debeaking (primarily layer hens)
Due to stressful, unnatural living conditions, chickens, who are normally very social, can behave aggressively towards one another by pecking and pulling out each other’s feathers. This has led to the routine debeaking of birds.
There are two methods of debeaking utilized in Australia; the first uses a hot blade to cut off up to a third of the chick’s beak, leaving an open wound. The second method is known as “infrared beak trimming”, wherein the chick’s head is restrained on a carousel while a high intensity infrared beam is used to penetrate up to a third of their beak. Within five weeks, the penetrated area of the beak tissue will die and drop off. Like the hot blade debeaking, this practice carries complications including possible damage to the soft tissue leading to impaired beak function. Birds sometimes need to be “retrimmed” again at 8 to 12 weeks of age, an additional treatment which must be done via the hot blade method. [xvi]
Debeaking also deprives these birds of one of their most important sources of sensory input. It has been compared to having the ends of your fingers removed. A debeaked bird cannot eat properly or explore her environment fully, nor can she preen herself or her flock mates. She may also experience acute and chronic pain in her beak, head, and face. [xvii]
Chickens are caught by their legs and carried upside down before they are loaded into small crates for the journey to the slaughterhouse. Australian standards allow workers to carry 5 to 6 birds in each hand, or eleven total. [xviii]
This rough handling, and the speed at which chickens are loaded into transport cages (more than a thousand per hour), causes great stress to the birds and often results in painful leg dislocations and broken bones in their wings and legs. “Spent” layer hens, weak with osteoporosis after 18 months of laying eggs and a total inability to exercise, are particularly prone to broken bones.
The chickens will have to face long distance journeys in transport trucks without food or water–as long as 24 hours for newly hatched birds and 12 hours for adult birds. [xix] Some protection from the elements is suggested during transport, but once the truck has parked, the birds are allowed to remain unprotected for up to two hours, whether in stifling heat or freezing rain. [xx]
|Animal||Natural lifespan (on average)||Age at which they are typically killed|
|Broiler chicken||7 years||35-55 days old|
|Laying hens||7 years||18 months old|
|Male chicks||7 years||1 day old|
Whether a ‘free range’ hen or a caged bird, the slaughter process is the same for all the animals. In Australia, chickens are either killed by having their throats cut or through a process known as ‘Controlled Atmosphere Killing’–a gas chamber.
The chickens remain in their transport crates and are placed into a gas chamber where they are exposed to mixtures of air and asphyxiate gases (such as carbon dioxide, argon, or nitrogen) until they are dead. This prevents the chickens from having to experience the additional trauma of being taken from their transport crates to be hung upside down.
Intelligence and character
Wild hens are very active during the day: grooming, exploring, pecking and foraging for food. They like to arrange their feathers with their beaks and feet and keep themselves clean by dust-bathing.
They are very social animals and form strong friendships, preferring the company of familiar chickens. As soon as they hatch, chicks are able to recognise their siblings and, if given the chance, they will choose to stay with each other. [xxi]
The bond between a mother hen and her chicks is particularly strong. Hens and chicks engage in back and forth communication during the chicks’ time as embryos. As embryos, they can hear their mother’s calls and can then identify and understand it immediately after birth. [xxii]
Watch this touching little video of a mother hen looking after her chick:
Broiler Chicken Investigation by Animal Aid:
[i] Australian Meat Chicken Federation, Inc., General Questions. [online] Available at: http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=150#G1 [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[ii] Poultry Hub, Chicken meat (Broiler) Industry. [online] Available at: http://www.poultryhub.org/production/industry-structure-and-organisations/chicken-meat [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[iii] Sustainable Table, Free Range Egg and Chicken Guide. [online] Available at: http://www.sustainabletable.org.au/Hungryforinfo/Free-range-egg-and-chicken-guide/tabid/113/Default.aspx [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[iv] Poultry Hub, Chicken meat (Broiler) Industry. [online] Available at: http://www.poultryhub.org/production/industry-structure-and-organisations/chicken-meat [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[v] Australian Meat Chicken Federation Inc., Growing Meat Chickens. [online] Available: http://www.chicken.org.au/page.php?id=6 [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[vi] Poultry Hub, Chicken egg (Layer) Industry. [online] Available at: http://www.poultryhub.org/production/industry-structure-and-organisations/egg-industry/ [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[vii] RSPCA Australia, What is the RSPCA’s position on battery cages? [online] Available at: http://kb.rspca.org.au/What-is-the-RSPCAs-position-on-battery-cages_103.html [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[viii] Webster, A. Bruce, 2007. Commercial Egg Tip, University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences [PDF] Available at: http://www.poultry.uga.edu/extension/tips/documents/ceggjuly07.pdf [Accessed 28 October 2014)
[ix] Choice Online, Free range eggs. [online] Available at: http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/organic-and-free-range/free-range-eggs-2012/page/animal-welfare.aspx [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[x] RSPCA Australia, What is the difference between free range, bred free range, organic, sow-stall free? [online] Available at: http://kb.rspca.org.au/What-is-the-difference-between-free-range-bred-free-range-organic-sow-stall-free_92.html [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[xi] Choice Online, Free range eggs. [online] Available at: http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/organic-and-free-range/free-range-eggs-2012/page/animal-welfare.aspx [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[xii] Sustainable Table, Free Range Egg and Chicken Guide. [online] Available at: http://www.sustainabletable.org.au/Hungryforinfo/Free-range-egg-and-chicken-guide/tabid/113/Default.aspx [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[xiii] Choice Online, Free range eggs. [online] Available at: http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/organic-and-free-range/free-range-eggs-2012/page/animal-welfare.aspx [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[xiv] Animal Welfare Labels, The Debate Over Stocking Rates for Free Range Hens. [online] Available at: http://www.animalwelfarelabels.org.au/index.php/products/eggs [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[xv] Free Range Farmers Association Inc., Hen Welfare. [online] Available at: http://www.freerangefarmers.com.au/hen-welfare.html [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[xvi] Poultry Hub, Beak trimming. [online] Available at: http://www.poultryhub.org/health/health-management/beak-trimming/ [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[xvii] Glatz, Phil and Michael Bourke, 2006. Beak Trimming Handbook for Egg Producers, p. 47, Landlinks Press
[xviii] Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines, December 2008, Land Transport of Livestock [PDF] Available at http://www.animalwelfarestandards.net.au/files/2011/02/Australian-Animal-Welfare-Standards-and-Guidelines-for-the-Land-Transport-of-Livestock.pdf [Accessed 27 October 2014]
[xxi] Rodgers, L.J., 1998. Minds of their own: thinking and awareness in animals. Boulder CO: Westview Press.
[xxii] Rodgers, L.J., 1998. Minds of their own: thinking and awareness in animals. Boulder CO: Westview Press. & ibid.