05/06/2015 12:37 EDT | Updated 05/06/2016 05:59 EDT

We Need to Talk About the Inhumane Treatment of Chickens

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When I was a kid, I had a pet rooster named Fluke. He followed me everywhere, took naps in my arms, and would perch happily on my shoulder (until he got too big for my eight-year-old frame to handle). I loved spending time with chickens as a child -- they're smart, curious animals with bubbly personalities, and I cared for Fluke as much as I did for my other pets.

Today, chicken farms dot the highways across Canada, but you might not have ever noticed them. They're tough to spot: most are long, windowless sheds with nary an animal in sight -- not exactly what you or your kids might be scanning the landscape for. It's staggering to think that while chickens represent six out of every seven farm animals in Canada, they spend their lives completely hidden.

The truth is that almost all chickens raised for meat spend their short lives confined in these locked barns and are killed before they're two months old. Our eating habits currently sanction the slaughter of nearly two million of these animals per day, the vast majority of whom are treated by the industry as meat-producing machines, forced to live through a mechanized, hellish experience.

Birds raised for meat are bred to grow so large, so fast, that their bodies collapse under the strain of their unnatural weight. Their abnormal growth makes them more susceptible to injury during transport and slaughterhouse shackling, and broken legs and wings are common. Because these birds are viewed as mere production units, these injuries receive no attention, and animals are often left to suffer in agony during their last hours.

If your local SPCA habitually allowed dogs and cats to languish with excruciating injuries, or turned a blind eye while countless animals in its care died during transport, it would be rightly shut down by provincial inspectors. Yet the routinely barbaric abuse of chickens is an uncomfortable reality that exists nationwide -- a direct result of the high demand for legs, breasts and wings.

A recent undercover investigation by Mercy For Animals Canada offered a rare glimpse of the birds who'll end up as playoff buffalo wings in the weeks to come. For most people, the footage wasn't easy to watch. The images showed thousands of birds stuffed into transport crates, some of them frozen to death from their journey in open trucks through bitter temperatures. The birds were roughly pulled from the crates and hung upside down to start a torturous journey on a factory line whose steps include paralyzing the birds with an electric current (which may not even render them stunned), cutting their throats open by a mechanized blade, and dragging them through a vat of scalding water to loosen their feathers. And while the scenes depicted some illegal practices, the fact is that most of what appeared was of an acceptable industry standard.

When routine practices are enough to make us cover our eyes, it's understandable that Canadians are asking more questions about how animals are treated. Knowing that every trip to the grocery store comes with the caution "Warning, graphic images," is pushing more people than ever towards changing their purchasing choices.

Canadians have the power to change the lives of these overlooked animals, and thankfully, we're starting to do exactly that. We can each practice what Humane Society International calls the Three Rs: "reducing" or "replacing" consumption of animal products, and "refining" our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards. Individuals nationwide are reducing their consumption of chickens and other animals, meaning fewer birds will be crammed onto warehouse floors and run through slaughterhouse lines. This means less suffering, and also means producers --having to raise and process fewer animals -- can offer animals a higher level of care.

The price currently paid by animals just like Fluke -- each of whom is an individual with a personality and a desire to avoid suffering -- in Canada each day is too high for a civilized society to accept. With a growing revulsion at how we routinely abuse animals -- and increased focus on plant-based eating -- it seems we may be on a path to create a much more humane food system, and a much more humane society.


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