Chickens endure more days of 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. Globally, 40 billion chickens are slaughtered for meat every year.
In the U.S., more than 9.2 billion chickens were slaughtered for meat, and 464 million chickens raised for eggs, in 2010 – that’s 95.5 percent of all animals killed for food each year. [i, ii] This figure does not include the hundreds of millions of male chicks who are gassed or crushed to death simply because they can’t lay eggs for the industry to sell.
Watch their fate here:
The reality for chickens
Chickens are raised for either meat (referred to as ‘broilers’) or eggs (known as ‘laying hens’).
Broiler chickens have been manipulatively breed to grow much quicker than they would do naturally. To increase the industry’s profitability, chickens are now reared to reach slaughter weight in a much shorter time. If humans grew at the same rate as broiler chickens, we’d weigh 350 pounds at age two. From 1976 to 1999, the live weight of birds at slaughter increased by 247% to around 5 lbs. [iii]
This unnatural rate of fattening puts increasing pressure on the chickens’ legs. Many of them are unable to support their own body weight and eventually collapse. Hock burns (small areas of dark discoloration around the knee joints) are evidence of this suffering. As the birds struggle to stand, they will often squat to the ground where high concentrations of ammonia (from their feces) will burn the chickens’ legs and breast.
The majority of broiler chickens live in large sheds or barns. As the birds grow, the space available for each chicken diminishes.
Soon the chickens become cramped and frustrated – as shown in this footage taken from inside a broiler barn:
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. [iv] This excessive production drains the chicken’s body of calcium and causes her to develop brittle bones disease as well as eggs frequently getting lodged in their reproductive tract and uterine prolapse.
- Cage Systems
90 percent of the eggs sold in the U.S. come from caged hens. These chickens have very little space (not much larger than a single sheet of paper) and spend the majority of their lives inside. In such small spaces, it is difficult to engage in basic natural behaviors like walking, nesting, spreading their wings, dust bathing, or foraging for food. The system uses artificial lighting, which is set for prolonged periods, and forced molting through starvation, to encourage hens to lay more.
This overcrowding allows disease to spread quickly and causes other serious welfare issues for the chickens. In these close confinements their bodies are often crushed as the chickens compete for space. Unable to escape, stressed, many chickens suffer from severe feather loss and foot deformities from standing on wire cage floors.
Mercy For Animals’ 2011 investigation into Sparboe Farms, the fifth-largest egg producer in the U.S., uncovered appaling conditions for caged hens. At Sparboe, a supplier to McDonald’s, Target, Sam’s Club, and other food retailers, hens were crammed into filthy cages. Dead hens were left to rot alongside birds still laying eggs for human consumption; workers burned off the beaks of chicks without painkillers; hens were sadistically and maliciously tortured, and live birds were dumped into plastic bags and left to suffocate.
- Cage-Free and Free-Range Systems
‘Cage-Free’ and ‘Free-Range’ (or ‘Free-Roaming’) systems are often advertised as being cruelty-free. Unfortunately, these hens are still predominately confined in dark, industrial-sized barns with hardly any more space than their caged counterparts – the USDA recommends only a foot and a half per chicken – and up to 50,000 chickens may be confined in one building.
Hens in ‘Cage-Free’ facilities usually have no access to the outdoors. In ‘Free-Range’ facilities, there is outdoor access, such as a small hole in a wall leading to an enclosed area. However, for all practical purposes the majority of hens will never see the outdoors, and there are no standards for outdoor access. Due to inadequate pop-holes for outside access and the protection of these exits by dominant hens, less than 10 per cent (on average) of the chickens are outside at any given time, and many never go outside at all. [v] Once again, this overcrowding leads to similar welfare problems of aggression and feather-pecking.
No matter what the carton claims, there is no regulation of welfare standards for egg-laying hens, so the egg industry can use deceptive, meaningless terms like “naturally raised” or “animal-friendly” no matter what conditions the chickens endure. There are no independent third-party certifiers or auditors validating whether hens are caged, cage-free, free-range, nor does the USDA set any standards for these claims.
Manipulations and mutilations
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. Debeaking is routinely done by laser, hot blade, scissors, or electrical current. The American Veterinary Medical Association, normally very conservative about such matters, states that debeaking without painkillers or anesthesia is “acutely painful” and can lead to behavioral problems and difficulty eating, among other complications.
Chickens are usually caught by their legs and carried (often several at a time) upside down before they are loaded into small crates for the journey to the slaughterhouse.
This rough handling, and the speed at which chickens are “depopulated” and 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.
Chickens will often face long-distance journeys, deprived of food and water, suffering temperature extremes, for more than 24 hours. The industry suggests baby chicks should – ideally – be transported less than 24 hours and if longer than 48 hours, they should be given food and water.
|Animal||Natural lifespan (on average)||Age at which they are typically killed|
|Broiler chicken||7 years||40-50 days old|
|Laying chicken||7 years||18 months old|
|Male chicks||7 years||1 day old|
Broiler chickens are slaughtered by being shackled by their feet to an assembly-line style conveyor, dunked in electrified water baths, which immobilizes them for easy handling, but does not render then insensible to pain. Then they are killed using a neck cutter and immersed in a scalding tank to remove their feathers.
Because of the speed of the assembly line, many birds end up drowning in the scalding tank rather than being killed by the blade. Newer facilities sometimes use controlled-atmosphere stunning, where hens are suffocated to the point of unconsciousness, before being killed.
Egg-laying hens, whose production drops off slightly at 12-24 months old, are killed when they are considered “spent” and are no longer as profitable to maintain as younger hens. More than one million spent layer hens are killed in the U.S. each year, having little to no value for meat or other by-products. Layers can be killed by pumping gas into closed carts, ground up in macerators, dumped into pits by bulldozers and buried alive, or being strangled by hand. In nearly every case, layer hens are condemned to die a slow, painful death.
At federally inspected slaughterhouses, animals are supposed to be rendered unconscious or insensible to pain before being killed – except for chickens. The USDA’s Humane Slaughter Act does not apply to chickens or other birds, which represent the vast majority of animals killed for food.
Intelligence and character
In the 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 recognize their siblings and, if given the chance, they will choose to stay with each other. [vi]
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. [vii]
Watch this touching little video of a mother hen looking after her chick:
“Open Rescue of Six Free-Range Hens” – Open Rescue by Animal Equality:
“The Faces of Free Range Farming” – Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary:
[ii] HSUS (2013) An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Chicken Industry. [Online]. Available from: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/welfare_broiler.pdf [Accessed: 18th November 2016].
[iii] Animal Place, 2008. Chickens. [online] Available at: http://animalplace.org/chickens.html [Accessed 10 October 2014].
[iv] RSPCA, 2013. The welfare of laying hens. [pdf] [Accessed 9 November 2016].
[v] Hegelund L., et al, 2005. ‘Use of the range area in organic egg production systems: effect of climatic factors, flock size, age and artificial cover’. British Poultry Science, 46 pp. 1-8.
[vi] Rodgers, L.J., 1998. Minds of their own: thinking and awareness in animals. Boulder CO: Westview Press.
[vii] Rodgers, 1998.