Chickens are descendants of the red and grey junglefowl. Artificial selection created the estimated 400 chicken breeds. Their social interactions and family structure have not much changed from their wild brethren. A flock is still comprised of lead roosters, subordinate males, hens and their chicks. They still have the proclivity to roost up high, scratch and forage for food, and create a nest for their clutch.
However, the two most common types of chickens are true bastardizations of their ancestors. One has been selected for obesity at an early age, the other for excessive and unhealthy levels of egg production.
Breeding and Hatching
The parents of most egg-laying hens, male “egg” chicks and broilers (meat birds) are housed in sheds with one rooster for every 9-11 hens. As many as 10,000 hens and roosters will be housed in a shed with about 1.88-2 square feet per bird (Source). Prior to arriving at the breeder facility, the birds may be beak-trimmed, de-spurred, dubbed (comb cut off on roosters), and sometimes de-toed to prevent aggression. These procedures are generally performed without anesthesia or analgesics.
The birds are fed once a day, with eggs being collected three times a day for transport to a hatchery for incubation. Each year, the end of their first laying cycle, most breeder hens are sent to slaughter and replaced by a new flock of pullets (young hens).
For broiler breeders, producing chicks for the meat industry, are fed a restricted diet to prevent significant weight gain and poor reproductive status. Some facilities engage in skip-a-day feeding regimens, in which birds are not fed a day. This has many welfare concerns (Source), including abnormal behavior and psychological stress. Male broiler roosters are exceedingly aggressive towards each other, hens, and human workers. Part of this is possibly from restricted feeding, strict confinement, inappropriate rooster:hen ratios, and the breeding of birds from aggressive stock (Measuring and auditing broiler welfare, p 26). Aggression from roosters is one of the leading causes of death for breeder hens. In houses with too many roosters, hens are overmounted, suffering from crushing injuries, broken bones, and severe feather loss.
Eggs from both commercial broiler and layer hen breeders are transported to hatcheries. Incubators provide uniform heat to the eggs so they will hatch at the same time. Some facilities have 300,000 eggs. After a 21-day incubation period, chicks hatch. In the wild, they would receive assistance from their mother during hatching process. The hen vocalizes to her offspring throughout incubation. Chicks in incubators at hatcheries hear silence.
Once born, day-old chicks are processed. They are generally vaccinated.
In the egg-industry, male chicks are killed the day they are sexed. It is not profitable to raise males from commercial egg breeders to maturity. It is legal to macerate (grind alive), gas or suffocate male chicks. In the United States, up to 200 million male chicks may be killed annually. If a farm does not incubate eggs themselves, it is almost a guarantee they are purchasing chicks from hatcheries that kill male chicks. This includes caged, cage-free, free-range and even many pasture-based operations.
In the broiler industry, both females and males are hatched and sent to grow-out sheds. It is profitable to raise both sexes to slaughter.
If chicks are destined to egg facilities with high stocking densities, they are beak trimmed at the hatchery. Birds housed in unnatural social settings, like those found on intensive egg farms, exhibit
abnormal behaviors, including misplaced aggression and cannibalism. This is only a result of how they are housed, not the birds themselves.
De-beaking can be performed with a laser, cauterizing knife, scissors, or via electrical current. Even the conservative American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) indicates that this procedure, performed without analgesics or anesthesia, is painful and has welfare concerns, including prolonged suffering (Source).
Hens on cage and cage-free operations are generally always beak-trimmed. Free-range farms that intensively confine birds debeak as well. Small pasture-based operations rarely beak trim.
Both female and male chicks are transported from the hatchery to large sheds. Between 20,000-50,000 chicks may be confined in one building. While each farm is different, many have several sheds on site with hundreds of thousands of birds. On most commercial broiler farms, the birds never go outside.
Abnormal Growth Rate
Chickens raised for their flesh have been artificially selected for a fast growth rate and the expression of a gene linked to obesity (Source).
From 1976 to 1999, the live weight of birds at slaughter increased by 247% to around 5 lbs. (Source) By 2006, that number had increased to 5.47 lbs (Source).
Like obesity in people, there are health consequences to these mutant birds.
One study showed that 27% of “broilers” have difficulty walking (Source). In the United States, that amounts to 2.7 billion birds with leg problems. Approximately 3% are unable to walk – 270 million birds.
These birds have been bred to be obese and, as such, they are susceptible to heart disease, heat stress and other weight-related health problems.
When it was discovered in the 1950s that antibiotics and antimicrobials increased the growth rate of farmed animals, farmers integrated antimicrobials into the animals’ diet. All these antibiotics are given at subtherapeutic levels, meaning at levels not high enough to treat illness but enough to promote growth and, more importantly, increase the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Today, nearly all commercially raised “broiler” chickens are fed antibiotic-laced feed. Antibiotics can still be present in their flesh and excreted nearly intact in their poop (which ends up in our soil and water)2.
When birds reach “market” weight, at around 6-8 weeks of age, human or automated catchers enter the sheds and begin grabbing multiple birds by the legs. Since these birds are morbidly obese, it is not only uncomfortable but potentially fatal to handle them so roughly. Bone breaks are common during catching and transport. Birds must be loaded up into crates at an incredible rate of 1,000-1,500 birds per hour.
Birds are shoved into crates at high stocking densities – these crates prevent birds from standing up and they cannot move around normally. The birds can be transported up to 28-hours without food or water and in any weather condition.
When they reach the slaughterhouse, birds are roughly handled, carried by their legs, further injuring their bodies. They are shackled and hung upside down on the processing line. The assembly lines can process between 4,500-8,000 birds per hour. That is 36,000-64,000 birds in an 8-hour shift.
Most poultry plants run birds through an electrified water bath. Birds may receive electric shocks prior to entering the bath. When the current is too low or the machines are not properly monitored, birds are rendered immobile but conscious or may not be stunned at all. Some birds miss the bath entirely.
Some facilities used controlled atmosphere killing (CAK) or gassing to kill birds. CAK avoids some of the handling issues – birds must be loaded into crates but not unloaded conscious onto the assembly line. It is rarely used in the United States and generally the cheapest gas is used – carbon dioxide. CO2 induces anxiety and aversive behaviors in birds. Improper gassing can occur when equipment is not properly maintained.
Chickens are exempt from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the only federal law governing how animals must be treated at slaughterhouses. At every single federally inspected slaughterhouse, protected species are supposed to be stunned unconscious or insensible to pain before their throats are cut. But not chickens. This means that billions of birds can be rendered immobile with electrified water baths, but not insensible to pain. That is, they experience the fear and trauma of the cutting blades while fully conscious.
Between 8.9-9.3 billion chickens are slaughtered annually.
95% of the 283 million hens in the United States are housed in battery cages. These are wire-metal cages, sometimes tiered as high as seven, in which 5-8 birds are housed for the duration of the laying period. Birds cannot stretch their wings and can only barely turn around. Each hen has less space than a standard piece of paper.
Between 60,000-100,000 hens will be housed in one shed and most farms have multiple buildings on site.
Cages increase abnormal or stereotypic behaviors, like vacuum dust-bathing and pecking/cannibalism.
To reduce the spread of disease and increase egg production, hens are fed an antibiotic-laced feed.
Cage-free & Free-range
Even in cage-free operations, birds are still de-beaked and have very little space to roam. Cage-free operations house 10,000-50,000 hens in one building. Most do not have windows.
There is no legal definition of cage-free or free-range. A “free-range” operation house 60,000 hens in one building and provide them a 6’ x 6’ outdoor enclosure between 8:00-8:15 am every second Tuesday. Most free-range operations still de-beak the hens. Less than 1% of hens are housed on free-range or pasture-based operations.
And, of course, all male chicks are killed the day they are sexed. Free range, cage free, caged, it does not matter. Hens are all killed when they are 1.5-2 years of age, even though they can live 10-15 years.
The breed most commonly used in egg production – the white Leghorn – has been genetically selected for high egg output, up to 300 eggs a year. Wild or feral chickens produce 20-50 eggs a year, while even other traditional egg producing breeds produce 120-160 eggs per year. On most farms, where birds are housed indoors without access to normal light, chickens are conned into thinking it’s always spring. Indoor lights are on for 12-16 hours a day during peak lay. In a cruel twist of nature, molting is induced in these birds through feed withdrawal. Approximately 75% of hens are forced molted. In a natural environment, hens undergo a molting process in which they shed all their feathers and prepare their bodies and reproductive system for the next laying cycle. On farms, though, hens are starved for up to two weeks and forced to molt.
The result of unnatural egg production includes osteoporosis and bone breaks. Up to 30% of hens in the egg-laying industry suffer from osteoporosis.
Hens are killed far before their natural lifespan, at the young age of 1.5-2 years. They still produce a large number of eggs but not enough for producers to consider it economical. So, every year, more than 150 million hens are killed in the United States. In some states, like California, hens are killed on site and composted – no slaughterhouse will take them. With so many “broiler” chickens available for consumption, the meager flesh of egg-laying hens is not profitable. Most of it is sold to be fed to school children or military personnel.
Like “broiler” chickens, hens raised for their eggs do not need to be stunned unconscious before their throats are cut.
What You Can Do:
Reduce your reliance on chicken meat and eggs by seeking alternatives.
There are plenty commercially available chicken meat alternatives.
Replace eggs in baking by using Ener-G egg replacer, banana, applesauce or flaxseed. Use ¼ cup crushed banana for one egg; ¼-1/2 cup applesauce for each egg. For binding, use Ener-G or mix 1 Tbsp flaxseed to ¼ cup of water boil or blend until gel-like. Agar agar flakes can also be used for thickening or binding.