By the numbers, birds are by far the most abused type of animal in the United States. An estimated 9 billion chickens are killed for their meat every year, while another 300 million languish in tiny cages producing our country’s eggs. All birds —egg-laying hens, meat chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and others—are excluded from all federal animal protection laws.
Two Types of Chickens
Many people do not realize that the breed of chicken used for modern egg production is different than the breed used for meat production. If you put them next to each other, they look almost nothing alike! Each has been strategically bred for hyper-production: egg-laying hens for high egg volume, and “meat” chickens for maximum breast meat. Both types suffer from severe physical problems brought on by this genetic manipulation.
- More than 90% of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in enclosures called “battery cages” that provide less space, per bird, than a regular 8.5"-by-11" sheet of paper.
- In recent years, studies conducted around the world have shown that chickens are quite intelligent, with complex cognitive, communicative and social abilities.
- The European Union banned battery cages in 1999 (allowing a 12-year phase out).
- Because they produce too many eggs, today’s factory farmed hens suffer from serious calcium deficiencies; by the end of their short lives, many have broken bones.
Nearly all 300 million egg-laying hens in the U.S. live on factory farms in long, windowless sheds containing rows of stacked “battery cages.” Up to 10 hens are packed together in one wire cage roughly the size of a file drawer.
The frustration of living in such tight quarters sometimes leads to fighting. To lessen this problem, factory farms burn or slice off a portion of each hen’s beak (without painkillers). Hens who become sick do not receive veterinary care—at best, they are euthanized; at worst, ignored and left to die slowly.
When a hen’s egg production drops due to age, some farms will withhold proper nutrition for up to two weeks to shock the bird’s body into a final laying cycle. Once this “forced molting” phase is over, a hen is worth very little. Some are killed on-farm while others are sent to slaughter, their battered bodies used for food scraps.
Where do egg-laying hens come from? A side-industry exists just to breed them. Only female chicks will grow up to lay eggs, but male chicks are born just as often. There is no market for the male chicks, and they are the wrong breed to raise for meat—so shortly after they hatch, they are killed by grinding, gassing, crushing or suffocation.
Experience For Yourself: Virtual Battery Cage
Use your mouse to navigate around the battery cage and see what life looks like for an egg-laying hen.
Chickens Raised for Meat
- Meat chickens today grow over three times faster than their pre-World War II ancestors.
- Chickens can live to 10 years old, but those on factory farms are usually killed by six weeks old.
Each year, the U.S. raises approximately 9 billion chickens for meat. Nearly all meat chickens are raised in factory farms, where they live in large sheds containing 20,000 chickens or more. The chickens live crammed together on the shed floor, which is covered in litter (a shredded, absorbent material). Because they live in their own waste, high ammonia levels irritate and burn their eyes, throats and skin.
Modern factory-farmed chickens look very little like their wild chicken ancestors. Thanks to selective breeding—combined with low-dose antibiotics, excessive feeding and inadequate exercise—factory-farmed meat chickens grow unnaturally quickly and disproportionately. While their breasts grow large to meet market demand, their skeletons and organs lag behind. Many suffer heart failure, trouble breathing, leg weakness and chronic pain. Some cannot support their own weight and become crippled, unable to reach food and water.
To keep them eating and growing, factory farms restrict chickens’ sleep by keeping the lights on most of the time. As they grow, meat chickens become crowded together, jockeying for space. This constant interaction makes sleep even harder. As chickens die, their bodies are sometimes left among the living, adding to the stress and unhygienic conditions.
For every chicken raised for meat, two parent chickens, known as “breeders,” were kept in a breeding facility in conditions similar to those of meat chickens. “Breeders” are fed severely restricted diets to keep them from gaining too much weight. This helps them live longer so they may breed more chicks. As a result, breeding chickens live in a state of constant hunger.
- Between 1965 and 2000, the weight of the average turkey raised for food in the U.S. increased by 57%.
- Factory-farmed turkeys have the innate urge to perch and fly, but are too large to do so.
- Although turkeys can live to 10 years old, they are killed for food at just a few months old.
Almost all of the 300 million turkeys raised for food in the U.S. each year come from factory farms. Turkeys are housed in groups on the floors of long sheds where they are denied fresh air, sunshine and pasture. They are forced to breathe dangerously high levels of ammonia emanating from their own waste.
Modern factory-farmed turkeys look very little like their wild turkeys ancestors. For one, they disproportionately breast-heavy (a result of genetic selection), reflecting a consumer preference for breast meat. They also grow extremely quickly, largely due to selective breeding. Their unnaturally fast and disproportionate growth causes turkeys extraordinary suffering, including pain and labor in simply walking or breathing.
Turkeys’ bodies have become so unnaturally disproportionate that they can no longer mate with one another. They are artificially inseminated and bred year-round, damaging their bodies that were only meant to reproduce once per year.
For every turkey raised for meat, two parent turkeys, known as “breeders,” were kept in a breeding facility in conditions similar to those of the “meat” turkeys. “Breeders” are fed severely restricted diets to keep them from gaining too much weight. This helps them live longer so they may produce more babies. As a result, breeding turkeys live in a state of constant hunger.