There are two types of chickens on American farms: Those reared for their flesh and those bred for their eggs. Both endure some of the worst conditions in the animal agriculture industry, and they are killed in far greater numbers than any other species, making them the most abused animal in the farming world. This is why we launched our Choose Chicken-Free campaign.
Chickens reared for meat
More than nine billion chickens are slaughtered for meat in the US each year, and it’s been estimated that the vast majority – around 99 percent – are reared inside factory farms. There is nothing natural about their lives. They do not get to scratch in the dirt, dustbathe, or even breathe in fresh air. Because they have been bred to grow as big as possible as quickly as possible, their bodies outgrow their bone strength, and their legs may break beneath them. Those who cannot stand up suffer skin burns from the ammonia in the litter. Their hearts cannot cope with their ballooning weight either and heart failure is all too common.
This is what a typical broiler unit looks like …
Track their lives from happy young chicks to lethargic, sick, and dying birds, all in just six weeks.
Hens used for eggs
The US has three farming systems for producing eggs: Caged, barn, and free-range.
Although the battery cage was banned in the UK in 2012, the majority of hens are still kept in battery cages in the US. There can be as many as ten birds to a cage, with little more than the size of a sheet of paper’s worth of individual space. They will never be able to express their natural behaviors, such as nesting, foraging, and dustbathing. Artificial lights are switched on for prolonged periods, encouraging them to lay even more eggs.
Many chickens suffer foot deformities from standing on the wire cage floors, while others are completely featherless. The overcrowded conditions allow disease to spread quickly.
This is what life in battery cages looks like…
A small percentage of eggs come from barn-reared hens. The word “barn” may suggest an old-fashioned coop in a farmyard, but in fact, these huge warehouses can hold more than 20,000 birds. They sometimes have more space to move around, but they still do not have access to the outdoors, and the overcrowding creates the same welfare problems for them as for those birds kept in cages.
Free-range is not all it’s cracked up to be. Forget a few happy hens running around a yard. This is a large-scale industrial business, with tens of thousands of birds kept inside a barn. Along the sides are “pop-holes,” which allow hens access to the outside world, but only when weather permits. Because hens are territorial, some weaker birds may not be able to cross a stronger bird’s space and will never get outside. Those who do venture out may be more susceptible to disease because they are the same in-bred strains as those in closed systems and are not hardy enough to cope with bugs in the outside world.
This is what free-range looks like at the Happy Egg Company…
Suffering in all systems
No matter the system, suffering is inherent in egg production. The birds’ breeding and environment are manipulated to ensure they lay as many eggs as possible – around 300 per bird per year. All those eggs need shells, and shells are made from calcium. This mineral is taken from the birds’ bones which leaves them susceptible to broken legs and wings. It’s a price the industry is willing to pay for plentiful eggs.
The stress of living in these conditions can cause the birds to wound one another. The industry’s response is not to give them a better life but to remove the end of their beak when they are day-old chicks. It’s a process that is painful, and complications can cause life-long suffering.
Their lives are short, and for male chicks born into hatcheries, they are even shorter. They are the wrong sex to lay eggs and the wrong breed for meat, so their lives are deemed worthless. Millions of them are gassed to death on their first day of life.
Female chicks are useful only while their egg production is at a peak. When it starts to decline, they are disposed of, too. They are sent to slaughter, and their scrawny bodies are turned into low-grade chicken products when they are typically just 18 months old.
All chickens are sent to slaughter
Chickens reared for meat and those used for eggs are all sent to slaughter, and it’s a process that is both painful and frightening for the birds. They may be caught by catching gangs, who grab several birds at a time, holding them by their legs, wings, and sometimes necks, and stuff them into crates. This rough treatment often results in hip dislocation and broken bones.
Some farms have mechanized “harvesting,” where a machine sweeps the birds onto a transport belt and into a drawer.
There is no specific maximum journey time for transporting chickens. There is a law in the US that states that “if livestock are being transported for longer than 28 consecutive hours, they must be offloaded for at least 5 consecutive hours to get feed, water, and rest.” Conveniently for the industry, chickens are not explicitly listed as “livestock.”
At the slaughterhouse, the birds are shackled upside down by their legs while fully conscious. Imagine the pain of being suspended this way on broken legs. The line moves, dragging the birds’ heads through electrified water, which should render them unconscious. But, if the birds are small or the water level is too low, or insufficient voltage is used, the chickens will go to the knife fully conscious. Stunned or not, the line keeps moving, and the birds’ necks are cut mechanically.
There is no kind way to rear chickens, and no kind way to kill them, either.
Smart, sweet, and social
Anyone who has ever met a chicken will know what huge characters they can be. They are active, inquisitive, and love to root around, foraging, and exploring. They dustbathe and preen to keep their skin and feathers in tip-top shape and love to sunbathe, lying on their sides, wings outstretched, eyes closed.
As soon as they hatch, they are able to recognize their siblings and, if given the chance, will choose to stay with each other. They are social animals and form strong friendships, but the huge flock sizes on modern farms are unnatural and stressful.
We use the phrase “mother hen” to describe someone who is a very protective mother, and that’s because chickens are fantastic moms. They will communicate with the embryo while still in the egg, and he or she will respond. The bond is powerful and begins even before the chick has hatched.
Take a look at how a hen cares for her chick.
PAGE UPDATED MARCH 2023