As Christmas approaches, Clare Druce, founder of Chickens’ Lib, reminds us of the damage done by factory farming chickens and turkeys.
Factory farming promised plentiful cheap food. Instead, it has given us giant corporations where the profit motive reigns supreme, while ‘food animals’ suffer on an unprecedented scale.
Treating animals like machines goes hand in hand with the destruction of forests, the gross misuse of life-saving antibiotics, the poisoning of the environment and pandemics. Dependent on drugs, billions of animals live incarcerated in squalor, denied all freedom to follow their natural behavioural patterns. No wonder their immune systems are shot, providing hosts for deadly viruses ready to jump the species barrier.
On-farm distribution of antibiotics accounts for around 40% of all antibiotics used in the UK. One ‘prescription only’ veterinary drug, classed as life-saving in human medicine, is fluoroquinolone. Back in 1990 eminent physicians were warning against the use of quinolones for farmed animals. Yet powerful drug companies and the farming lobby won the day.
For years the poultry industry blamed migratory birds for the worldwide spread of bird flu, but scientists have shown the intensive poultry industry to be responsible. And there’s now no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic, like Avian Influenza, Swine Flu, SARS and AIDS, stem from the interaction between humans and other species.
In the early 1970s I read Animal Machines by Ruth Harrison. This book changed my life, and my mother’s too, when she read it. Together, we would take action! Chickens’ Lib was born. The battery hen was our first target, then broiler chickens, and finally all feathered ‘food animals’ from quail to ostriches.
Sometimes I wonder what Chickens’ Lib actually achieved, but deep down I’m convinced that at the very least we raised awareness. For example, our in-depth investigations into the horrors of the intensive turkey industry were ground-breaking, and Chickens’ Lib certainly played its part in achieving the EU-wide ban on the old-style cages. But tragically, the barbaric ‘enriched’ cage system is still legal.
Hens come into lay at around seventeen weeks, when those destined for life in cages begin their last twelve months of life spent on sloping wire floors (or on perches installed as a ‘sop’ to the welfare lobby) before the horrors of catching, transport and slaughter. So strong is a hen’s instinct to clean her feathers in dry, dusty earth, that the imprisoned birds will perform what scientists call ‘vacuum dust-bathing’ on the harsh metal cage floor. To their shame, Britain and America must be held responsible for exporting the battery cage, a grossly cruel system now used for most egg production worldwide.
Broiler (meat-type) chickens have been genetically tampered with to grow to slaughter weight by six weeks of age. In nature, chicks of that age still cheep like the babies they truly are, still shelter under a mother’s wings. A typical British shed houses around fifty thousand birds. In America it’s maybe four times that number. By five weeks of age young leg bones and muscles barely support the birds’ clinically obese bodies; consequently they spend hours resting on increasingly filthy litter, resulting in painful ulcers. Many die from heart failure or contagious diseases. Corpses end up in spent litter spread on fields, as fertilizer. As a result, grazing cattle die painful deaths from botulism, after ingesting rotting chicken remains.
Broiler chickens’ parent stock suffer most cruelly. They have the same grossly manipulated genes of their young, but must grow up active, in order to mate. The industry’s ‘solution’ lies in harsh feed restriction. For a species that naturally forages from dawn till dusk, this semi-starvation must amount to sustained torture.
Turkeys formed an important part of our campaign. On factory farms they live like broiler chickens. Also genetically manipulated for fast growth, a usual slaughter age for turkeys is twelve weeks, though ‘catering size’ birds will live longer. Over-crowding in sheds holding many thousands induces aggression, resulting in injuries to head and eyes. Cannibalism can spread like wildfire, so beaks are partially amputated and lighting kept dim enough to quieten the birds.
These birds’ parents – the turkeys raised to breed – also suffer hugely. The grossly overweight males are unable to mount the females, so it’s artificial insemination (AI) for them. Imagine the pain and stress they endure when operators ‘stroke’ the birds’ genitals until semen is released. These obese and distorted males suffer widely from hip bone degeneration. In a scientific experiment male turkey breeders quickly learned to choose the food laced with a painkiller. Post mortem, all were found to have hip degeneration.
And the females? In training manuals, AI operators are warned against rough handling which can cause vaginal bleeding and potential death.
I’ve been vegan for around forty years, and vegetarian for a while before that. Every person who rejects animal produce makes a difference, and these days it’s so much easier to do. So many products are readily available in shops and restaurants. And since around 90% of the world’s crop of soya goes to feed non-human animals, let nobody accuse vegans of destroying forests!
For so many reasons, it is vital that we recognise the link between abused farmed animals and human pandemics. The planet is groaning under the weight of tortured and imprisoned animals suffering deprivation and pain in the name of food production. Factory farming constitutes a major threat to us all, not just physically but morally.
I know some excellent people who sincerely wish for the extinction of Homo sapiens, believing us to be beyond redemption. But, in my ninth decade, I hold on to my hope for a future world where humans respect, care for and marvel at the millions of other species on beautiful Planet Earth.
Clare Druce co-founded Chickens’ Lib with her mother Violet in the 1970s. For years the pressure group campaigned against the shocking cruelty of the battery cage system, before expanding to cover other farmed species. Her 2013 book Chickens’ Lib (Bluemoose Books) tells the story of forty years spent battling the poultry industry and successive governments in the early days of the modern animal rights movement. Clare now writes fiction for children and adults.
Call to action: Compassion in World Farming was founded 50 years ago in 1967 by a British farmer who became horrified by the development of modern, intensive factory farming. Support it here