Of all animals raised for food, chickens likely have it the worst.
Chickens raised for meat are bred to grow at astonishing rates. Back in the 1940s, it took nearly twenty weeks to grow a chicken to market-weight. Today’s birds are slaughtered at just six weeks, yet are already more than twice the size of a twenty-week old chicken from the 1940s. Today’s chickens suffer from a variety of maladies brought on by their rapid growth. Many birds develop crippling leg abnormalities. Some birds, at just a few weeks of age, suffer cardiac arrest caused by the strain this growth places on their hearts.
Chicken slaughter is notoriously inhumane. Poultry are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act. As a result, there are absolutely no federal laws in place to protect the more than eight billion chickens slaughtered in America each year. Practically all chickens are slaughtered with a mechanical blade, on slaughter lines that can kill up to 175 birds each minute. Predictably, the blade can miss or improperly cut their throats, leading to an excruciating death when these birds are dropped alive into tanks of scalding water intended to remove feathers from dead chickens.
Since chickens are tiny compared to cows or pigs, they yield a pathetically small amount of flesh for each animal killed. In fact, to get same amount of chicken that you’d get from a single steer you’d have to slaughter more than 220 birds.
While chickens bred for meat suffer in a multitude of ways, it’s egg-laying hens who likely experience the greatest mistreatment of any farm animal.
Outside of California, the overwhelming majority of American hens are raised in “battery cages”—wire-bottomed cages where each bird gets approximately the floorspace of an iPad. The birds spend their entire lives with insufficient room to freely move about or even spread their wings. This extreme crowding obviously exacts a steep psychological toll, so producers commonly sear off the ends of the hens’ beaks so they won’t peck one another to death.
Imagine spending an entire lifetime alternating between standing on wire and sleeping pressed into it. It takes a hen more than 24 hours kept under these conditions to lay just one egg, which likely means that conventional eggs probably contain more misery per mouthful than any other food. Even though they could potentially live more than five years, most hens are slaughtered at about eighteen months due to declining egg yields.
Just as meat chickens grow much faster than birds of previous generations, today’s layer hens produce vastly more eggs than traditional chickens. This in turn brings on all manner of serious health consequences. Frequent egg-laying means that the hens are constantly losing calcium to make egg shells. Older hens therefore commonly suffer osteoporosis-related maladies, with bone breaks often occurring when the birds are gathered for slaughter.
There are numerous other health problems associated with a modern hen’s high egg yields. Probably the worst is a prolapse, which occurs when the egg adheres to the hen’s ovaries. The inevitable consequence of this is that the ovaries are ejected along with the egg, causing a protracted and agonizing death from blood loss and infection. The best evidence indicates that each year more than two million of hens die in the USA from prolapses.
Since layer houses—which commonly contain 20,000 birds—are frequently unattended, hens are can be trapped for months on end with the decaying corpses of birds that have died prematurely. Over the years there has been one undercover video investigation after another spotlighting the egg industry’s brutalities.
If all this wasn’t enough, let’s not forget the fates of the male counterparts of each layer hen. These males are of course useless to the egg industry, but they’re also unwanted by the meat industry since they grow too slowly to be profitably raised. In consequence, they’re discarded within a day or two of hatching—typically by being dropped alive and unanesthetized into grinders.