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The Heartbreaking Reason Chicken Farms Are Dark At Night

<p>Steven Lilley / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/sk8geek/5829689691/" target="_blank">Flickr</a> (<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/" target="_blank">CC BY-SA 2.0</a>) </p>

Stepping inside a chicken factory farm at night.

Sonia Faruqi investigated animal farms around the world, toward the aim of improving the lives of farm animals. Below is an edited excerpt from her first book, "Project Animal Farm: An Accidental Journey into the Secret World of Farming and the Truth About Our Food."

The buildings stood equidistant to one another like sentries, attired in a clean paint of white hemmed with green. They were as long and warehouse-like as all the other animal facilities I'd seen, but they were taller - two stories tall this time.

Inside the sparse, brightly-lit entrance of one of them stood Terry, a 22-year-old with green eyes, brown hair, and a round face made angular by means of a precisely pruned goatee. Terry knew Nick (with whose family I was staying) from school and so he had acquiesced immediately, if reluctantly, to Nick's request for a tour, made on my behalf. Our meeting time was ten o'clock on Friday night, because Terry had said he was unavailable earlier.

Dropping four transparent covers on the floor, Terry directed, "Use these for biosecurity." I began wiping my boots on the covers thoroughly, as on a rug, until Terry's scathing glance stopped me in my tracks. A quick look at Nick showed me that I was supposed to wear the covers over my boots, not wipe my boots on them. Terry's first impression of me - that I was a moron - only worsened over the course of the night.

"You guys remembered what I told you, right?" Terry asked us nervously. "You're not wearing the same clothes and boots here that you wore to other farms, right? Right?"

"Right," Nick replied.

We'd taken great care to follow Terry's clothing instructions. New to animal agriculture, I'd brought only a few changes of clothes with me in my suitcase, not realizing that even momentary ammonia exposure would leave them tainted with an unendurable stink. It was for that reason that I was presently wearing clothes and boots belonging to Nick's mother, which she'd been gracious enough to lend me.

Terry exhaled with relief at Nick's reply, then inhaled deeply, like he was trying to stockpile oxygen in his lungs before a deep-sea dive. As he opened the next door, it was not with fanfare but with an apology. "Sorry it stinks in here."

The stink was of 40,000 chickens, half of them in front of us, and the other half of them above us, on the second floor. The chickens before us had white feathers that were smudged brown and featherless areas that were pink. All of them could be smelled, but only the closest of them could be seen, for the place was as dark and eerie as a cemetery. It was also foggy, with wisps of cool night air floating in - white, ghost-like - through narrow vents along the top of one wall.

"Could you turn the lights on?" I asked Terry, covered with goose bumps. "Just a little? So we can see better?"

"No. The lights have to be very controlled, so the chickens gain weight but don't get heart attacks. When the lights are on, the chickens are awake and eating and gaining weight. When it's dark, they stop eating. We don't want them to eat too much, because their genes are weird. They grow too fast, and their heart and legs get messed up. They get heart attacks. So, we need to control how much they eat, and we control it with the lighting levels."

Chickens and turkeys today are, in a sense, like balloons, except that they expand not with air but light. If they enlarge too fast, they explode - or, rather, implode, collapsing on painful, broken legs. Extreme genetic selection, accelerated by artificial insemination, has created farm animal breeds today that yield far more meat, milk, and eggs - while eating far less - than they ever have. The most astounding genetic changes have been those of chickens. In 1925, chickens reached a weight of two and a half pounds in sixteen weeks; today, they reach a weight of almost six pounds in six weeks. It's miraculous but torturous.

Excerpted from Sonia Faruqi's "Project Animal Farm: An Accidental Journey into the Secret World of Farming and the Truth About Our Food." Copyright 2015. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.