Chickens are arguably the most abused animal on the planet. In the United States, more than 7 billion chickens are killed for their flesh each year, and 452 million hens are used for their eggs. Ninety-nine percent of these animals spend their lives in total confinement—from the moment they hatch until the day they are killed.
More chickens are raised and killed for food than all other land animals combined, yet not a single federal law protects chickens from abuse—even though two-thirds of Americans say that they would support such a law.
Many people do not realize that chickens are inquisitive, interesting animals who are as intelligent as mammals such as cats, dogs, and even some primates. They are very social and like to spend their days together, scratching for food, taking dust baths, roosting in trees, and lying in the sun.
Dr. Chris Evans, administrator of the animal behavior lab at Australia’s Macquarie University, says, “As a trick at conferences, I sometimes list [chickens’] attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys.”
But chickens raised on factory farms each year in the U.S. never have the chance to do anything that is natural or important to them. A baby chick on a factory farm will never be allowed contact with his or her parents, let alone be raised by them. These chickens are deprived of the chance to take dust baths, feel the sun on their backs, breathe fresh air, roost in trees, or build nests.
THE BROILER CHICKEN INDUSTRY
Chickens raised for their flesh, called “broilers” by the chicken industry, spend their entire lives in filthy sheds with tens of thousands of other birds, where intense crowding and confinement lead to outbreaks of disease. They are bred and drugged to grow so large so quickly that their legs and organs can’t keep up, making heart attacks, organ failure, and crippling leg deformities common. Many become crippled under their own weight and eventually die because they can’t reach the water nozzles. When they are only 6 or 7 weeks old, they are crammed into cages and trucked to slaughter.
Chickens are slammed into small crates and trucked to the slaughterhouse through all weather extremes. Hundreds of millions suffer broken wings and legs from rough handling, and millions die from the stress of the journey.
At the slaughterhouse, their legs are forced into shackles, their throats are cut, and they are immersed in scalding-hot water to remove their feathers. Because they have no federal legal protection (birds are exempt from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act), almost all chickens are still conscious when their throats are cut, and many are literally scalded to death in the feather-removal tanks after missing the throat cutter.
Birds exploited for their eggs, called “laying hens” by the industry, are crammed together in wire cages where they don’t even have enough room to spread their wings. Because the hens are crammed so closely together, these normally clean animals are forced to urinate and defecate on one another. The birds have part of their sensitive beaks cut off so that they won’t peck each other out of frustration created by the unnatural confinement. After their bodies are exhausted and their production drops, they are shipped to slaughter, generally to be turned into chicken soup or cat or dog food because their flesh is too bruised and battered to be used for much else.
Because the male chicks of egg-laying breeder hens are unable to lay eggs and are not bred to produce excessive flesh for the meat industry, they are killed. Every year, more than 100 million of these young birds are ground up alive or tossed into bags to suffocate.
Leading animal behavior scientists from around the globe know that chickens are inquisitive and interesting animals whose cognitive abilities are in some cases more advanced than those of cats, dogs, and even some primates.
Like all animals, chickens love their families and value their own lives. The social nature of chickens means that they are always looking out for their families and for other chickens in their group. People who have spent time with chickens know that they have complex social structures, adept communication skills, and distinct personalities, just as we do.
They can complete complex mental tasks, learn from watching each other, demonstrate self-control, worry about the future, and even have cultural knowledge that is passed from generation to generation.
Chickens comprehend cause-and-effect relationships and understand that objects still exist even after they are hidden from view. In this respect, they are more cognitively advanced than small human children.
When in their natural surroundings, not confined to factory farms, chickens form complex social hierarchies, also known as “pecking orders,” and every chicken knows his or her place on the social ladder, remembering the faces and ranks of more than 100 other birds. Scientists agree that chickens’ complex social structures and good memories are undeniable signs of advanced intelligence comparable to that of mammals.
People who have spent time with chickens know that each bird has a different personality that often relates to his or her place in the pecking order. Some are gregarious and fearless, while others are more shy and watchful; some enjoy human company, while others are standoffish or even a bit aggressive. Just like dogs, cats, and humans, each chicken is an individual with a distinct personality.
Researchers have also found that chickens have a cultural knowledge that they pass down from generation to generation. In one study at Bristol University, chickens were fed a mixture of yellow and blue corn kernels. The blue kernels were tainted with chemicals that made the birds feel sick, and they quickly learned to avoid the blue corn entirely. When these hens hatched chicks, yellow and blue corn was spread around the farm (this time harmless), and the mother hens remembered that the blue corn had previously made them sick, so they carefully steered their young away from it.
Their communication skills are just as impressive. They have more than 30 types of vocalizations to distinguish between threats that are approaching by land and those that are approaching over water, and a mother hen begins to teach these calls to her chicks before they even hatch. She clucks softly to them while sitting on the eggs, and they chirp back to her and to each other from inside their shells.