The life of a chicken: Nasty, brutish and short

Originally published in the Vancouver Sun
October 20, 2015


Chickens just can’t win. They’ve long been labelled the most abused animal on the planet by animal rights activists and now, when Canadians are eating fewer pigs and cows, we learn that they eating more chickens than ever.

Those who forgo meat for ethical reasons cheered when the Conference Board of Canada reported in September that per capita consumption of pork and beef has dropped significantly since 1999. But during the same period, chicken consumption rose by 11 per cent. Poultry has just not seen the same price rises or health concerns that have helped reduce demand for other meats.

For anyone who cares about the 640 million chickens slaughtered for meat each year in Canada, that’s a depressing fact.

Care about chickens? Most people rarely spare them a thought (except as nuggets), never mind have concerns about how they live or die. But there are reasons why any civilized Canadian should. Those reasons lie in the inherent cruelty of modern, intensive poultry production.

The lives of broilers (chickens raised for meat) are truly nasty, brutish and short. They are slaughtered when they reach their market weight at only six to eight weeks but reaching that weight is a miserable and painful experience.

Modern broilers are selectively bred for fast growth – so fast that if humans grew at a similar rate, a 6.6 pound newborn baby would weigh 660 pounds at two months old. One study by poultry scientists looking at the effects of this rapid growth states: “This doubling and re-doubling of the body mass almost seven times in eight weeks cannot be sustained without equally dramatic increases in the size and structural integrity of the skeleton.”

An American SPCA report describes the consequences of this growth: “After only a few weeks, there is evidence that the birds’ skeletons and organs cannot keep up. Their hearts, lungs and legs strain to work under severe pressure, causing severely low stamina, shortness of breath, trouble standing and walking, collapse and even congestive heart failure. The birds’ massive chests also make them top-heavy and awkward, putting too much weight on their lower bodies which leads leg bones, tendons and joints to develop improperly, degenerate or give way, causing pain and debilitation.”

Broilers are confined in giant barns containing thousands of birds, with densities as high as 20 birds per square metre, all eating, sleeping and defecating in the same barn. The lameness caused by fast growth means many broilers spend much of their time lying down in their litter and excrement. The litter can become polluted with ammonia from the droppings. This can damage the chickens’ eyes and respiratory systems and can cause painful burns on their legs and feet.

When they reach their slaughter weight, the birds are picked up by “catchers” who grab up to five birds in each hand and push them into tightly packed crates. They are then transported to slaughterhouses in unheated trucks with limited ventilation in all weather, during which time they can legally be deprived of water, food and rest for up to 36 hours.

At the slaughterhouse, broilers are shackled upside-down on a fast moving conveyor, which drags them through an electrified stun bath. An automatic knife then cuts their throats and they are dunked in a scalding tank to loosen their feathers before plucking. Some birds miss the automatic knife and are scalded alive.

For many consumers, perhaps even those aware of this process, their taste for chicken meat outweighs any concerns for the welfare of chickens. The sheer number of birds slaughtered in industrialized poultry operations and the low status of chickens serves to dull any compassion about their plight. They have become widgets.

Yet, when chickens are studied outside the cruel system that sees them only as food, they emerge as sentient and more intelligent than we like to believe.

A 2013 feature in Scientific American, titled The Startling Intelligence of the Common Chicken, explained that the chicken “possesses communication skills on par with those of some primates and that it uses sophisticated signals to convey its intentions… It can solve complex problems and empathizes with individuals that are in danger.”

What matters in moral terms, however, is that chickens have the capacity to suffer and that we have designed a food system that causes them to suffer. To disregard their welfare almost entirely speaks poorly of us, supposedly the most sentient animal on the planet.

So, if you have decided to reduce your meat consumption, good for you. But don’t confine yourself to dropping ribs or pulled pork. Give the nuggets a miss as well.