When I asked one poultry producer whether he was worried about the increasing public concern for farm animal welfare, he told me, “They’re just stupid birds.”
This attitude underlies the way chickens are treated in the poultry industry today. “They’re just stupid birds,” so there’s no limit on how cruelly you can treat them. People with a little more sensitivity, however, look at it differently.
Bernard Rollin, the Colorado State University expert on animal farming, notes that,
Contrary to what one may hear from the industry, chickens are not mindless, simple automata but are complex behaviorally, do quite well in learning, show a rich social organization, and have a diverse repertoire of calls. Anyone who has kept barnyard chickens also recognizes their significant differences in personality….There are few more vivid and classic bucolic images than chickens pecking contentedly in a barnyard…..conversely, few images in agriculture are more grating to common sense than chickens squeezed into small cages.
In U.S. egg production, seven or eight hens are typically crammed in each 18-inch-by-20-inch cage (McDonald’s pledged in late 2000 to reduce this to five per cage). This provides individual birds with less space than they need simply to lie down. As far as spreading their wings, forget it. the wingspan of a chicken is about 30 inches. There’d barely be room for a hen to spread her wings if the cage were twice as big, and if she were alone in it.
Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Switzerland, however, it became illegal in the 1990’s to keep chickens in cages. In the United States, sadly, the practice is not only still legal, but standard. The industry tells us that this is not a problem.
Chickens are naturally a flocking animal, so the questions of the space they need is irrelevant.
(Pamphlet put out by Franck Perdue, one of the largest confinement chicken producers in the United States)
Similarly, a McDonald’s senior vice president testifies during the McLibel trail that chickens in these cages are “pretty comfortable.”
The truth is a little different. When chickens are crowded together this tightly, their innate sense of a pecking order is obliterated. As a result, they become violent and sometimes peck each other to death. The industry responds with a procedure commonly called “debeaking,” although some in the industry prefer to call it “beak trimming.” The process consists of routinely cutting off one-third of each bird’s beak so that they won’t kill each other in their frustration at being crammed into tiny cages with no possible outlet for their innate drives and instincts.
Although McDonald’s implied in 2000 that the company was banning debeaking, this was not the case. The company was actually only calling for the debeaking procedure to be done more carefully, so that the hens could still be able to eat. If implemented this would be an improvement, because the procedure often leaves the birds so mutilated that they cannot eat properly. Some starve to death because they cannot eat at all.
But McDonald’s proposed changes still did little to reduce the conditions that drive the chickens so mad that they attack each other viciously in the first place. The industry is happy with what it euphemistically calls “beak trimming” because it renders the birds incapable of doing much harm to company property–in this case, the other birds.
More than 99 percent of the hens who lay the eggs eaten in the United States are debeaked and kept in cages where the excrement from the birds in the upper tiers collects above them, often falling through onto their heads.
Another problem the industry runs into is that the bird’s toes and claws often become permanently entangled in the wire on which they’re forced to stand. The producers typically handle this difficulty by simply cutting off the birds’ toes and claws.
Of course, the industry would have you believe that all this is done for the animals’ own good.
Egg-laying hens may have their beaks trimmed….to avoid injury to each other as a result of the bird’s natural cannibalistic tendencies. Claws may be trimmed to avoid injury…..all these practices…..ensure the required results are achieved in the most humane, efficient manner. (Animal Industry Foundation).
What’s not said is that chickens’ “cannibalistic tendencies’ arise only when they are crammed together in totally unnatural conditions.
In an ad for Paramount Chickens, a smiling Pearl Bailey tells us the company looks after their chickens “just like a mother hen.” This is a remarkable statement. How many mother hens have ever been known to cut the beaks, toes and claws off their chicks and force them to live under such oppressive conditions that they are driven to peck each other to death?
When egg production declines, the hens are often subjected to a process called “forced Molting,” in which they are starved and denied water. This shocks the hens into losing their feathers. Those that survive start a new laying cycle.