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Chickens and Hens


With a growing number of consumers switching from red meat to poultry, the chicken and turkey industries are booming. In addition to selling a growing quantity of poultry meat to consumers in the U.S., poultry companies are also benefiting from expanding markets around the world.

Record numbers of chickens and turkeys are being raised and killed for meat in the U.S. every year. Nearly ten billion chickens, and half a billion turkeys, are being hatched in the U.S. every year. These birds are typically crowded by the thousand into huge factory-like warehouses where they can barely move. Chickens are given less than half a square foot of space per bird while turkeys are each given less than three square feet. Both chickens and turkeys have the end of their beaks cut off, and turkeys also have their toes clipped. All of these mutilations are performed without anaesthesia, and they are done in order to reduce injuries which result when stressed birds are driven to fighting.

Today's meat chickens have been genetically altered to grow twice as fast, and twice as large as their ancestors. Pushed beyond their biological limits, hundreds of millions of chickens die every year before reaching slaughter weight at 6 weeks of age. An industry journal explains broilers [chickens] now grow so rapidly that the heart and lungs are not developed well enough to support the remainder of the body, resulting in congestive heart failure and tremendous death losses. Modern meat type chickens also experience crippling leg disorders, as their legs are not capable of supporting their abnormally heavy bodies. Confined in unhealthy factory farms, the birds also succumb to heat prostration, infectious disease, and cancer.

Chickens and turkeys are taken to the slaughterhouse in crates stacked on the back of trucks. The birds are either pulled from the crates, or the crates are lifted off the truck, often with a crane or forklift, and then the birds are dumped onto a conveyor belt. As the birds are unloaded, some fall onto the ground instead of landing on the assemblyline conveyor belt. Slaughterhouse workers intent upon 'processing' thousands of birds every hour, don't have the time nor the inclination to pick up individuals who fall through the cracks. Sometimes the birds die after being crushed by machinery or vehicles operating near the unloading area, while in other cases, they may die of starvation or exposure after days without receiving their basic needs.

Once inside the slaughterhouse, fully conscious birds are hung by their feet from metal shackles on a moving rail. The first station on most poultry slaughterhouse assembly lines is the stunning tank, where the birds' heads are submerged in an electrified bath of water. Although poultry is specifically excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act which requires stunning, the practice is common because it immobilizes the birds and expedites assembly line killing.

Stunning procedures are not monitored, and they are often inadequate. Poultry slaughterhouses commonly set the electrical current lower than what is required to render the birds unconscious because of concerns that too much electricity would damage the carcass and diminish its value. The result is that birds are immobilized but are still capable of feeling pain, or they emerge from the stunning tank still conscious.

After passing through the stunning tank, the birds' throats are slashed, usually by a mechanical blade, and blood begins rushing out of their bodies. Inevitably, the blade misses some birds who then proceed to the next station on the assembly line, the scalding tank. Here they are submerged in boiling hot water. Birds missed by the killing blade are boiled alive. This occurs so commonly, affecting millions of birds every year, that the industry has a term for these birds. They are called "redskins."


Approximately 300 million egg laying hens in the U.S. are confined in battery cages -- small wire cages stacked in tiers and lined up in rows in huge warehouses. The USDA recommends giving each hen four inches of 'feeder space,' which means the agency would advise packing 4 hens in a cage just 16 inches wide. The birds cannot stretch their wings or legs, and they cannot fulfill normal behavioral patterns or social needs. Constantly rubbing against the wire cages, they suffer from severe feather loss, and their bodies are covered with bruises and abrasions.

Practically all laying hens have part of their beaks cut off in order to reduce injuries resulting from excessive pecking, an aberrant behavior which occurs when the confined hens are bored and frustrated. De-beaking is a painful procedure which involves cutting through bone, cartilage, and soft tissue.

Laying more than 250 eggs per year each, laying hens' bodies are severely taxed. They suffer from "fatty liver syndrome" when their liver cells, which work overtime to produce the fat and protein for egg yolks, accumulate extra fat. They also suffer from what the industry calls 'cage layer fatgue,' and many die of egg bound when their bodies are too weak to pass another egg.

Osteporosis is another common ailment afflicting egg laying hens as the birds to lose more calcium to form egg shells than they can assimilate from their diets. One industry journal (Feedstuffs) explains, "...the laying hen at peak eggshell cannot absorb enough calcium from her diet..." While another (Lancaster Farming) states, "... a hen will use a quantity of calcium for yearly egg production that is greater than her entire skeleton by 30-fold or more." Inadequate calcium contrbutes to broken bones, paralysis, and death.

After one year in egg production, the birds, are classified as 'spent hens', and sent off to slaughter. They usually end up in soups, pot pies, or similar low grade chicken meat products where their bodies can be shredded to hide the bruises from consumers. The hens' brittle, calcium-depleted bones often shatter during handling and/or at the slaughterhouse.

With a growing supply of broiler chickens keeping slaughterhouses busy, egg producers have had to find new ways to dispose of spent hens. One entrepreneur has developed the Jet-Pro system to turn spent hens into animal feed. It is described in Feedstuffs, "Company trucks would enter layer operations, pick up the birds, and grind them up, on site, in a portable grinder... it (the ground up hens) would go to Jet-Pro's new extruder-texturizer, the " Pellet Pro."

In some cases, especially if the cost of replacement hens is high, the hens may be force molted. This process involves starving the hens for up to 18 days, keeping them in the dark, and denying them water to shock their bodies into another egg laying cycle. The birds may lose more than 25% of their body weight during the molt, and it is common for between 5% and 10% to die.

For every egg laying hen confined in a battery cage, there is a male chick who was killed at the hatchery. Because egg laying chicken breeds have been selected exclusively for maximum egg producton, they don't grow fast enough or large enough to be raised profitably for meat. Therefore, male chicks of egg laying breeds are of no economic value. They are literally discarded on the day they hatch - usually by the least expensive and most convenient means available. They may be thrown in trash cans where they are suffocated or crushed under the weight of others.

A common method used to dispose of unwanted male chicks is grinding them up alive. This method can result in unspeakable horrors as a research scientist described, "Even after twenty seconds, there were only partly damaged animals with whole skulls." In other words, fully conscious chicks were partially ground up. Eyewitness accounts at commercial hatcheries indicate similar horrors with chicks being slowly dismembered on augers carrying them towards a trash bin or manure spreader.

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