Chickens – from forest gems to frankenbirds

The meat industry has turned beautiful, clever and harmless chickens into the most abused land animal on earth

I was amazed the first time I met chickens. It was on a sanctuary just outside of Washington D.C. and they had been rescued from an egg farm. As the sun started to dip on the horizon I watched in wonder as a line of 10 hens walked into the barn unprompted and settled into their individual nest boxes. I couldn’t believe how well trained the birds were, but the caretaker explained this was their natural behaviour. In the wild, chickens – or jungle fowl to give them their proper name – are on many predators’ menu so take cover when the light starts to fade. Naturally they would roost in trees overnight, but a cozy nest box inside a barn is a much safer choice if you have the option.

Image of a red junglefowl chicken
Red junglefowl. Image Credit: www.commons.wikimedia.org / Rudraksha Chodankar

I have been lucky enough to see wild jungle fowl in Sri Lanka. These beautiful birds live in forests across Southern Asia and are the wild cousins of domesticated chickens. They’re smaller than the chickens we farm (due to our selective breeding for bigger and bigger birds) and can live up to ten years – stark contrast to the chickens we eat who are slaughtered at just 5-6 weeks old, although many don’t even survive that long.

Image of an unnaturally large broiler chicken
Domesticated chicken.

950 million chickens are killed in British slaughterhouses every year

Their lives could not be more different to their wild relatives. It will begin in a hatchery where giant ovens are used to incubate the eggs, no mother hens in sight. When they hatch they’ll be sorted on a conveyor line – males to one side, females to the other, and those too small or weak to survive shipping to a farm thrown into a bin to be gassed or ground alive.

Baby chicks at a hatchery on a conveyor belt ready to be sexed
Chicken hatchery. Credit: Animal Equality

On the farm they’ll be dumped into an enormous shed that looks like an aircraft hanger, along with 50,000 other chicks. It seems spacious – albeit barren – for these tiny little yellow fluffballs, but that soon changes. Generations of selective breeding have created birds who grow much faster and much bigger than they would naturally, so within two weeks the shed is overcrowded and the air reeks of ammonia from the birds’ droppings which are piling up. Over the next few weeks the birds’ bodies will continue to balloon. Most will struggle to stand and breathe; many won’t survive until slaughter.

Factory farm shed filled with thousands of chickens
British chicken farm. Credit: Animal Equality

The conditions on modern chicken farms are unnatural and overcrowded

Their bodies have been pushed to such unnatural extremes of size and shape (breast-heavy), that around 50 million chickens die on-farm every year in Britain. Their distorted and diseased bodies are simply thrown in the rubbish. Adding insult to injury, more than a million chickens die in transport between the farm and the slaughterhouse each year. In fact, more chickens die without ever reaching the slaughterhouse (or food chain) every year than all of the cows, pigs and sheep killed for food each year combined.

Image of a lame chicken on a factory farm floor
British chicken farm. Credit: Animal Equality

The meat industry has turned a beautiful, clever and harmless bird into the most abused land animal on earth; it’s a tragedy. And for those of us privileged enough to spend time with chickens, it’s utterly heartbreaking.

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