Care to guess what the world’s most abused animal is?
In terms of sheer numbers and the routine suffering inflicted on them, it’s got to be the chicken.
The life of a broiler chicken is short. Though they can live for seven or eight years in healthy conditions, modern industry has perfected a six week lifecycle between hatching and slaughter. Chicks reach their adult weight many times faster than they do under natural conditions, thanks to optimised diets and selective breeding. Because the growth rates are so fast, heart and lung problems are common – broiler chickens essentially have baby hearts in adult bodies. Many are lame as well, unable to support their own weight.
These chickens never see the outdoors, and spend their short lives in large sheds where each chicken commands less than a square foot of floor space. When they reach the right size, they are hoovered into crates (yes, hoovered, and this is actually better than the old way of catching them by hand) and transported to the abattoir.
I’ll spare you the details of how chickens are killed. Suffice to say that guidelines that cover the humane slaughter of animals are harder to apply to birds, and in many parts of the world there are no rules that prevent them going through the process fully conscious.
Chickens raised for egg-laying don’t fare any better. The EU is phasing out battery hens, but in reality that means marginally fancier cages. Battery cages remain the standard for most chickens in the egg industry. Breeders raising laying hens want different characteristics from their birds than farmers raising them for meat, which means there is no use for the male chicks. They are gassed, and around the world hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed this way, in both free range and battery farms.
Considering it is standard practice around the world, apparently this is not of concern to the majority of us. It should be, of course. If it is within our power to prevent an animal from suffering, there are very few who would argue that we have no obligation to act. Nevertheless, it continues. Ignorance and the pull of cheap supermarket meat is too powerful.
Unfortunately, calling for vegetarianism is not going to be sufficient. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, eating meat is aspirational for the world’s rising middle classes. It’s a non-negotiable part of many people’s diets, and nobody likes to be told what they can and can’t have on their dinner plates.
The reason I’m writing about it today is that in that post on the environmental impact of meat, I highlighted how beef stands out as so much worse than chicken or pork. If we want to take one step towards a healthier attitude to meat, cutting out beef would be a good one. However, as reader Jason Jorgensen pointed out, it would be a tragedy if we switched from beef to chicken and ended up eating more poultry. In trying to do the right thing by the climate, we would add to the already massive weight of animal misery.
Environmental issues often play against each other in this way, and there’s no easy solution. Where it is available, we should always buy higher welfare chicken. Eat less and better – maybe don’t bother with supermarket chicken mayo sandwiches or fast food nuggets. Keep up the pressure through organisations like Compassion in World Farming. If you have space, keep your own chickens and you’ll know exactly where your eggs come from. It would be great if cultured meat and eggs prove commercially viable. Choosing to go vegetarian or vegan is a great personal choice. We can all do something to improve the condition of the world’s most abused animals.