When I call Errol’s name, he looks across the yard at me and comes over as fast as his little feet will take him. When he reaches me, he pauses for a moment, finding the best way to climb onto my lap. Despite the summer heat, our bodies are never close enough to satisfy Errol’s cuddliness. We hold eye contact as I scratch his back and smooth his little head. Slowly, his eyes close and I sit there with him napping, trying—and often failing—to remain perched on my thigh. We do this almost every day, month after month. The United States slaughters 9 billion “broiler” chickens each year. That number is probably a little hard to comprehend, so to put it in slightly more tangible terms: approximately 287 chickens are killed each second. Every second. All year. Worldwide, we raise the number of these chickens killed to 50 billion annually.
Maybe these numbers come with little surprise. For instance, friends casually share a bucket of “wings”; every bird only has two. In Boston Market or the grocery store, whole chicken bodies slow-roast on a skewer. Due to chickens’ small size, the average American eats between 28 and 50 each year, whereas they only eat about an eighth of a cow. As chickens are birds, not mammals, assumptions are made about their intelligence, their lack of personality, and, consequently, the value of their lives.
We have selectively bred chickens in two different breeding lines: those bred and drugged for size for the meat industry and those bred to lay many more eggs than they naturally would for the egg industry. With respect to the former, those in the industry call the chickens killed for meat “broiler” chickens. One agriculture site explains that “these birds were called ‘broilers’ since they produced young, tender meat which did not require the same long-roasting that had been required previously.” (UK Agriculture, “Broiler chickens in the UK – an introduction,” 2013) What that means is that unlike their ancestors, these chickens have been selectively bred so that their breasts and thighs will have overgrown muscle tissue (meat) and they’ll reach full adult size when they are just 42 days old. When these birds are slaughtered, they are still chicks, just chicks who look like adults. When they are rescued by sanctuaries before they are 42 days old, they are still peeping like chicks, which is why sanctuaries prefer to call them “peepers,” instead of “broilers.”
The website countinganimals.com posted a recent article, “A child raised to weigh 500 pounds by age 10?” (09.10.13) that explored the selective breeding and drugging of farmed chickens. They tell us that in the 1920s, it took 16 weeks for a chicken to reach 2.5 pounds. Whereas, in 2013, it takes 6 weeks for a chicken to reach nearly 7 pounds. The University of Arkansas estimates that if humans grew at the same rate, an average newborn would reach 660 pounds two months after birth. Although there are some discrepancies in the estimates of how fast a human would need to grow, one fact is perfectly clear: these birds are growing at an incredibly unnatural rate. To further contextualize this, an undomesticated chicken can live into their late teens or early 20s. A “peeper” chicken can live to be at least ten. I know a “peeper” hen—rescued by a sanctuary but from a farm population hormonally altered and selective bred—who was rescued following Hurricane Katrina, over eight years ago. 42 days is but a fraction of their potential lifespans.
Yet, even those six weeks are miserable. These birds are so unnaturally large that they experience physical impairments that are both painful and frustrating. They cannot support their own weight; often, they cannot walk or even stand. Some will die of dehydration or starvation on farms because they cannot move to their food and water. Chickens have a strong desire to perch, yet their large size makes this natural behavior impossible. Regardless, the farms lack perches. That is why Errol so struggled to perch on my leg. Many will spend their six weeks living trapped in a dark shed with their own excretions. These sheds are the “farms” mass-produced chicken “meat” comes from. The wood-shavings the chickens live on are often not changed through several flocks and excretory ammonia fumes fill the sheds, leading to ammonia burn, which blinds them. They often have sores or get infections from this farm environment. All of this leads to higher rates of food-borne illnesses. Nearly half of store-bought chicken is contaminated with feces and two-thirds harbor salmonella and/or campylobacter. This contamination undoubtedly affects human health and consumer safety, while speaking to the agonies individual birds endure.
The slaughter of chickens is as equally horrific as their lives. They are often transported long distances without air conditioning or heating. In the slaughterhouse, there is no legal requirement that they be unconscious when their throats are slit. Blood slowly drains from their throats. Many, flapping in fear, miss the blade. Following the throat slitting, they head to the defeathering tanks. United States Department of Agriculture records show that each year, millions of chickens are still fully conscious by the time they reach these tanks, where they are then drowned in boiling water.
These chickens face horrors that are hard to fully visualize or understand. Yet, some say this is not worth time or energy to think about or try to change. Some say that chickens are dumb, bred into robots, that they aren’t even conscious of their plight. Science and I both say otherwise. Recent research reveals that chickens are “smarter than toddlers,” showing many of the capabilities of human four-year-olds. Over the summer, The Telegraph reported “Hens are capable of mathematical reasoning and logic, including numeracy, self-control and even basic structural engineering, following research.” This likely comes as little surprise to anyone who has spent time getting to intimately know a chicken outside of a commodifying context. Yet even many farmers will tell you how the bird has their own distinct personality and friendships. Errol is a charismatic snuggler; his brethren are bullies, tricksters, charmers, and sweet-hearts. They are all different and they are all individuals.
Each wing and thigh and breast came from someone. We value the bodies of chickens, but never bother to know their beings. These someones did not deserve their breeding or living conditions. They did not deserve their early slaughter. That someone, like my little buddy Errol, wanted to live.
—Rocky Schwartz ’15 is a science, technology, and society major.