The Humane Society of the United States
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A better life for broilers

How we're fighting for chickens and how you can help

by Emily Smith

Most broiler chickens spend their short lives in windowless warehouses, with many birds too sick or injured to move. Photo by Mercy For Animals.

Beyond the chickens you see in the foreground of the photo above, there are thousands more young birds in a sea of suffering that stretches back into the darkness. To keep up with Americans’ demand for their meat, these birds have been bred to grow bigger and faster than their bodies can support. Their hearts, lungs and legs often give out before they’re 2 months old, leaving many lame or lifeless on the warehouse floor.

It’s a bleak life, and the Humane Society of the United States is fighting to change it.

By using healthier breeds of chickens and providing them with enriched living conditions, the industry could improve the lives of the 9 billion broilers raised in the U.S. each year. And we’re working with companies such as Perdue and Burger King to make it happen.

  • Photo by Mrlyawildlife/iStock.com

MORE ROOM

Most broiler chickens are raised in large warehouses, crowded together in such great numbers they have little room to move. Providing birds with more space will allow them to move more freely and reduce stress, says Dr. Sara Shields, an animal behavior and welfare scientist for Humane Society International. Additional space will also improve the quality of their litter—waste material covering the floor of the warehouse— by allowing it to dry. When litter stays wet because of overcrowding, Shields says, it can cause ammonia burns and sores on the chickens’ feet and legs.

With more room and drier litter, birds also will be able to dustbathe—an instinctive behavior that works sort of like dry shampoo for people. Chickens wiggle in the dirt to rub and shake dust through their feathers. “It seems funny that a bird would bathe in dust,” Shields says, “but the dry particles absorb excess oil in the plumage, keeping it smooth and beautiful.”

"Chickens are just like the animals we share our homes with, dogs and cats. Even though they may all look very similar, each one has a distinct and unique personality. They are surprisingly intelligent, friendly and sociable if they are treated kindly. There is no biological reason that we should treat them with any less consideration than we would other animals.” —DR. SARA SHIELDS, HUMANE SOCIETY INTERNATIONAL

Chickens prefer dustbathing in a brightly lit, warm location, Shields says, and they use it as a way to socialize. When one bird starts wiggling in the dirt, others usually join.

  • Adding items such as perches to broiler facilities allows birds to engage in their instinctive behaviors, and including natural light encourages dustbathing. Photo by Perdue.

ENRICHED ENVIRONMENT

To give chickens those warm, sunny spots, we’re encouraging producers to install windows that allow in natural light, or, at minimum, use lighting cycles that mimic the outdoors. We’re also asking them to offer a variety of enrichments such as perches and bales of straw. “Most warehouses are barren, windowless sheds with really nothing but other birds in them,” says Matthew Prescott, senior director of food and agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States. “They’re packed in wing to wing with no form of stimulation or enrichment to engage them. Essentially, there’s nothing for them to do.” Environmental enrichment gives the birds more opportunities to express their natural behavior, Shields says, such as roosting on perches and pecking at the bales.

  • These are just a few of the nearly 100 companies that have committed to improving welfare conditions for broiler chickens in their supply chains.

SLOWER GROWTH RATE

Most modern broiler chickens suffer from the moment they’re hatched, Prescott says. They’re forced to grow so large so fast that they suffer ailments such as chronic pain, broken legs, heart attacks and lung failure. Their chests become gigantic before their skeletal system is fully developed, leading the top-heavy animals to topple over. “They live really miserable lives that are short, less than 50 days,” Prescott says. “The average day for a broiler chicken essentially consists of sitting around in pain, in one spot in a warehouse, too deformed to move.” We’re encouraging companies to use healthier, more responsibly bred chickens in their supply chains to reduce this suffering.

CONTROLLED SLAUGHTER METHOD

While it might be painful to read about, improving the way broiler chickens are slaughtered is an important part of reform. The most common method in practice today involves shackling conscious chickens upside-down, electrocuting them in a tank of water to paralyze them and then slitting their throats. The shackling process is extremely stressful and painful for the birds, Prescott says—as their fragile legs are snapped into tight-fitting shackles. And many miss the electrocution step because they lift their heads in distress—meaning they are fully conscious when killed. Controlled atmospheric stunning, the method we’re urging producers to adopt, reduces the birds’ stress and renders them unconscious before they reach human hands.

TAKE ACTION: McDonald's has yet to join nearly 100 companies major food companies in meaningfully addressing the suffering of these animals. Call 1-888-833- 8392 and ask McDonald’s to improve the welfare conditions of broiler chickens in its supply chain.


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