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The Birds We Consume

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Author 3393
Message Larry Parker
Much of the media's attention has focused recently on the debate surrounding Chicago's foie gras ban. Most surprising to me in all this is how such a large number of restaurant owners, chefs, and consumers seem to be so devoid of compassion for the animals in question. Spouting pompous phrases concerning their own rights and freedoms, these self-indulgent people appear to possess a seriously distorted sense of priority. Their arguments even take on a sinister aspect when we consider that what's at stake is merely the satisfying of one's appetite for an unnecessary delicacy.

Up to now, this series has only dealt with the factory farm atrocities inflicted on mammals (pigs, cows, and calves), and has shown that the lives these creatures endure can at times exceed our most horrific imaginings. So much so, that one might easily conclude there could be no greater degree of animal cruelty still left to be discovered. Regretfully, however, this is not the case, and even the torments so far described must take back seat to those of the industry's feathered populations - the chickens, the ducks, and the geese.


Chickens bred for their meat are known as "broiler" or "roaster" chickens. The cycle of suffering for these creatures begins with their mothers, referred to as "breeder" chickens. While still very young, breeder chickens are inducted into life by having their beaks sheared off with a hot knife, a very painful procedure performed without anesthesia and oftentimes resulting in disfigurement or chronic discomfort. Raised in filthy sheds and kept in intensive confinement, the chickens rarely if ever see the light of day and are never allowed to engage in natural or instinctive behaviors. Moreover, for their entire lives they're maintained on a near-starvation diet resulting in a constant state of anxiety and frustration. The reasoning behind this is to prevent them from growing too quickly since their flock has been bred for accelerated growth; and it's the broiler chicken, not the breeder chicken, which the industry wants to fatten up. So on behalf of her offspring, the Mother is condemned to a life of deprivation.

No sooner are they hatched then her chicks are likewise met with a rude awakening. Literally "poured" down mobile sliding ramps by the thousands, these newborns are crammed together into holding pens to await their initiation into hell - a painful debeaking, exactly as was performed on their mothers. The chicks are then crowded together in long industrial sheds known as "poultry houses" or "grower houses", where as many as 40,000 birds will co-exist under one roof. Here they're packed so densely they barely have enough room to walk, and the resulting stress often causes the chicks to attack one another out of frustration - hence the debeaking.

Sanitary practices in grower sheds are literally nonexistent. The chickens spend their entire lives standing in litter that's infested with their own feces, causing the air to turn thick with the smell of ammonia, which in turn mixes with an ever present haze of dust and feathers. Unable to escape this stifling atmosphere, many of the chickens suffer from bronchitis, cancer, heat prostration, weakened immune systems, and "ammonia burn" (a painful eye condition oftentimes resulting in loss of sight). The virulent bacteria known as salmonella, which causes food poisoning in humans, is also widespread. In an attempt to keep as many chickens as possible alive in these disease-ridden conditions, the industry responds in much the same way as it does with pigs and cows, by simply administering increased dosages of antibiotics.

But the living conditions in grower houses are only half the story. Scientifically bred for enhanced tissue growth in the breast and thigh areas, and with the addition of specialized drugs, the birds rapidly swell to full proportion, reaching their market weight of 3-1/2 pounds in just 6 or 7 weeks. The chickens pay the price though as their heart, lungs, and other organs are unable to keep pace with the accelerated growth rate. Large numbers of them suffer from congestive heart failure, gastrointestinal diseases, and chronic respiratory infections. Furthermore, their legs are unable to support the abnormal weight gain, commonly resulting in crippling, lameness, and bone disease. Because of obesity, as many as 90% of broiler chickens are rendered incapable of walking by the time they're 6 weeks old. Many die simply because they're unable to reach a water nozzle.

Heart attacks, lung collapse, and crippling leg disorders all contribute to hundreds of millions of broiler chickens dying every year before they can even reach slaughter. Those who manage to stay alive long enough are rounded up after 6 or 7 weeks and literally thrown or stuffed into small open-air crates for transport to the slaughterhouse. They're so severely mishandled during this process that a large number of them suffer from bruises and broken bones. The crates are then stacked on top of each other and loaded onto the backs of large transport trucks. Forced to travel for up to 12 hours without food or water and exposed to the extremes of heat and cold, many more birds die before reaching their destination. These are the lucky ones!

As poultry is specifically exempted from protections of the federal Humane Slaughter Act, the chickens, in their final moments, find themselves facing the prospect of a horrifying and merciless death. Shackled by their feet, the birds are routed through an assembly-line station to be electrically stunned and to have their throats sliced. Both processes are notoriously innefficient, however, and as many as 25% of the birds are delivered to their final stop, the scalding tanks, while still fully conscious. So after suffering an unsympathetic existence from the time of their birth, these unfortunate creatures are finally released from life by being boiled alive.


Chickens bred for egg production, otherwise known as egg-laying hens or "layers", comprise a completely different branch of the poultry industry - one, however, that's no less brutal. To begin with, the male chicks are unable to lay eggs and therefore offer no substantial value to the industry. They're killed instantly, either ground into animal meal or stuffed into plastic bags and left to slowly suffocate under each other's weight.

The females, on the other hand, begin their lives with the painful procedure of debeaking. As with broiler chickens, this is done to counteract aggressive behaviors induced by stress. The birds are then jammed into tiny wire enclosures known as "battery cages", as many as 4 to 7 chickens occupying a single cage measuring no more than sixteen inches across. Here they'll spend the remainder of their lives. Unable to move around or spread their wings, and barely able to stand, the hens are pressed up against the sides of the cages, resulting in scratching, bruising, and loss of feathers. No veterinary care is provided, and the untreated wounds become infected, turning into festering sores.

The wire floor beneath them is sloped, allowing their eggs to roll into a collection trough, but causing injury to their feet and furthermore causing the feet of many chickens to become entangled. Many more birds have been observed with their heads or wings entangled in the sides and tops of the cages. Unable to reach food or water, these unfortunate victims slowly starve to death, and far too often the carcasses of the dead and dying are simply left in the cages to be devoured by flies and other insects.

The battery cages are stacked one on top of another and arranged in long rows, allowing as many as 100,000 or more chickens to be stored in a single shed. Birds in the lower tiers are constantly showered with the excrement of those in the upper tiers. Disease is commonplace in an environment polluted by infectious lesions, rotting corpses, and the unremoved excrement from tens of thousands of chickens. By way of solution, the industry once again relies on it's standard remedy of antibiotics.

Denied the ability to exercise while encouraged into a state of constant egg production, a large number of hens suffer from osteoporosis and calcium deficiency. Their bones become weakened and brittle, resulting in crippling and even more deaths. After about a year or two of this regimen, the hens are "spent" - physically and emotionally depleted. But the industry isn't ready to let go just yet. A procedure referred to as "forced molting" is applied which involves denying the hens food and water while keeping them in darkness for up to two weeks, thereby shocking them into one or more additional egg-laying cycles. The consequences of this are catastrophic to the birds, as their already exhausted bodies are traumatized even further, causing 5% to 15% more to die as a result.

Bruised, crippled, diseased, and nearly catatonic, the "spent" hens are finally shipped to slaughter or to landfills to be buried alive.


Ducks and geese raised for foie gras also live every day of their lives in misery and are arguably the most tortured and abused of all the animals on factory farms. Debilled at an early age, the birds are kept in filthy sheds, either crammed and crowded into small pens, or worse still, confined in individual cages, deprived of the ability to walk, turn around, or spread their wings. Sanitation in the sheds is nonexistent, as the floors are covered in feces and vomit. Just as tragic, yet not as well publicised, is the fact that ducks require regular submersion in water to maintain their health, and yet access to this type of activity simply doesn't exist. Their eyes and mucous membranes clog with infections, and many are permanently blinded.

But it's the practice of force feeding which constitutes the true aspiration of cruelty. Two or three times a day workers rotate throughout the sheds grabbing each of the ducks and jamming a long metal tube down their throats. Up to a pound of nutritionally deficient corn mash, about 10% of the bird's total body weight, is then pumped through the tube directly into their bellies. To grasp the effect of this, try to imagine a 150 pound man having 15 pounds of meal forced into him two or even three times a day.

This routine continues for up to 4 weeks, and the impact on the birds is nothing short of devastating. The most prominent and in fact the intended result is that their livers become diseased and swell to ten times normal size. The inflated organ rubs and presses against other organs of the body causing extreme pain. Breathing becomes laborious for the birds, while their legs are forced to angle outwards, making the act of walking nearly impossible. In this crippled state, they're unable to even groom themselves.

A large percentage of the birds suffer from obesity, pneumonia, blood toxicity, nerve damage, anal hemorrhaging, bacterial and fungal infections in the digestive tract, and impaction of undigested food in the esophagus. Many of them die when their livers become so huge they literally burst open. Many die from suffocation, as they try to inhale regurgitated food. Many die because they're unable to defend themselves from the numerous rats who roam the sheds with impunity. And as if this weren't enough, many die simply because of irresponsible workers carelessly puncturing their throats with the feeding tube.

Finally, after about 4 weeks, the surviving birds are slaughtered, and their enlarged diseased livers are harvested for the gourmet delicacy known as foie gras. Bon appetit!

At present only two companies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of foie gras production in the United States: Sonoma Foie Gras in California and Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York. Landmark legislation enacted by California in 2004 bans the practice of force-feeding as well as the sale of foie gras produced from force feeding, thereby ensuring that Sonomo Foie Gras will soon be out of business. However, the larger of the two companies, Hudson Valley, is still operating without restriction, and is responsible for the raising and slaughtering of 400,000 birds per year. But even this is an insignificant amount compared to the more than 24 million birds killed for foie gras every year in France, accounting for 75% of the worlds total production.

Numerous European nations have outlawed foie gras production, including Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark. Israel, once the world's fourth largest producer, banned foie gras production in 2005. The European Union, meanwhile, continues to place pressure on France and other producing nations within it's scope, while moving closer to enacting legislation which could one day abolish this offensive practice throughout all of Europe.


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To learn more, please visit The Vanguard Portal. Larry Parker is also author of the following weblog: "A Heartfelt Examination of the Plight of Today's Farm Animals"
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