Full disclosure: I eat chicken. Perhaps it’s hypocritical of me to do so, given my monthly exaltation of birds, but chicken is nutritious, easily accessible, and an animal I don’t feel too bad about eating, given their similarity to dinosaurs. Before the 194’s, chicken was hardly the ubiquitous staple that it is today. The American infatuation with chicken was born as a result of red meat rationing during the Second World War. As chicken demand rose, millers of corn and grain saw an opportunity to capitalize on a new market, and financed chicken farms for up-and-coming farmers. Fast forward to today and the United States leads the world in chicken consumption, collectively eating eight billion birds a year. Modernization of chicken farming means grocery refrigerators are stocked full of low-calorie, high-protein meat that’s more affordable than red meat due to the relatively low cost of raising chickens. But this industrialization is not without drawbacks that hurt both human and fowl alike.
The white-roofed and red-walled cartoon farm pictured on the plastic wrap around the chicken we buy in stores is a far cry from the bland, colorless reality of modern chicken farms. In 2015, farmer Craig Watts became fed up with the disconnect between consumers and their food and began giving media interviews and allowing camera crews to come inside his farm to see firsthand what being a chicken farmer was like. “Dirty Birds: A Story of Chickens in America” is a PBS documentary following Kelly Cox as she receives a hands-on tour of Craig’s farm, one of 25,000 chicken farms in the country. The camera pans across a yellow-lit structure housing thousands of chickens sounding off in a cacophony of clucking. It zooms in on a few sad specimens, their bodies a patchwork of pale white feathers and pink skin. Farmer Craig bends down to pick up one such wretch lying motionless on its stomach, and demonstrates the proper euthanization technique: grabbing the chicken from both ends and sharply pulling its head to break the neck. “I don’t think the animal welfare folks exactly like [this] method” he says, noting that the official welfare guidelines for raising chickens are written by the National Chicken Council, the largest lobbying group for poultry in the nation. This is one of only two approved methods of euthanasia, the other being decapitation, which is reserved only for culling young chicks. Craig performs his duty and tosses the chicken back to the ground, where its body furiously beats its wings, attracting the attention of another chicken who starts running toward it before abruptly halting in its tracks as the wings of the dying bird slow down before becoming entirely still.
Keeping birds under such conditions leads to inflammation, chronic pain, and leg weakness, not to mention that such close quarters are ideal conditions for breeding disease. Farmers prevent these diseases by introducing antibiotics into chicken feed, which in turn leads to new strains of bacteria that are resistant to previous antibiotics. A study published in April of this year by the University of Oxford found the rampant use of antibiotics is leading to bacteria that are more resistant to the human immune system. The lead researcher warned “we’ve accidentally ended up compromising our own immune system to get fatter chickens.” Bird flu outbreaks are now a regular event, with this year’s outbreak a particularly concerning one to world governments due to its spreading to other mammals. The EU has already warned citizens to keep their dogs and cats indoors, an unprecedented precaution against avian influenza. While human infections are still extremely rare, with less than ten reported since 2021, the rapid evolution of the virus is what worries scientists: if the virus can adapt to infect other mammals, it may be able to further adapt to infect humans. Despite the growing availability of antibiotic-free and organic options at grocers, antibiotic use is still at an all-time high. Tyson Foods, the largest chicken producer in the country, announced that by the end of the year their chicken will no longer carry the “no antibiotics ever” label. While antibiotics cure disease in the short term, the long term effects could be catastrophic for chicken populations.
Traditional family chicken farms do still exist, where chickens covered in bright feathers run freely through grass fields as the sun warms their backs. This style of farming is more costly, but in the long run it may be far cheaper than dealing with the culling of millions of chickens from bird flu each outbreak. And the chickens like it more, too. Far from being mindless, chickens display a number of emotions: hens show empathy towards chicks in distress and will cluck to their unhatched eggs, chickens can create memories and solve puzzles, and they purr like cats when content. Chickens even dream! Their eyes perform the same rapid eye movement humans do during sleep. Such sentient creatures deserve better than lives spent indoors crammed next to their sickly kin; they deserve blue skies and open spaces.