If you had told me a year before I met her that a crippled chicken in a wooden shed would change my life forever, I would not have believed you. Yet this is what happened one summer day thirty years ago when my husband and I rented a little house on a dirt road in Maryland outside Washington, DC. Unbeknown to us, our landlady was raising a flock of chickens. Discovering them on an afternoon walk, I visited them every day until, one day, they were gone - all but one.
We named the survivor Viva because she alone of her flock had been left alive. Like her companions, she had the deformed feet and heavy breast of "broiler" chickens - the kind who have been bred since the 1940s for abnormal growth rates and weight gain. Reading the poultry literature I learned about the disabilities bred into these birds including the fact that their bones are too weak for their bodies and their bodies are wracked with bizarre diseases. Like so many, Viva could only stand and walk by balancing herself on her wings.
Despite her condition, Viva was a very affectionate chicken who purred and chirped contentedly in the comfort of our kitchen where we made her a bed by the stove. On nice days, we liked to sit with her outside in the grass where she would take great pains to steady herself and run through the yard on her wing tips before collapsing, resting, and starting over.
Already by the 1980s, broiler chickens weighed 4 pounds at 8 weeks old - more than 40 times their original hatching weight. The US Department of Agriculture bragged that if human beings grew that fast, "an 8-week-old baby would weigh 349 pounds." A study published in 2008 said that the growth rate of chickens had increased "by over 300 percent" in the past fifty years, resulting in "impaired locomotion and poor leg health." (Toby Knowles, et al. 2008. "Leg Disorders in Broiler Chickens." PLoS ONE Feb. 6: e1545)
It isn't only their legs. Poultry scientists in the 1990s warned that chickens "now grow so rapidly that the heart and lungs are not developed well enough to support the remainder of the body, resulting in congestive heart failure." (David Martin. 1997. "Researcher studying growth-induced diseases in broilers." Feedstuffs May 26: 6)
Uncaringly, the poultry industry continues to increase the size and growth rate of these deeply troubled birds. At a meeting in 2014, a company executive raved that over the past year, "average big bird weights have averaged 8.2 to 8.6 pounds, with nearly a dozen companies producing birds over 9 pounds." (Rita Jane Gabbett. 2014. "Poultry Executives Predict More, Bigger Birds." MeatingPlace, Oct. 31)
Ethically, there is nothing to crow about. These are baby chicks who in nature weigh barely a pound at that age. The effects of the "human controlled evolution" of chickens are described in the poultry science literature. An article in International Hatchery Practice ("Trends in developmental anomalies in contemporary broiler chickens") states that chickens with extra legs and wings, missing eyes and beak deformities "can be found in practically every broiler flock," where "a variety of health problems involving muscular, digestive, cardiovascular, integumentary, skeletal, and immune systems" form a complex of debilitating diseases. Dr. Andrew A. Olkowski, DVM and his colleagues say poultry personnel provide "solid evidence that anatomical anomalies have become deep-rooted in the phenotype of contemporary broiler chickens."
The breeding pathologies of chickens are compounded by the unsanitary conditions in which they are raised. The combination of infirmity and filth overwhelms their immune systems with salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli and other pathogens that sicken and kill people in the United States and worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control data show more deaths from poultry than from any other food product. (Consumer Reports Magazine | February 2014)
Currently, an epidemic of deadly avian influenza (H5N2) in chickens and turkeys on farms around the country dominate the agribusiness news media. Concerned that people might not want to eat these sick birds, the poultry industry and the US Department of Agriculture reassure the public that the virus does not sicken humans and that poultry and eggs are "safe." They blame wild birds for the epidemic, but as a UN News Centre release said in 2005, "We are wasting valuable time pointing fingers at wild birds." (UN News Centre. 2005. "UN task forces battle misconception of avian flu, mount Indonesian campaign," Oct. 24)
Avian influenza viruses have lived harmlessly in the intestines of waterfowl for millennia. Shed in sparsely populated outdoor settings in the droppings of birds whose immune systems have evolved to accommodate them, these viruses are rapidly killed by sunlight and tend to dehydrate to death in the breeze. By contrast, chickens and turkeys are crowded together in dank, sunless buildings - ideal breeding grounds for disease organisms to thrive and prey on the disabled birds. (Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) – What You Need to Know)
Thirty years after rescuing Viva from a Maryland chicken shed, I have watched the plight of chickens grow worse. At the same time, more people are speaking up for chickens now than ever before, praising their charm and intelligence, their capacity for happiness and their right to enjoy fresh air and a life worth living. Inspired by Viva, I founded United Poultry Concerns in 1990 dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. Back then I was told that people "weren't ready" to care about chickens and that an organization devoted to them would never fly, but they were wrong.
May 4 was International Respect for Chickens Day and May is International Respect for Chickens Month. Our message is simple. Be kind to chickens. Don't eat them. Tell your family and friends how much chickens suffer in animal agriculture and how cheerful and loving chickens are when they are treated with compassion and respect. Please make every day Respect for Chickens Day.
Karen Davis, PhD is the author of "Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry" and the president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl.