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February 2006
Making Chickens Count
By Lauren Ornelas


Photos Courtesy of Viva!USA

If I asked you to think of 10 birds in the sky, could you picture them? How about 100? Twenty-three million?

What would you say if 23 million innocent lives were being taken every single day?

Unfortunately, that’s the grim reality. Every day in the U. S., 23 million chickens are killed for their flesh. On Viva!USA’s website, we have a running counter of chickens killed. In the blink of an eye, the death toll rises by the hundreds—about 269 per second. Of the 10 billion land animals killed for food in the U.S., more than nine billion are chickens.

Why does our society kill so many chickens? In part, it’s because chicken flesh has been sold as a “health food”—even though it has nearly the same high concentrations of artery-clogging cholesterol and saturated fat as beef.

But there’s another factor at work: even some compassionate people think chickens don’t count. When people have given up eating cows and pigs, most turn to the chicken. The theory is simple: chickens aren’t very smart, so it’s okay to eat them. But that’s wrong on both counts.

In February of last year, a paper published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience revealed that birds are much closer to mammals in cognitive ability than anyone ever imagined. In July, a study published in Animal Behavior reported that chickens live in the present and can anticipate the future and demonstrate self-control.

But does reasoning ability even matter? The fact that these animals can—and do—suffer should be enough to make us stop eating them.

While conducting investigations for Viva!USA, I have gone into farms and seen ducks, pigs, dairy cows, turkeys and chickens (including both hens being raised for eggs and so-called ‘broiler’ chickens). On every farm, I have seen horrific overcrowding, but there is something incredibly shocking about entering a shed full of 36,000 ‘broiler’ chickens—and seeing 27 more sheds in the distance. That’s what happened when I walked into sheds owned by Foster Farms, one of the largest poultry producers in the country. We saw literally thousands upon thousands of birds.

But despite these vast numbers, it’s important to remember one thing: each of these birds is a feeling individual who endures unspeakable suffering on these farms.

Death on the Farm
What does a typical chicken farm look like? Your first view is row after row of industrial sheds. Most people would never imagine that these innocuous, sometimes windowless buildings hold living beings, but each one contains thousands of birds in crowded, filthy conditions.

When we opened such sheds on a cold winter day, we were startled by the oppressive heat and smell inside. Only a few small lights broke the darkness, and a combination of dust and feathers filled the air. In some places, conditions were so bad it was hard to take photographs—let alone see.

What we could see was horrific. Dead birds littered the floors, some looking as if they had been trampled or crushed. Little chicks without feathers had unnatural bulges growing out of their bodies, and many appeared sick or injured as they stumbled around. In other sheds, many of the larger birds were unable to walk because they had succumbed to the weight of their bodies.

Modern chickens have been bred to be unnaturally heavy and suffer from leg and skeletal disorders as a result. Legs sprawled beneath them, they stared around with eyes full of confusion and fear. It’s a sight that has still not faded from our memory even now: watching the fear in their eyes as they struggled to walk and their inability to control their own bodies.

The Slaughterhouse
Using cranes, workers lift stacks of cages full of chickens from the transport trucks. This is the first time these curious animals have ever felt open air—or seen anything outside their miserable sheds.

These slaughterhouses turn curious little birds into meat that people eat. As these beautiful creatures are killed, the air fills with a smell that turns your stomach. At almost every slaughterhouse we saw chickens who were attempting to escape. But there is total disregard for these animals who want so desperately to live, and at the end of the line, dumpsters are filled with the ‘waste’ from the slaughter process: chicken feet recently removed from the birds—none of whom were able to run away.

Chickens, like other animals raised for food, are excluded from the protections of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The federal government sets no rules or standards for how these animals should be housed, fed, or treated on farms. And while the Humane Slaughter Act is poorly enforced on behalf of the pigs, cows, sheep, goats, and other mammals it is supposed to protect, birds are specifically exempt. Chickens are fully conscious when their throats are slit and often die in the boiling water of the feather-removal tank. According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, approximately 2.8 million broiler chickens were boiled alive in 2002. Because chickens are unprotected by the Humane Slaughter Act, this is perfectly legal.

Injured Workers, Damaged Environment
Chickens are hardly the only victims of this cruel system. In order to cut costs, Foster Farms attempted to double or triple workers’ health care contributions at the world’s largest chicken slaughterhouse. In 1997, over 2,000 Foster Farms workers went on strike to protest the increase. More recently, workers again went on a number of strikes to protest unfair labor practices. One TV station interviewed a woman who had worked for the company for 40 years—and still made just $9.40 an hour.

According to one worker, who hung the chickens on the moving belt at the slaughterhouse, he averaged 24 chickens a minute. Such high-speed production leads to worker injury and animal cruelty. As of 2004, both Foster Farms Poultry and its sister company, Foster Farms Dairy, have had 44 accidents and 100 violations in the last 13 years and been fined more than $73,000, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The environment also suffers. In 1998, Foster Farms in California pled guilty in U.S. District Court for negligently discharging approximately 11 million gallons of storm water polluted with decomposed chicken manure into the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge between December 1994 and April 1995, violating the Clean Water Act.

The company also pled guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act by discharging polluted water, eliminating the vernal pool tadpole shrimp, a species protected under the Act.

Taking a Stand
Chickens are an animal many of us don’t really have the opportunity to spend time with, so we don’t see their varied personalities like we do with dogs and cats. However, if you hold these precious little birds, you realize how fragile they are. To me, the more fragile a being is, the more careful we need to be with them.

It’s time for us to take a stand for the chickens!

Lauren Ornelas is Campaigns Director of Viva!USA, which has materials available for activists to distribute on behalf of chickens and other farmed animals. To learn more, contact or (530) 759-8482.



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