The Invisible Lives of Chickens: Unveiling the Lesser Known Reality of the Chicken Industry

chicken industry
Cartoon by penpencildraw 

The poultry business is one lucrative commercial space thriving on the intensive production of eggs and meat from birds, predominantly ‘chickens’. Since 1961, the slaughter of chickens continues to top the list of land animals slaughtered annually worldwide. In 2020, the world’s poultry population comprised over 94 percent of chickens, followed by ducks and turkeys.

The Indian poultry sector is flourishing and ranks as the world’s fifth-largest egg producer and eighteenth largest producer of broilers. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, poultry production in India is likely to grow at 6% annually till 2030.

With the constant rise of these numbers and rankings, several questions and realities often go unaddressed and underreported. How has it been possible for the poultry industry to grow their production at a massive scale? Do we know about the different processes that have made it possible today for a hen to lay up to 300 eggs a year? Are we aware of what happens to these birds other than the fact that they are slaughtered before they end up on our plates? 

This article takes you on a journey, delving into the lives of chickens from birth to death, uncovering the shocking reality behind the statistics.

Going beyond the numbers

The chicken industry selectively breeds and raises two categories of chickens, namely ‘Broilers’ and ‘Layer Hens’. Layer hens are bred and raised for their eggs. 

In the egg industry, only the egg-laying female chicks are profitable, which is why they are retained and raised for their eggs. The male chicks are killed as they are commercially unviable because they cannot produce eggs. The male chicks’ biological incapability to produce eggs and their genetic inability to develop sufficient meatiness for use as broiler chickens make them essentially useless.Therefore they are killed using different methods, like being crushed to death in a grinder, and discarded alive in trash bins. Over 7 billion day-old male chicks are killed every year all around the world. This culling does not happen in nature.

Broilers are usually raised in batches in barn facilities. Their breeds are genetically modified for faster growth of over three times their natural rate, and to produce meat rather than eggs. Broiler production in India is majorly concentrated in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Telangana.

Chickens are naturally smart, playful, highly sociable, and empathetic. They instinctively protect and care for their flock.They can dream, and given their fantastic memory, they can even remember up to 100 individual faces, including that of us humans. In the wild, they use their beaks for searching for food, nesting, exploring objects around them, grooming, playing, fighting, protecting, social interactions, etc. They roam and spend a considerable portion of their day in search of food. When living in a safe, loving, and comfortable space, these gentle birds purr like cats. They even pass on knowledge from one generation to another. 

In the commercial space, chickens  are forced to live in cramped, filthy, and almost immobile living conditions. This is why they  start to pluck their feathers or aggressively peck and harm other hens around them. As a step to prevent the same, their highly sensitive beaks are trimmed, usually within a week in a painful process called ‘debeaking’. A chicken’s beak has numerous nerve endings, blood vessels, and pain receptors like that of a human’s fingertip. 

The chicks born in the industry, irrespective of their sex, never get to receive their mother’s care and nourishment. In the wild, with the scope to express natural behaviours, a newborn baby chick would be nurtured, protected, and cared for by their mother hen. Hence, the mere existence and growth of this industry results in a complete deprivation of motherhood.

There is a great contrast in how chickens live in the  wild – free from human intervention – and in industrial farms where they are forcefully, controlled, monitored, and killed for human consumption.

From sentient beings to egg-producing machines

The layer hens are retained by the industry and kept inside battery cages to produce around 250-300 eggs per year. They are forced to produce faster and at a higher scale through genetic manipulation or selective breeding, all the while sustaining the physically taxing and labour-intensive process of egg-laying. They continue to produce a lot of eggs while being crammed in small cages with several other chickens, in the absence of sunlight and lack of mobility. The space each chicken gets in the cage is less than that of an A4 size sheet where they produce for 1-2 years. And when their bodies get depleted and exhausted to the point they can no longer produce any more eggs, they are deemed a by-product of the egg industry and thereafter slaughtered for their meat. Like every other farmed animal, their lives are cut short. 

In nature, hens have a lifespan of five to ten years and produce only ten to fifteen eggs every year during the breeding season solely for reproduction. They care about their eggs, chirping to their yet-to-be-hatched chicks using 30 distinct calls for communication. Mother hens use their wings to protect their chicks from rain and cold weather. 

comparison of hens in nature and poultry industry

Fast growth and a life cut short

India is the eighteenth largest producer of broilers, or chickens bred and raised for their meat. The states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra top the list of poultry populations in the country. 

The market or slaughter-ideal weight of a broiler in India is 1.8 to 2.2 kg which is usually attained in 35-40 days as they are bred to grow fast. After this stage, they are packed and transported via lorries to different live markets (or wet markets) from one cage to another. The period of transportation can continue for days without the availability of food and water for the birds stuffed inside. Not all chickens make it to the slaughterhouse. 

In India, the wet market sales of broiler meat continue to constitute over 95% of the total sales volume. It is common here to come across the poor handling of chickens where their overweight bodies are roughly pulled out of one cage, held upside down, only to be thrown into another cage. This mistreatment has become a norm. Their final days are spent witnessing their fellow chickens getting slaughtered and dismembered. 

To reinstate, the chickens we consume are less than two months old. It is an industry that thrives on the endless pain and mental suffering of birds and their babies. The industry continues to evolve using innovative methods of producing a higher number of birds and eggs in a short time, but in doing so it continues to use sentient beings as a means to an end. 

“What’s wrong—fundamentally wrong—with the way animals are treated isn’t the details that vary from case to case. It’s the whole system.”  

Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (1985)

The happy chicken?

When buyers enter a typical wet Indian market, they demand a certain weighing chicken for buying. That’s when the seller inserts his hand inside the cage to pick and weigh different chickens. The birds try to push themselves back and away from the seller’s hand to avoid getting caught and killed. It is a sight of desperate attempts by each chicken to avoid further harm. 

The happy images of chickens we come across in advertisements and products of eggs and meat have so far been successful in misleading consumers from the reality of a farmed chicken’s life. Happy chickens do not exist in reality. It distracts people from the reality that these birds experience stress from the moment they are born until the end of their lives. Chickens have become so commodified that the mere mention of ‘chicken’ often conjures images of exotic dishes made from their meat.

Over the years, chickens have been bred selectively by humans to make sure that we have an endless supply of eggs and meat for our consumption. This industry may have benefited humans and their economies, but in the process, we successfully ignored the welfare and suffering of chickens who are forced into this commercial system.

To learn more about this issue, you can watch this documentary called “Dominion” and read this recent investigation by Animal Equality India.

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Sanchita is a freelance journalist from India. She writes about animal rights, speciesism, veganism, and casteism. She pursued her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. What makes her a blahcksheep is her character of not conforming to the masses or being a part of any bandwagon for convenience. She loves making memes, and you can find her memes surrounding veganism & casteism @outcaste_vegans on Instagram. She advocates for anti-speciesism, and is averse to the idea of Anthroparchy and Anthropocentrism. Hence, she opposes eating chickens (or ab/using any animal for any purpose).


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