The Silent Ark
3: The Six-Week Lifecycle
A measure of how much public opinion has shifted in a comparatively
short time is the attitude of factory farmers to their livelihood.
Sixteen years ago, at the time of my first school tour around the
farm units, they showed no embarrassment or guilt, and secrecy and
defensiveness were only a small part of their armoury. Try ringing
your local neighbourhood broiler farm today to request a conducted
tour and see what response you get. Saddam Hussein would stand a
better chance of being the keynote speaker at a Tory party conference.
However, at the time I was first shown around the battery sheds,
attitudes were still comparatively open.
The idea of intensive production began, as already mentioned,
after the Second World War and in the following years the mechanics
of automation were perfected - automated feeding systems, egg collection
techniques, mechanically assisted lay ratios and the optimum heat
and light levels. I find it extremely difficult to comprehend how
the concepts of a Ford production line could be applied to breathing,
living creatures, but they are.
Broiler chickens (kept for meat, not eggs) are subjected to the
same concept of efficiency as battery hens, with no less impoverished
results. As if to distance themselves from the biological reality
of what they do, chicken farmers refer to themselves as ‘growers’
and the chickens as a ‘crop’. This kind of thinking
is pernicious. It reached a high point during an interview I did
in 1991, during the launch of my campaign, ‘Feeding You the
Facts’, on ITV’s lunchtime news with the Director of
the Meat and Livestock Commission. To my complete disbelief he said
that chickens weren’t animals. Then, with a little help from
me, he nearly drowned in his own embarrassment.
Anyway, back on the ‘home economics’ tour, once I
had finished with the battery hen house, I was proudly given the
full tour of the chicken crop. What I am going to describe is typical
of the dozens of broiler units that I have subsequently visited
over the past decade. We started with a newly stocked broiler shed
filled with chicks no more than few days old. The scale of the operation
was staggering. The building itself was similar to all modern agricultural
structures - windowless, soulless and airless. The floor was covered
with a thick layer of litter which looked like a combination of
wood shavings, saw dust and chopped straw. It still had that fresh,
strong and pleasant odour of outdoors - part timber yard, part stack
yard. Running from end to end of the shed, across the floor and
equidistant from each other, were three automated feeding lines,
each conveyor carrying a slowly moving cargo of high-protein food
pellets through the myriad of yellow chicks which carpeted the floor.
The air was filled with their high-pitched tweeting as they wandered
around, from conveyor belt to water dispenser and back again.
There were 20,000 of them under this one roof but other sheds
contained as many as 100,000. Although crowded, there was sufficient
room for them to move around. Perhaps they felt nothing about their
situation, perhaps they were quite happy in their thousands, but
watching a clutch of chicks with their mother in natural surroundings,
you are conscious of a very different kind of life.
The second shed I was shown into presented an entirely different
scene. It was identical in structure to the first one but the floor
was almost completely taken up with full-grown chickens and the
light was significantly dimmer. In only six weeks, the 20,000 little
chicks had been transformed into ‘fully grown birds with a
live weight of 1.8 kg - ideal for the dining table’. And that’s
where they were headed the next day.
As I looked around at the milling mass in its almost permanent
twilight, each bird allocated a space smaller than the area taken
up by a telephone directory, I felt there was something wrong. I
couldn’t identify what it was at first but then realized it
had to do with the noise. It was only when I thought back to the
sounds that battery chickens make, that squawking, clucking, all-pervasive,
never-ending burble, that the answer came to me. I was looking at
a carpet of fat, fully-grown chickens but I was listening to the
high-pitched tweet of chicks. Had I known it, their eyes would have
told the same story - they were the bright blue colour of immaturity
rather than the almost jet-like darkness of adulthood.
The reasons for this were provided spontaneously and proudly by
my guide. A process of selective breeding and dietary control has
produced a bird which grows twice as quickly as it did only 25 or
30 years ago. Working on the basis that the more a bird can be encouraged
to eat the more quickly it will gain weight, sleep becomes an intrusion,
slowing down the process. So, in an exercise of absolute logic,
the lights are kept on for more than 23 hours in every 24.
It would be nice to think that the odd half-hour of darkness is
the product of some residual trace of compassion, allowing the creatures
time for a quick nap. Unfortunately it isn’t. Early broiler
chicken growers tried keeping the lights on permanently, but sudden
power cuts had a dramatic impact on the birds, causing panic and
mass suffocation. This, of course, is not good for business and
a token half-hour allows the birds to get used to the phenomenon
of darkness just in case there should ever be a power cut.
But why were the lights so much brighter in the shed full of chicks?
Again, logic holds the answer. The bright lights encourage the chicks
to feed voraciously, but as they grow and the available space reduces,
that energy can quickly turn into aggression. Fighting between birds
can result in flesh damage or heart attacks. So the lights are dimmed.
Diet, of course, is the most fundamental way to manipulate any
creature, including humans. Feed for broiler chickens consists of
some 70 per cent cereals, the remainder being comprised of protein
in the form of soya, meat, fish and bone and oils, vitamins and
minerals. That simple, innocuous description doesn’t, of course,
tell the whole story. The ‘meat’ content can be the
chickens themselves. There isn’t a great demand for chicken
heads, necks, blood, feathers, feet or offal in the high street
and so it’s not uncommon for these ‘by products’
to be recycled into low-grade chicken feed in a kind of cannibalistic
Another immediately noticeable difference between the two sheds
was the floor litter. Whereas in the first my feet kicked through
light, dry, soft material, they now stood on something solid and
with each step they stuck slightly. And the smell! For the six weeks
of the broilers’ almost non-stop eating spree the litter remains
unchanged, coagulating with the accumulated droppings of 20,000
defecating chickens. The stench was completely pervasive and for
months afterwards, whenever I smelt chicken cooking, that same smell
pervaded the more obvious smell of roasting flesh.
In several places I noticed obviously dead chickens, mostly on
the margins of the shed, furthest from the food and water. Many
others, again apart from the mainstream activity, sat motionless,
eyes hooded, seeming almost to pant. Still others hobbled around
on deformed feet, barely capable of movement.
I drew the attention of the guide to the dead and distressed creatures
and instead of concern I received a lecture on efficiency and how
the known percentage of mortalities are built into the stocking
density. I was assured that someone would be coming through the
shed shortly, as they did every day, to remove the dead chickens
and cull those which were ‘off their legs’.
Apparently, 3,000 of the 20,000 chickens in the shed would not
survive the meagre six weeks allotted to them. Across the whole
country, an estimated 72 million chickens (12 per cent of the national
flock) die in this way every year. It is a percentage which is inexorably
When you investigate what lies behind the innocuous expression
‘off their legs’, the findings are disturbing. The phenomenon
begins at about day 35, approximately one week before slaughter,
and the chickens remain squatting because it is too painful to stand
up. They are killed because they are unable to reach either food
or water and would eventually die of starvation and thirst. They
are termed ‘starve-outs’.
The cause is a direct result of the birds’ rapid and unnatural
growth rate. The chickens are faced with other stresses, but one
of the main ones is their inability to form bones properly. What
should be hard, calcified bone is frequently nothing more than soft
cartilage. As a consequence, their skeletons fail to grow properly
and their legs bend or break under their rapidly ballooning weight.
There is a silence surrounding this obvious welfare problem, caused
partly by the shyness of producers and partly because university
research programmes are increasingly the property of industrial
clients and are not released publicly. One university study did
look at this bone problem, but its findings were secret. However,
some of the data was leaked to producers of BBC Television’s
Horizon programme, ‘Fast Life in the Food Chain’, transmitted
in May 1992. The study found that of 1,000 broiler chickens from
four different growers, 70 per cent had something wrong with the
way they walked; 22 per cent were so badly affected they were presumed
to be in chronic pain; and 5 per cent were virtually incapable of
Even the Agricultural and Food Research Council, an industry quango
which supports factory farming, stated at a press conference on
chickens’ leg deformities in March 1992 that up to four fifths
of broiler chickens have broken bones and deformed feet and legs
or other bone deformities.
Professor John Webster, Head of the Department of Animal Husbandry
at Bristol University and adviser to the Government on animal welfare,
...it is almost inevitable that in going for increased productivity
and increased profitability, the incentive is to push animals right
to their biological limits of capacity. By a combination of genetics
and high quality food we have, in certain animals, particularly
the broiler chicken, caused the animal seriously to outgrow its
strength so that for the last 10 to 15 days of its short, 42 day
life, there are severe abnormalities of bone development which we
know to be painful and crippling.
But even that isn’t the end for the poor not-so-old broiler
chicken! It seems incredible that a creature less than 42 days old
could suffer from heart disease - but it does. It develops with
the bird’s increase in weight. With so much rapidly growing
muscle tissue there is an increased demand for blood and the oxygen
it carries. Unfortunately, the heart muscle isn’t strong enough
to cope and the cardiovascular system comes under enormous stress.
As a consequence, blood returning to the heart hits a kind of traffic
jam and starts to build up in the veins. Plasma and fluids leak
out and accumulate in the abdominal cavity in a process which is
commonly known as ‘dropsy’ and more properly called
The birds which I had seen sitting around the margins of the shed,
panting and not eating, were almost certainly suffering from this.
Of course, it is conceivable they were suffering from the third
painful condition to affect broiler chickens...
The litter on which the birds were standing had increased five-fold
in weight from the time it was first provided when they were day-old
chicks. Their accumulated excreta simply builds up and the result
is hock burns from the ammonia-laden litter. This ulcerated blistering
affects not only their feet and legs but can also burn their breasts.
No matter how badly affected, no matter how much pain they feel,
the chickens can never escape the searing alkali which impregnates
the floor on which they stand and walk and squat. It must be a constant,
nagging, gnawing progressive burning and is completely ignored by
growers. Any flesh which is damaged by the burning is simply discarded,
the undamaged parts being sold as chicken pieces.
It’s worth just briefly reconsidering the life of a broiler
chicken. According to the Government’s Farm Animal Welfare
Council, intensive conditions have changed little over the past
30 years. However, the birds’ fast growth means that in the
1990s the vast majority of the 500-670 million killed annually in
Britain will endure their six-week existence with broken bones and
deformities, heart disease and ammonia burns. It is a similar story
in all other EC countries. In the USA, six billion broilers are
killed each year, of which 98 per cent are intensively reared in
the same conditions as those described here. We have turned a beautiful
wild creature into this travesty of a living thing, something whose
life is totally unsustainable without human intervention. Then we
have the audacity to market the flesh as a health product and the
intention, I’m afraid, is to make them grow even faster.
The industry’s journal, Poultry World, states that 40 years
ago, when the broiler industry started, it took a bird 84 days to
reach the same weight which it now achieves in only 42 days. Each
year brings a reduction of one day in that growth time and in the
USA, a 1.8 kg bird can be produced in 35 days.
There are obvious and humanitarian ways to reduce the suffering
of broiler chickens, the simplest being to reduce stocking densities,
reduce the length of the artificially lit day and limit the food
intake. But that, of course, is too immediate and too simple and
doesn’t involve sub-committees and research periods and consultative
bodies and no one makes money out of it.
Dr Colin Whitehead of the Agricultural and Food Research Council,
speaking on the Horizon programme, sums up the likely way forward:
I don’t think it’s right that we breed birds that
are deformed but I think it’s up to the skill of the geneticist
and the breeder to try to solve these problems during the breeding
process - in other words, to put selection pressure against these
deformities so that the birds they produce would still be considered
to be metabolically fit.
However, it is precisely this system which has caused the problem
in the first place. Meanwhile, the suffering goes on.
Nowhere is it felt more acutely than in the turkey shed. But first
I want to tell you a true story.
Some acquaintances went to a local farm in December 1994 to choose
a turkey for Christmas. It was a family outing and they were expecting
to survey an array of carcasses, neatly hanging, plucked and devoid
of life. What they saw was a selection of very live birds, wandering
around in all the bizarre gaudiness that turkeys are born with.
Selection suddenly took on a very different dimension. From simple
meat shoppers these people were transformed into dispensers of death.
The father tried to be very unemotional. ‘Well, they’re
all going to die anyway!’ But it was unconvincing.
Nevertheless, having settled on a turkey of the right weight,
the decision was made. Then, as though by divine providence, the
bird waddled up to them. At this, the younger daughter burst into
tears and the elder daughter shouted out: ‘How could you,
Daddy?’ and turned her back. When the farmer’s hand
reached out to grab Bert, because the bird had by now acquired a
name, the whole family burst into tears.
The outcome was that Bert went home with them, but in the boot
of the car, with all his feathers intact and very much alive. He
is now the family pet and out of deference to him Christmas dinner
that year was vegetarian. Now their whole diet is. Bert is an individual
- a bit of a character with an enormous personality and a sense
of both fun and mischief and the whole family is horrified that
they might have eaten him.
The whole point of this story is to counter the perception of
farm animals as nothing more than programmed creatures with little
individuality. They are, we are led to believe, almost entirely
functional and imbued only with those abilities which are inherent
in their genes - feeding, procreating, defecating and incapable
of learning or individual action. Anyone who has ever spent much
time around animals knows this to be a total nonsense. However,
the more we perceive animals to have a specific character or personality,
the harder it is to close our eyes to their suffering. Which of
us would allow our pet dog to lie in the corner whimpering in pain
week after week? But those of us who eat meat allow something very
similar to happen in our name.
Bert the turkey was lucky in that he was the product of a free
range farm and was saved the hock and breast burns which most turkeys
are forced to live with. But he too bears all the defects of human
intervention that broiler chickens bear, again caused through selective
breeding and dietary control.
Wild turkeys are striking and handsome and not even a fraction
of the size of some of the white-feathered Christmas obscenities.
The plumage of their wing and tail feathers is black, an iridescent
black which shimmers with flashes of glistening red, green and copper
hues, contrasting with their white wing bars. Like pheasants, they
roost in trees but build their nests on the ground. They have an
extraordinary defence mechanism - speed! When disturbed or threatened,
they hurtle away in a whirring, rocketing explosion of flight, keeping
low to the ground and hitting an incredible 88 km/h. They can keep
this up for more than a kilometre and a half. Hardly surprising
that such creatures have taken badly to intensive farming.
The majority of the 38 million slaughtered annually in Britain
spend their 12 to 26-week lives in conditions similar to broiler
chickens or in pole barns, beginning at one day old when they are
known as ‘poults’ . Although pole barns do have natural
light and ventilation, they are only a small improvement on broiler
sheds and the turkeys are still subjected to appalling overcrowding
and insanitary, leg-burning litter. Their natural diet of seeds,
nuts, roots, grubs, grasses, legumes and the occasional slug or
snail is substituted by a boring, endless regime of identical high-protein
The downfall of the turkey is its breast. The ability to afford
a huge-breasted turkey for Christmas or Thanksgiving has become
the touchstone of affluence for many. People sit around a groaning
table, applauding a genetic monstrosity. The focal point of this
festival of peace on Earth, or safe deliverance in the case of Americans,
is a creature which has spent its life in abject misery, could barely
walk and was a product of artificial insemination, because turkeys
are no longer capable of natural procreation. The bloated breast,
so lovingly carved, is the very thing which prevents the sexual
organs of male and female turkeys from ever meeting. Not much of
a celebration for them.
One would think that a festival based on all the more progressive
aspects of the human psyche, proclaiming forgiveness, forbearance
and goodwill, would involve a type of food which did not need to
have its throat cut and which could barely walk.
One of the reasons why turkeys waddle, if they walk at all, is
degeneration of the hip joints. In this ball and socket mechanism,
much of the weight is distributed through a pad of cartilage called
the ‘antitrochanter’. Under the stress of carrying a
body that can reach 27 kg (the weight of an eight or nine-year old
child) in the largest breeding males, this structure breaks down,
leading to degeneration of the joint. This is a result of the meat
industry’s constant drive to produce as much saleable meat
as possible and as little of everything else - incidental things
such as the skeleton - that has no retail value. And that means
manipulating the shape of the animals to suit market demands.
Again, Dr Colin Whitehead of the Agricultural and Food Research
Council has identified the scale of the problem. Amongst the biggest
and heaviest birds he put it as high as 70 per cent:
When we look at the nature of these very severe lesions in turkeys
it is probable that the birds are suffering pain rather than just
This conclusion is backed up by a worker at a Bernard Matthews
farm who was secretly filmed for a Channel 4 documentary screened
in December 1995 called ‘This Turkey Business’. He explains
that he has had to kill 400 birds in one day because ‘they
get various diseases because they’re so intensive’.
When asked why some birds were hobbling, he replied:
They get leg problems here because the birds are so heavy the
fluid in the knee joint...goes septic and then starts to go black,
like blood poisoning all up the leg. They won’t accept that
down at the factory because that contaminates the whole line...we
just kill it and throw it out and it goes for dog meat or for maggots
Many of the practices inflicted on battery hens and broiler chickens
are also carried out on turkeys, including debeaking, and again,
the problems of an inadequately developed heart lead to frequent
heart attacks. Every year in Britain some two and a half million
birds die from this and other diseases caused by intensive farming.
Growth-promoting antibiotics are routinely fed to both turkeys and
**Professor John Webster states in his book Animal Welfare: A
cool eye towards Eden:
Approximately one quarter of the heavy strains of broiler chicken
and turkey are in chronic pain for approximately one third of their
lives. Given that poultry meat consumption in the UK exceeds one
million tonnes per annum, this must constitute, in both magnitude
and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s
inhumanity to another sentient animal.
The justification for all intensive rearing methods is always
public demand - freedom of choice. The implication is that to restrict
choice is somehow an affront on personal liberty. Yet we can’t
choose to run over old ladies on pedestrian crossings, drive without
a safety belt or shout rude words at religious evangelists in the
high street. Why should we have the choice to inflict suffering
on sentient creatures? The freedom to choose is utterly valueless
without freedom of information. I wonder how broiler chicken and
turkey sales would be affected if they carried a Government health
warning - perhaps something like: ‘This bird was reared in
pain in a rat-infested shed on disease-ridden bedding. It is endemically
diseased. It is bad for your health, bad for the environment and
is probably infected with salmonella which can kill you. Enjoy!’
As my introduction to the brave new world of intensive broiler
chicken production came to an end and the shed door closed behind
me, the tweeting of 20,000 birds, the stench of their living conditions
and the sight of their pathos all disappeared. The sense of disgust,
however, has always remained with me. I have the absolute conviction
that we have produced a system which is unsustainable. Creatures
which have little ability to live without human intervention, which
need to be constantly medicated but are increasingly failing to
survive, represent a disaster waiting to happen. And that’s
without even considering the morality of it.
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