Fins, feathers and feelings

Pigs remind us of our family dog, cows have deeply soulful eyes, lambs are indisputably adorable – so when people choose to change their diet these animals are often the first to be spared.

Surprisingly, this well-meaning effort actually leads to more animal suffering if chicken and fish replace mammals in our meals. How are chicken and fish exploited?

Dead chicken on the floor at a farm in the UK
Image taken by Animal Equality on a UK farm.

Farmed fish

Based on numbers alone, fish are the most abused animal on earth. Actually, we don’t even know exactly how many fish are killed for food every year as they are farmed in such vast numbers that we measure their existence in weight rather than individuals. Their relatively small size means that one or more individuals can easily be eaten in just one meal.

Fish suffocating
Photo courtesy of Alex Prolmos, re-used under a Creative Commons licence

On fish farms – where 50% of fish consumed in Britain now come from – hundreds or thousands of fish can be crammed into each tank or pond allowing flesh-eating parasites such as sea lice to flourish along with diseases. Those who survive to slaughter age end their life in a slaughterhouse just like all farmed animals, with one exception – there are no laws requiring fish to be stunned before they are killed. This means that most fish die a slow and agonising death either by being chilled on ice until they suffocate, having their gills cut while fully conscious then bleeding out, or even being immersed in salt and gutted while still alive.

Farmed chickens

Chickens are a close contender for the inglorious title of most abused animal on earth when you factor in the generations of selective breeding that makes them grow much faster and much bigger than they would naturally, resulting in severe leg and lung problems for most of their short lives. The numbers of chickens killed for meat are pretty staggering too.

Chickens - Photo credit Glass Marbles on Visual Hunt CC BY
Photo credit Glass Marbles on Visual Hunt CC BY

Around one billion chickens are killed in British slaughterhouses every year, compared to 14 million sheep, 10 million pigs and 2.7 million cows. In fact, more chickens die from disease, injury and deprivation on British chicken farms than the sum total of all other land animals killed for food every year in the UK. The conditions on British chicken farms are so intense and overcrowded, and 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. Their distorted and diseased bodies are simply thrown in the rubbish. Another million chickens die in transport between the farm and the slaughterhouse every year.

So switching the meat on our plate from red meat and pork to chicken and fish increases not only the number of animals being farmed and killed, just through the sheer size difference between the species, but it also increases the amount of suffering experienced per individual as chicken and fish farms are among the most intensive and industrialised systems operating in the UK.

Unless you are stuck in the 1800s and still believe that birds and fish do not feel pain – an idea that has been disproven so many times that even people who repeat it know they are kidding only themselves – there is no logic in showing empathy for cows, pigs and sheep but not giving equal consideration to chickens and fish. The presence of fins and feathers does not equate to an absence of feelings.

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