Are Food Animals Victims of their poor image

Peter Fricker

The Vancouver Sun

Published: September 10, 2010

Last month, a woman in England sparked world-wide outrage when she was caught on video dropping a cat into a garbage bin.  The cat spent 15 hours in the bin before being rescued by her owners.

The inexplicable act of cruelty quite rightly angered millions of people.  There is no excuse for deliberately putting animals at risk or subjecting them to distress.  Nevertheless, one can’t help wondering why such outrage is absent when other, less “attractive” animals, face routine cruelty on a much wider scale.

Take, for example, chickens raised for meat.  About 580 million “broilers” are slaughtered every year in Canada (nine billion in the U.S.).  Most of them live short, miserable lives in appallingly inhumane conditions on factory farms.

They suffer from being selectively bred to grow fast – so fast their bones cannot support their weight, leading to chronic painful conditions and injuries. They endure rough handling, often breaking bones when they are picked up and stuffed into crates on trucks taking them to slaughter.

During transport to the slaughterhouse, they are often exposed to extreme weather over long distances, with some dying before they even get there.  Finally, they face the pain of being shackled upside down, dragged through a sometimes ineffective “stun bath” and having their throats slit.  Their flesh is then ready to be processed for Canadians to eat.

Each one of these birds suffers infinitely more than the cat who spent 15 hours in the garbage bin, yet where is the moral outrage?

Some will argue that because chickens are “food animals” they are subject to a lesser standard of moral consideration or compassion than other animals. Yet some cultures deem cats and dogs to be food animals. Does labelling an animal as food automatically diminish its moral value – and who gets to do the labelling?

Even if you believe that it is morally acceptable to eat chickens, is it acceptable that they should be treated so inhumanely before slaughter?  Selective breeding for unnaturally fast growth could be stopped.  Conditions in barns (where each chicken has only a half-square foot of space) could be improved.  Allowable transport times could be cut (Currently, chickens may be legally transported for up to 36 hours without being fed or watered.)  More humane slaughter methods (such as gas) could be introduced.  Yet there is no public clamour for even these minimal steps that would alleviate some of the the pain and suffering of millions of animals.

Perhaps chickens are victims of their poor image.  They are generally perceived as stupid, cowardly and without the aesthetic appeal (or cuteness) of dogs, cats or budgies.  But when scientists study chickens in settings where they can engage in natural behaviours, a surprising picture emerges.  They are not the seemingly unintelligent, dull, inactive inhabitants of crowded broiler barns or battery cages.  Instead we see clever birds with interesting social interactions, each with individual personalities and all pursuing something recognizable as a natural life.

It is hard for most people to accept that each one of the billions chickens killed for meat every year has an individual personality, just like their beloved pet’s.  And, just like their pets, they can feel fear, pain and distress.  Capacity for suffering is something all animals share.  For the unlucky chicken, suffering has become an integral part of life.  And it appears that, for most of us, that is acceptable.