By Ingrid Newkirk
The week before the venerable Easter bunny hops down the lane this year,
Americans will purchase a whopping billion and a half eggs, give or take a
few hundred thousand. That’s double the number of any other week of the year
and a staggering amount of cholesterol – enough to make us rethink the
emphasis on the boiled egg for this holiday.
You might want to consider giving up the bird flesh, too.
In 2000, Americans ate a mind-boggling nine billion
birds, about one million chickens an hour. In some parts of the world, the
feet and eyeballs are roasted but, here in America, we shun those parts and
grind them back into chicken feed. We like to guzzle the gizzards, lunch on
the liver, and bury our chops in the wings and thighs. Most of all, we are
breast men and women. Of course, since chickens are fed the bits we reject,
including their combs and wattles and face parts, in the end our recycling
means that the bits consumers find horrid are integrated back into the body
parts consumers buy.
Recently, a woman in Hampton, Virginia, made headlines when she opened
her cardboard box of fast-food chicken and found, inside, a little hen’s
head, cut off
at the neck, covered in batter, eyes closed. This was a “laying hen,” and
the acceptable bits of “spent hens” like her, those whose output has
declined, usually end up as parts and in soup. The hen’s beak was blunt. It
had been severed to stop her from injuring the five to nine other hens
crammed into a cage the size of a file cabinet drawer (the industry
Of course, the woman who bought the box of bits wanted a different body
part–not this “disgusting” head thing. If she could see how chickens are
raised, she might actually have wanted a soy “chicken” instead.
Twenty-first century farming has brought us a very different world from the
time when President Roosevelt promised two
chickens in every pot. Back then, hens felt earth, not wire, under their
feet. They enjoyed the sunshine instead of burning their nostrils on the
stench of ammonia caused by the accumulation of their droppings in sheds
that can house from 10,000 to a million birds for eight weeks without being
cleaned. Back then, birds preened for the rooster instead of ending up
bloodied and featherless from being forced against the sides of their wire
Nowadays, most small farms and almost all “free range” chickens have gone
the way of the typewriter. Factory farm conglomerates have taken over. Many
are owned by the pharmaceutical companies that market the hormones that
build birds with such large breasts their leg-bones crack under the
strain of supporting them, as well as the drugs that must now be administered
birds to prevent them from succumbing to diseases brought on by the stress
associated with “intense population density,” that is, overcrowding.
American’s chicken flesh addiction causes today’s birds unimaginable
suffering from shell to slaughterhouse hell. Chicken “processing plants” are
neither humane nor hygienic. In December, 2000, any doubts about their
cleanliness should have been laid to rest with the largest meat recall in US
history. Condemned poultry parts, infected with listeria, caused four
deaths, some miscarriages and much illness before the recall whistle blew.
Also in December, while outgoing president Bill Clinton was pardoning Archie
Schaffer of Arkansas’ Tyson Foods (Mr. Schaffer had been found guilty of
attempting to influence former USDA chief Mike Espy over matters of
agriculture policy), poultry processors were welcoming incoming president
George W. Bush, their hearts and their internal bulletins brimming with hope
that the new president will accomplish without penalty of law exactly what
Mr. Schaffer wanted, a relaxation of food safety regulations.
If you starve your dog, you can go to jail. If you starve a chicken, it
depends where you live and why. In many states all agricultural practices
involving chickens are exempt from the law, not for scientific reasons (if
you listen to
chickens squawk, their pain and fear is evident), but for economic ones.
Today, chickens are routinely starved for up to two weeks to escalate their
Video footage shot by People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals and local humane agencies in Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina,
California and other states, show other cruelties, too. Chickens are
debeaked without anesthetic, packed into cages so tightly that they peck
each other bloody trying to reach food and water or attempting to sit down.
They are left to die of wounds and injuries without painkillers or
treatment, and that those in serious pain or dying are routinely smothered
or left to rot after being tossed into dumpsters and pits while still alive.
For those of us who like the taste of chicken but do not countenance
cruelty, the twenty-first century has brought us options President Roosevelt
never dreamed of. Plastic Easter eggs filled with candy delight children,
and while the uninitiated make fun of tofu in the same way they make fun of
the World Wide Web, this Chinese food discovery is exciting and versatile.
Learn how to season it to taste like chicken or duck and you can batter and
fry it or use it for Kiev and casseroles. Faux is
indistinguishable from fowl.
As a child I know once remarked, “Wow! It tastes like the real dead thing.”
And for birds and the people who care not to harm them, that puts us one step
closer to what George W. Bush’s father dream of a “kinder, gentler world.”
Ingrid Newkirk is president of the international animal rights organization
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), headquartered in Norfolk,
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