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As if the miseries of factory conditions, mastitis, and paralysis were not enough, the downer cow is dragged to the slaughter line for money. The humane thing to do would be to euthanize her at the farm, but her owner would lose a few hundred dollars from her sale and then have the chore and expense of disposing of her dead body.
A “downer”—end of the line for many dairy cows. Today’s factory dairy cows have none of the bucolic lifestyle depicted in calendars and storybooks. They are stressed by back-to-back pregnancies and constant confinement. Their ultra-rich diet promotes milk production, but it is unnatural and harmful for ruminants. Daily injections of bovine growth hormones push up milk volume, metabolic rate, and, of course, stress. Factory dairy cows wear out and go to auction after one or two “lactations.” That’s 4 to 5 years old—the prime of life. Stressed from factory conditions and painful mastitis, cows weaken, fall down, and can’t get up. Now she is a “downer”; she will be shackled, dragged onto a truck, and hauled to the stockyard or auction.
Another type of feedlot, or CAFO-confined animal feeding operation. Industry prefers “CAFO,” considers “factory farming” derogatory. This CAFO holds beef cattle under a roof and on “slatted floors”—planks of reinforced concrete spaced an inch apart. Wastes fall through the spaces and collect in a holding pit.
A broiler house: 20,000 birds in one large room: Gallus domesticus evolved living in flocks of about 90 birds, leaving today’s broiler chickens ill-equipped to cope in such large, crowded flocks. They cannot achieve social order (as in “pecking” order) and submissive birds have no escape. The air they breathe is polluted with corrosive ammonia fumes from manure and dust from the feeders and litter. Decades of rigidly selective breeding for birds that grow big fast has produced a set of special health problems. Crippling is one. Leg bones, tendons and muscles develop more slowly than their big bodies, so the birds stagger or crawl about on manure-soaked litter. Their bellies and chests become raw; they develop blisters. Their short lives are a living hell. The machinery of broiler housing has improved since 1978: better automatic feeders, waterers, and fans, but there has been little improvement in the standard of living for broiler chickens.
Chickens have come to be known according to how they are cooked for eating—hence, “broilers” and the “broiler industry.” Shown are newly debeaked chicks on the floor of a broiler house. The broiler industry has since abandoned the practice of debeaking broiler chicks because the birds do not live long enough (6 weeks) to become mature enough to peck, fight, and cannibalize each other as they tend to do in such crowded quarters. According to USDA, the U.S. broiler industry kills about 10 billion (yes, billion) birds a year to feed appetites for chicken.
Chicken manure piles up beneath the cages; the factory smells of stench and is suffocated in ammonia.
Egg factories come in different sizes and heights. Here, a “silo” factory tiers cages at an exaggerated height.
Can you count the hens in this cage? We saw as many as nine hens per cage in some operations. A typical layer cage offers floor space roughly the size of a tabloid newspaper. After a year or two of such conditions, layer hens wear out and their productivity drops to the point that it is no longer profitable to feed them. These “spent hens” were once sold to soup companies, but this is no longer profitable. Today, they are pulled from the cages, run through a macerator (think wood-chipper), and the goo becomes a protein additive to animal feeds. Today, there is controversy over what is a humane space for layer hens. The norm is about 67 inches per bird; i.e., an area 6.7 by 10 inches (a sheet of copier paper is 8.5 by 11 inches). Federal bills pending would, if enacted, require enlarged, enriched cages, and more floor space per bird.
Oops! the egg industry now prefers the term “beak-trimmed.” “Debeaking” was the term in use in all industry publications when we were researching and writing Animal Factories in the late 1970s. Subsequent controversy caused industry leaders to come up with the euphemism, “beak trimming.” Layer hens are confined to cages to cut the cost of labor in feeding, watering, and egg collection. They are stuck in them for at least one year, often two years. Crowded and stressed by competition for feed and space, birds’ adaptive behavior goes haywire and some peck others to death. The egg industry still calls this “cannibalism,” and they have not, to my knowledge, come up with a euphemism.
One of 3 levels of cages in a layer house. Conveyor belts move feed in and eggs out. Each level is offset over a pit under the floor where manure piles up. Still, the lower birds are subject to droppings from above.
Wide exposure of such images caused outrage and calls for better laws. Have these efforts stopped cruel treatment of worn-out dairy cows? I’m doubtful when I: Consider the cattle industry’s views of animals, its cowboy traditions. Consider our human tendency to avoid the unpleasantries of animal agribusiness—and agribusiness’s eagerness to please us by hiding them. Consider the cost (not to mention improbability) of effective government oversight. Consider the diminishing returns of animal activist scrutiny. The farm state legislatures are passing “ag-gag” laws to keep prying eyes and video cameras out of factory farms, stockyards, and slaughterhouses.
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