The shocking reality of the treatment of poultry in their last hours
Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash
The overwhelming majority of chickens, turkeys and ducks are reared in intensive poultry units. These will contain many thousands of birds – in the case of ‘broiler’ (meat chicken) units, often 40,000 or more. Units housing chickens to produce eggs will also often contain many thousands of individuals, whether they are kept in cages, in so-called ‘barns’ or if ‘free-range’. So, what happens when it comes time to clear out these units to take the birds to slaughter?
Poultry kept in flocks of many thousands will have had little or no experience of humans. When teams of catchers enter the unit, this will cause great fear, often resulting in birds crowding away or trying to get to the back of cages or barn units. Being caught will be traumatic, resulting in wing-flapping, calling, defecation, and, often, ‘tonic immobility’ where the bird will collapse back as if dead – a clear sign of extreme stress.
Catching gangs at work in the U.K. removing end-of-lay hens – 2023 (Source: Animal Justice Project)
The typical method of catching chickens will by grabbing them with one leg and holding them upside down. Several birds will be held in this way in each of the catcher’s hands, before being put into the transport crates. This method causes great distress evidenced by significant increases in stress hormones and escape behaviour. Chickens, unlike mammals, do not have a diaphragm, so the digestive organs will press down on the bird’s lungs and heart.
Turkeys may be held individually by their wings and legs, but nonetheless suffer considerable fear, and risk injury through bruising and fracture. As well as holding of ducks upside-down by their legs, ducks may frequently be grabbed by the neck, with several ducks held in each hand in this way. Injured birds will often be treated with disregard, frequently being thrown aside, before manual neckbreaking. Purported checks on injured or sick birds to prevent their being transported are often unlikely to occur in the haste of catching and crating.
In units housing egg-laying hens in cages, the catching of birds will create considerable risks of injury due to collision with cage fittings, such as perches, and when being pulled out of the cage. Birds can be very difficult to remove from the many layers of tiers in ‘barn’ systems. Catching of free-range birds can be very difficult. Once caught, birds will often be handed from catcher to catcher, with wing-flapping and escape attempts, and much potential for further injury.
Veterinary recommendation is that holding chickens by one leg, upside down, is very harmful. Best practice would be to pick the bird up upright, and to support them when carried. At worst, such advice is that, if birds are inverted, they should be held by both legs. No more than two birds at a time should be carried. Yet this approach is very seldom used. ‘Depopulation’ is carried out under great time pressure - an individual catcher may catch 1500 birds in an hour.
Intensively reared turkeys
Having been caught, the poultry are placed in crates. This will most often be done at high speed and birds can impact against the crate opening and parts of the crate. Many birds will be placed in a single crate. Loose crates are often used which are then loaded onto transport vehicles, or birds are packed into ‘drawers’ in modules which are then removed by fork-lift.
Catching gangs at work in the U.K. removing intensively reared ducks – 2023 (Source: Animal Justice Project)
The combination of being grabbed, held many at a time, and forced into crates with many other birds creates great potential for injury. Ex-laying hens are at particular risk as their bones are likely to be highly fragile due to osteoporosis arising through sustained egg-laying. For these, a high level of fractures of the wings, legs and chest occur - as high as 30% of birds. There are few specialist slaughterhouses for ex-laying hens, which are viewed as being of very low value. As a result, journey times can be very long (e.g., up to 12 hours) compounding the suffering of injury.
Broiler chickens and turkeys will often suffer fractures too. Moreover, the incidence of heavy bruising for ex-layers, broilers and turkeys can be high. A very high proportion of broilers (as many as 90%) will suffer from painful lameness as a result of rapid growth, which exacerbates the suffering when they are caught by their legs.
At the slaughterhouse, a proportion of birds will be ‘DoA’, that is ‘dead on arrival’, often a result of the injuries received during catching, crating and transport. While the percentage of DoA birds is often relatively low (commonly less than a few per cent for broilers, but significantly higher for ex-layers), this is an ‘iceberg’ indicator reflecting much greater levels of distress and injury that do not lead to immediate death. Moreover, the numbers of birds treated in this way is colossal – about 1.2 billion broilers and 40 million ex-layers in the U.K. each year. So, DoA birds alone correspond to many millions of animals.
The horrors of chicken meat (undercover video from Australia depicting practices that are widespread around the world)
The catching, crating, and loading of poultry represent just one part of their pervasively negative treatment in intensive systems. Following crating they will be subject to transport to the slaughterhouse in packed crates with the potential for suffering through over-heating or through cold, through vibration of the vehicle, forced enclosure with other chickens, and many other hazards. Prior to depopulation their rearing is likely to have involved sustained suffering in crowded units.
The severe harms can be compounded by aggressive, callous, and harsh treatment of birds by catchers working under pressure, with evidence of extreme cruelty. Although the catching process may be automated, for turkeys and less often for broiler chickens, using machines to gather up the birds and feed them onto conveyors, these methods too create fear and distress, and it is uncertain whether they offer advantages in terms of reduced injury. Manual catching and crating remains by far the most common approach for most poultry.
Why on Earth do we treat these sentient animals in this grotesque way? We should recognise that the purchase and eating of meat or eggs from poultry will likely have involved inflicting harm on them at every stage of their lives.