Giving live animals as Easter gifts has been a tradition for decades, as a child I received a rabbit one Easter and baby chicks the Easter after. And beside my anecdotal evidence of the chicks wreaking havoc in my family’s backyard, there are serious humane and public health reasons to stick to chocolate gifts this Easter.
Year after year hundreds of human illnesses and agonizing deaths for baby chicks, ducks and rabbits are caused by this gift giving tradition. However, this has done nothing to curb the practice.
From 2000 through 2018 there were 76 Salmonella outbreaks linked to live poultry. Those outbreaks sickened 5,128, resulting in 950 hospitalizations and 7 deaths. The number of individual cases of Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter and other infections from children playing with live chicks, ducks and bunnies is unknown.
Part of the problem is that children are among the most likely to not observe good hygiene around the animals and children don’t have mature immune systems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that children younger than five years of age shouldn’t handle or touch chicks, ducklings or other poultry, as young children are even more likely to get sick from germs like Salmonella.
In 2020, CDC and public health officials in all 50 states investigated 17 multistate outbreaks of Salmonella illnesses linked to contact with poultry in backyard flocks. The number of illnesses reported this year was higher than the number reported during any of the past years’ outbreaks linked to backyard flocks.
As of Dec. 17, 2020, a total of 1,722 people infected with one of the outbreak strains of Salmonella were reported from all 50 states — 333 people were hospitalized and there was one death. Twenty-four percent of ill people were children younger than five years of age; 576 of the 876 ill people interviewed reported contact with chicks and ducklings.
People reported obtaining chicks and ducklings from several sources, including agricultural stores, websites and hatcheries.
Humane societies and animal rights groups across the U.S. advise against purchasing these pets as Easter gifts. A leading concern among these groups is the risk of animal “dumping.” This happens after the child has lost interest in the pet and the parent releases the animal into the wild. This can lead to tragedy on part of the pet and is an ecological concern.
For instance, domestic rabbits are not prepared for life in the wild and make easy prey for predators. They also will compete with other rabbit species in the area, potentially destroy native plants and can reproduce rapidly. Domestic rabbits can also carry and spread diseases, such as the RHD virus, to the indigenous rabbit species.
For more information on handling chicks safely watch the short video below.
About Salmonella infections
Food contaminated with Salmonella bacteria does not usually look, smell or taste spoiled. Anyone can become sick with a Salmonella infection. Infants, children, seniors, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of serious illness because their immune systems are fragile, according to the CDC.
Anyone who has handled live poultry and developed symptoms of Salmonella infection should seek medical attention. Sick people should tell their doctors about the possible exposure to Salmonella bacteria because special tests are necessary to diagnose salmonellosis. Salmonella infection symptoms can mimic other illnesses, frequently leading to misdiagnosis.
Symptoms of Salmonella infection can include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within 12 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food. Otherwise, healthy adults are usually sick for four to seven days. In some cases, however, diarrhea may be so severe that patients require hospitalization.
Older adults, children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients, are more likely to develop a severe illness and serious, sometimes life-threatening conditions.
Some people get infected without getting sick or showing any symptoms. However, they may still spread the infections to others.
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Our rooster, Glippie, sings on the roof of his house, adding to the music of the yard a steady, quiet trill. Living with chickens has made me realize how tuneful and talkative these fascinating birds are. The language of chickens is an essential part of their personalities and of their highly developed social life. Chickens start talking even before they are born.
Communication from inside the egg and after hatching
Peep! About twenty-four hours before a chick is ready to hatch, it starts peeping to notify its mother and siblings that it is ready to emerge from its shell. This activity, which biologists call “clicking,” helps to synchronize the hatching of the baby chicks. A communication network is established among the chicks, and between the chicks and their mother, who must stay calm and unruffled for as long as two days while all the peeping, sawing, and breaking of eggs goes on underneath her. Since some of the chicks may have aborted in the shell during incubation, the peeps inform her how long she needs to continue sitting on the nest.
Peeps and clucks. As soon as all the eggs are hatched, the hungry mother and her brood go forth eagerly to eat, drink, scratch and explore. The chicks venture away from their mother, communicating back and forth all the while by peeps and clucks. The hen keeps track of her little ones by counting the peeps of each chick and noting the emotional tones of their voices. When a chick becomes separated from its mother, it gives a distress call, and the mother hen dashes out to find it and, if the chick is in danger, to deliver it-hopefully-from the hole in the ground, tangled foliage, or threatening predator.
Chicken talk when hens and roosters coordinate
Nesting calls. When a hen is ready to lay an egg, she gives a pre-laying, or nesting, call, inviting her mate to join her in finding a nest site.
Together, the hen and rooster find and create a nest by pulling and flinging around themselves twigs, feathers, hay, leaves and loose dirt, after they have scraped a depression with their beaks and feet. But first comes the search.
Primeval grumbling growls and gentle squawks. When the rooster finds a place he likes (under a log, perhaps), he settles into it and rocks from side to side, while turning in a slow circle and uttering primeval grumbling growls which may or may not convince the hen that this is the place. She may accept it, or they may look for another site. Throughout the search, the hen squawks gently with her beak open, followed by a series of short squawks of diminishing intensity, to keep the rooster coming back to her while she is away from the protection of the flock.
Egg cackles. Upon laying her egg, the hen gives out an egg cackle to announce her happy accomplishment. This brings the rooster quickly to her side, and together they rejoin the flock. To human ears, the egg cackle resembles the chicken’s cry of alarm, but to the birds there is a clear difference. A hen with chicks will continue feeding during the egg call, but will dart for cover when the alarm call goes out.
The “come over here” squawk. Often I have heard one of our hens call out to her rooster partner: “I’m all alone. Get over here!” Our normally quiet hen, Petal, raises a ruckus if her adored Jules is out of her sight for long, even if she has not just laid an egg. Her otherwise demure little voice becomes SQUAWK, SQUAWK, SQUAWK. Jules lifts his head up, straightens up, mutters to himself in what can only be described as Chicken Talk, and does an about-face. Off he goes to comfort Petal. Silence.
Chicken talk: Rooster communications
Cock-a-doodle-doo. Why do roosters crow? Remember that chickens are originally from the jungle. Their wild relatives have lived in tropical forests for tens of thousands of years. Perched in the trees, and sensitive to infrared light, roosters see morning light at least forty-five minutes before we do.
They also have very keen ears, a distinct advantage when living amid dense foliage. It can be difficult to see a predator and keep track of one’s flock when the sub-flocks are constantly moving from place to place while feeding. Through their crowing, every rooster can recognize the crow of at least thirty other roosters, probably more. As the protectors of the flock, roosters are always on the lookout.
A rooster’s crowing has been a muse behind many artistic works.
A shrill cry. If a rooster spots danger, he sends up a shrill cry. The other roosters echo the cry. Thereupon, the whole flock will often start up a loud, incessant, drumbeating chorus with all members facing the direction of the first alarm, or scattering for cover in the opposite direction.
All clear? All clear! When it looks safe again, an “all clear?” query goes out from the rooster, first one, followed by the others, in their various new places. Eventually, the “all clear’ crow is sent up by the bird who first raised the alarm, and a series of locator crows confirms where every other rooster and his sub-flock are at this point.
The “here’s food” song! The finding of food elicits another kind of vocal communication within the flock. Roosters love to find food and call their hens to the feast while they play deferential host at the banquet. The speed and intensity of the “here’s food” song varies according to the type of delicacy and the amount.
According to a biologist, “Two or three kernels of corn elicit about half the intensity and speed between song peaks that several bugs will be granted. When the hens hear this song they and the chicks come running to check out what the rooster has found to eat.” Soon the good news is excitedly clucked to everybody to come join the party. Hens call their chicks to food in a similar clucking voice.
Soft trills and peeps. My first chicken was a crippled hen named Viva. She touched me deeply with her soft trills and peeps that seemed to come from somewhere in the center of her body, as her tail pulsed at precisely the same time.
The piping voice of woe. In addition to their other vocal language, chickens have a piping voice of woe and dreariness whenever they are bored or at a loose end.
Occasionally, one of our hens has to be kept indoors for a while, perhaps because she is recovering from an illness or because she is a newly rescued hen who has not yet joined the flock outside. Wearily, she will wander about the rooms, fretting, or tag disconsolately and beseechingly behind me, yawning and moaning like a soul in the last stages of ennui.
A huddle of peace and well-being. As boisterous as chickens often are in the resurgent dramas of their daily life, there is a stillness in them which includes singing, often at the end of a busy day as they settle down on their perches for the night.
The historian Page Smith says of the hen in The Chicken Book that she is “rich in comfortable sounds, chirps and chirrs, and, when she is a young pullet, a kind of sweet singing that is full of contentment when she is clustered together with her sisters and brothers in a huddle of peace and well-being, waiting for darkness to envelop them.”
KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. She is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities and other groundbreaking publications.
After the U.S. egg industry missed its own deadline to eliminate the practice, some wonder when change will ever come.
Visual: Edwin Remsburg / VW Pics via Getty ImagesBY JONATHAN MOENS03.15.20210 COMMENTS
EVERY YEAR,up to 7 billion day-old male chicks are tossed into shredding machines, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags — a process known as chick culling. This grim ritual is underpinned by both biology and economics: Male chicks don’t lay eggs, and they fatten up too slowly to be sold as meat. Across the globe, culling has become the default strategy for the egg industry to eliminate the unwanted hatchlings.
“It is horrible. You see these puffy, newly hatched chicks on a conveyor belt,” headed toward a large blade that slices them “into a gazillion pieces,” said Leah Garcés, president of Mercy for Animals, an animal rights advocacy group in the United States. In recent years, local and international animal rights groups, particularly in France, Germany, and the U.S., have been ramping up pressure on governments and the egg industry to commit to ending the practice — particularly given technological innovations that allow producers to identify the sex of a developing chick before it hatches. The process is called in-ovo sexing, and such technologies, versions of which are already deployed in some countries, can obviate the need for live chick culling.
Nearly five years ago, United Egg Producers, an agricultural co-operative whose members are responsible for producing more than 90 percent of all commercial eggs in the U.S., released a statement pledging to eliminate chick culling by 2020, or as soon as a “commercially available” and “economically feasible” technology became accessible. That pledge was negotiated with the Humane League, an animal rights nonprofit organization. But 2020 has come and gone, and while UEP’s pledge wasn’t legally binding, some egg industry leaders and scientists say there is little sign that the industry is anywhere near phasing in cull-free technologies that could still meet the colossal supply of more than 100 billion eggs produced every year in the U.S.
Part of the reason for the sluggish pace of change, critics say, is that the U.S. has been investing in and nurturing the development of sophisticated cull-free technologies that, while promising, remain expensive and could take several more years to develop, scale, and deploy across the nation — particularly given that the Covid-19 pandemic has shuttered labs and otherwise slowed the pace of innovation. Meanwhile, a method of in-ovo sexing of eggs is already being used in Europe — though some American stakeholders say that method, which involves creating a tiny hole in the eggshell with a laser, is sub-par, because it increases the risk of contamination. European developers dispute this, however, and as of this year, cull-free eggs are available in thousands of supermarkets in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France with only modest additional costs to consumers and hatcheries.
What’s clear is that as the hunt for a solution drags on, the U.S.-based culling continues apace. “I don’t like false promises,” said Michael Sencer, executive vice president for Hidden Villa Ranch, a California-based food company that owns egg and dairy subsidiaries. Sencer expressed support for UEP’s pledge, but he acknowledged, “They’ve supported a number of groups that said they could come up with the technology and nothing has happened.”
UEP declined to be interviewed by Undark and instead provided a press statement highlighting its continued commitment to end culling. “We remain hopeful a breakthrough is on the horizon,” Chad Gregory, president and CEO of UEP, said in the statement.
Whether U.S.-based producers could be nudged by critics to explore existing technologies rather than pursue new ones remains unclear, but both animal rights groups and industry leaders agree that chick culling is not only cruel — it is wasteful. “I mean, name another industry where 50 percent of the finished product immediately goes to the garbage can,” said Jonathan Hoopes, president of Ovabrite, a Texas-based startup developing an in-ovo sexing technique. Incubating male eggs also takes up unnecessary space, energy, and money, making a solution to culling in the interest of both animal rights activists and egg producers.
“Forgetting the ethics of not killing all those birds, look at the money saving,” said Sencer, who estimated that the industry could save billions of dollars with the right technology. “It’s mind-boggling.”
SINCE THE 2016 statement, the largest funding initiative to eliminate chick culling has come from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), which launched the “Egg-Tech Prize” — a public-private research initiative that provides funding for scientists and startups seeking to develop in-ovo sexing technologies — with Open Philanthropy in 2019. Deploying such a technology would not only make chick culling obsolete, it would also allow the industry to repurpose unwanted male eggs for food, animal feed, or vaccine development.
In November of 2019, FFAR announced six finalists who received more than $2 million in total seed funding to develop sex identification technologies. Phase II of the competition will award up to $3.7 million for a single working prototype.
Animal rights groups and industry leaders agree that chick culling is not only cruel — it is wasteful.
According to Tim Kurt, FFAR’s scientific program director, the deadline for submissions has been pushed back due to Covid-19 delays and is now scheduled for spring 2022. However, the foundation could also decide not to fund any of the teams if they are not satisfied with the timeline. That’s a prospect Tom Turpen, a contender for the prize, says is a real possibility, especially given that at least some of the teams — his included — have experienced setbacks since the start of the pandemic. With travel restrictions and university laboratories shut down, access to data, equipment, and supplies has made it harder for teams to make progress on particular aspects of their projects, says Kurt.
Finalists, who were awarded between $396,000 and $1.1 million dollars each include startups and research laboratories with big, out-of-the-box ideas. This includes Orbem, a German startup that sexes chicks by combining high-speed scanning of eggs with AI technology, and SensIT Ventures, Inc., a California-based company, which Turpen heads, that uses a microchip to sex chicks by identifying gases emitted by eggs early in development. The selection team specifically funded projects that could potentially upend the egg industry, says Kurt.
The technologies that were selected have “the potential to really transform the industry,” said Kurt, who was involved in the selection. “They might be a bit higher risk, but if they were successful, and our funding could help them become successful, they would really be the most ideal solution.”
For all of Undark’s coverage of the global Covid-19 pandemic, please visit our extensive coronavirus archive.
Kurt and other industry leaders are optimistic that some of these technologies will help eliminate chick culling in the near future, but others are less hopeful. Changing current practices, Sencer said, would require “billions of dollars of investment in new equipment. And it’s just not going to happen [quickly], it’s happening slowly.” Sencer added that he predicts the technology may be scalable towards the end of the decade.
Even researchers competing in the Egg-Tech Prize themselves admit that, while a sexing technology may be on the horizon, cull-free eggs won’t be scalable for at least two more years. Turpen says the biggest obstacle lies in developing a technology that is not only capable of rapidly and accurately sexing chicks, but is also readily affordable to consumers and hatcheries across the nation.
“You could do a lot of things to identify the sex of the egg. That’s not the point. The point is: Can you do it and still have eggs people can afford to eat?”
To avoid a surge in costs that would inevitably arise from suddenly adopting a new mode of production, Turpen says a more likely and more reasonable path to scaling this nationally would be a slow and incremental process. “The adoption and replacement of existing equipment — that’s going to look more like making the coal industry go away.” That industry “is going away,” Turpen said, “but it’s going to be a long time.”
Other researchers in the Egg-Tech Prize have also made it clear that an all-encompassing solution to culling is not around the corner. Benjamin Schusser, whose research with colleagues at the Technical University of Munich turned into the spin-off company, Orbem, declined an interview, saying “we don’t want to awake[n] hope that there is a solution almost ready for market.” Pedro Gómez, the CEO and co-founder of Orbem said in a 2019 interview with Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, that they hope to “classify one billion eggs per year by 2025.”
While a sexing technology may be on the horizon, cull-free eggs won’t be scalable for at least two more years.
Given the mismatch in expectations, some are baffled by UEP’s ambitious commitments to stamping out culling. Hoopes says the industry has made similar pledges in the past and they failed to yield tangible results.
But David Coman-Hidy, president of the Humane League, considers the progress in research and development since 2016 a “major win,” and credits the UEP pledge with heightening awareness about a cruel and largely unheard-of practice while bolstering innovation in in-ovo sexing technologies. In fact, the Humane League saw the 2020 goal as somewhat flexible, says Coman-Hidy. “Back then, it was such early days, we didn’t know how quickly or how many companies would get involved or what the research would look like.”
MEANWHILE, COMMERCIALLY VIABLE, in-ovo sexing technologies already exist in Germany and France. And Germany is poised to become the first country to ban industrial culling of male chicks, after the government approved a draft law to end the practice from 2022 onwards.
Currently, a company based in Germany and the Netherlands called respeggt GmbH uses in-ovo sexing by creating a tiny hole into the egg using a laser, extracting fluids, and sexing the chick by testing for specific hormones, explains Kristin Hoeller, head of business development and public affairs for respeggt. The technique, known as Seleggt, is based on research by scientists at the University of Leipzig and further developed in collaboration with REWE, a German supermarket chain, and HatchTech, a Dutch technology company specializing in incubation and hatchery equipment.
The method can sort chicks on the ninth day of development, when it is “exceptionally unlikely” that chick embryos experience any sensations whatsoever, David Mellor, professor emeritus of animal welfare science and bioethics at Massey University in New Zealand, wrote in an email. This is a crucial detail given that chick embryos have the capacity to experience pain at later stages of development. A procedure that might cause harm, such as using the male egg for food or vaccine development, may simply be shifting the cruel practice to an earlier stage, says Peter Singer, an animal rights advocate and professor of bioethics at Princeton University.
“The adoption and replacement of existing equipment — that’s going to look more like making the coal industry go away,” said Turpen.
Using this method, respeggt now has cull-free eggs in more than 6,000 supermarkets across France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, with hopes to expand further. They have also devised a ready-to-implement business strategy for producing commercial cull-free eggs. Hatcheries won’t have to invest anything, Hoeller said. Instead, costs will be passed onto centers where eggs are packed into cartons for commercial distribution. These packing stations will have to pay a license fee of around 2 Euro cents, about the same in U.S. currency, per egg. While respeggt plays no role in how supermarkets price eggs, the cost to consumers ranges between 2 and 5 Euro cents more per respeggt egg than regular ones.
Many U.S. experts, however, are concerned that creating a hole in the eggs could pose a serious food safety risk, given that it increases the chances of contamination from external sources. “It’s a risk that I think the industry would rather not take,” said Turpen. Kurt echoes this, saying that all finalists explicitly use non-invasive techniques to avoid this possibility. Focusing on non-invasive techniques also means they can be more easily repurposed for other scientific endeavors, such as vaccine development, he adds.
Hoeller disputes the suggestion that their technology poses an infection risk. “The perforation of the eggshell with the laser has no negative results at all,” she said, adding that the hole is so small it actually closes itself naturally within 30 minutes.
To be sure, some animal rights groups suggest that quibbling over a technological solution distracts from what they see as the real problem at hand: the egg industry itself. “Instead of putting a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid and trying to fix all these problems with more technology and more technology, here’s another idea: Why don’t we do plant-based eggs?” said Garcés. She and other animal rights activists point to food waste, animal suffering, and health-associated costs as reasons to divest money away from the egg industry to support companies that produce plant-based alternatives.
Short of that, though, other non-invasive egg sexing technologies have also been developed in Europe. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and amid pressure by the French government to ban culling by the end of 2021, Carrefoursupermarkets planned to launch their first round of cull-free eggs on May 1, 2020. However, experts note that this technology sexes chicks on the 13th day of development, a period where the chick fetus may experience pain. Anticipating these criticisms, the German company behind this technology, Agri Advanced Technologies GmbH, a subsidiary of EW Group, is currently developing another technology aimed at determining the sex of chicks on the fourth day of development.
While imperfect, Hoopes suggested that the existence of viable, up-and-running technologies in Europe raises questions about why the U.S. is taking a slower, more ambitious approach. But other experts speculate that the technologies being pursued in the U.S. may ultimately prove cheaper and more flexible in the long run. “You would think the simplest method of doing this would be the best,” said Singer. “But maybe for very large producers, the investment is worth it. Maybe it pays off in saving labor costs or other costs.”
At this point it’s not clear what the best strategy to eliminate culling is yet, says Singer, but he believes there is a moral imperative to at least try and stamp out the practice from hatcheries around the globe. It’s also important to continue to pressure the industry to change, he said, but change will require not only perseverance, but patience. “These things,” he said, “will take some time.”
Arlington, Ariz. – In honor of the more than 165,000 birds who burned to death when two massive sheds holding chickens at a facility owned by Hickman’s Family Farms—Arizona’s largest egg producer—were destroyed in a fire on Saturday, PETA plans to place a billboard in the area pointing out who’s responsible for their deaths: everyone who still buys eggs.
“Each one of these hens was an individual who surely felt pain and fear as smoke and flames engulfed her,” says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. “PETA urges everyone to prevent birds from being crammed into barns by the tens of thousands in the first place by taking the easy step of going vegan.”
Hens used for egg production are confined to cramped barns, where each bird has no more than a square foot of space. Few farms bother to go to the trouble or expense of installing smoke detectors or fire alarm systems, as they consider the lives of the birds to have such little value. When hens’ bodies wear out and they’re no longer considered profitable, egg producers stuff them into metal boxes and crudely gas them with carbon dioxide, which is distressing and painful—or send them to slaughterhouses, where workers cut their throats, often while they’re still conscious, and scald many to death in defeathering tanks.
PETA notes that going vegan spares animals immense suffering and helps prevent future epidemics and pandemics. SARS, swine flu, bird flu, and COVID-19 all stemmed from confining and killing animals for food.
PETA—whose motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to eat”—opposes speciesism, the human-supremacist worldview that other species are nothing more than commodities. For more information, please visit PETA.org.
“I am not sure to whom I should file a complaint. Perhaps you can point me in the right direction. I went to Tractor Supply to pick up sunflower seeds and to my horror I saw baby chicks for sale in a new display that houses the chicks of different breeds stacked on top of each other and they are walking on wire mesh! It was very disturbing and quite different from how they were housed last year. There is no place for them to rest/sleep comfortably and they looked very stressed. Thank you very much for reading my email. Please let me know if there is anything I can do. I am a certified veterinary technician and understand farming and keeping chickens. This new setup at Tractor Supply is inhumane.”
What Can I Do?
Sign and share our Change.org petition to Tractor Supply, which includes direct contact information for the company CEO Hal Lawton. Sign & Share.
Contact Mr. Lawton and tell him what you saw at your local store. Tell him the situation is inhumane and that you will not shop at Tractor Supply until it is rectified.
Speak to the local store manager and urge that the store provide proper bedding, sheltered resting areas and other comforts for these suffering chicks.
Post a comment. Each Tractor Supply store appears to have its own local Facebook page where it is advertising baby chicks for sale.
Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper(s) about this inhumane situation.
Alert your local humane society and urge them to intervene with the local Tractor Supply to help these chicks.
Tractor Supply and other farm supply stores are notoriously neglectful and indifferent toward the chicks and ducklings they display and sell each spring in thousands of local stores. This new way of keeping these baby birds, in stacked drawers on wire mesh, exceeds even the traditional inhumaneness. In addition, these stores are teaching customers by their example that such inhumane treatment is acceptable, thus encouraging buyers to imitate the abuse.
New York legislators are considering a bill that would prohibit shipping live animals within the state.A new bill proposes banning mail order chicks in New York.Photography by Stephanie Frey via Shutterstock773SHARES
There are a lot of ways to look forward to a long winter’s end. For some people, it’s the arrival of tulips and daffodils. For others, it’s the song of nesting birds. But for many, there’s only one kind of spring fever they know—baby chick season. The United States Postal Service has been shipping chicks through the mail since 1918 and, until last summer, there’s only ever been a small contingent of people speaking out against it. Generally speaking, people either don’t know that hundreds of thousands of chicks are shipped every year to farms and individuals through the USPS or they’re the ones ordering them.
That changed when an article from the Portland Press Herald went viral in August 2020 and detailed how at least 4,800 chicks had died on the way to farms in Maine. Service cuts and delays at the USPS were largely blamed, but the issue of whether live animals should be shipped at all started attracting the attention of lawmakers. Earlier this month, Linda Rosenthal, a New York State assembly member from Manhattan, introduced a bill that would end the shipment of any live animals by mail into or within her state. In addition to day-old poultry, the bill would also impact the reptile trade, which frequently relies on the mail to move animals.
In the current version of the bill, each animal shipped would be counted as a separate offense—each punishable by a civil penalty of up to $1,000. That bill was referred to the agriculture committee where it seems unlikely to make much progress as written. This is because the USPS is a federal agency regulated by the constitution and, therefore, state bans can’t override federal law, says Kimberly Frum, a postal service spokesperson.
Since news of the bill started spreading through farming, hatchery and backyard chicken committees, lawmakers have heard from many businesses and individuals who are concerned about how a ban on shipping chicks could affect them. Catherine Raleigh-Boylan, a co-owner of Raleigh’s Poultry Farm in Kings Park, New York, says not having access to day-old chicks would affect her business drastically.
“It wouldn’t be cost effective at all,” she tells Modern Farmer. Raleigh-Boylan says that, even in 2020, she’s never had an issue with shipments from the post office to her farm—which was started by her parents and has been ordering chicks by mail for 60 years. “You might lose one or two out of two-hundred. The rest are always healthy,” she says.
While large, vertically integrated companies such as Tyson Foods have their own hatcheries and truck chicks between them and the farms that raise poultry for meat, most small farmers rely on getting multiple shipments of chicks in the mail throughout the year. Many individuals who raise chickens choose to buy them from local farm stores rather than through the mail, but the vast majority of those farm stores also get their chicks in large shipments through the USPS. Of course, those who don’t live close enough to a hatchery to pick up chicks in person could always order fertilized hatching eggs through the mail, but this would require buying an incubator and—if the owner wanted to vaccinate their chicks—doing it themselves despite the fact that most vaccines are only sold in batches between 500 and 10,000 doses.
Many farmers have a similar story to that of Raleigh-Boylan. John Metzer, the owner of Metzer Farms, a California hatchery, says he thinks the post office does a good job overall. “But, sometimes, somebody makes a mistake and puts the chicks on the wrong truck or forgets to take it off. It’s a human error thing,” says Metzer, who is also a board member of a group of hatchery owners called the Bird Shippers of America. Industry wisdom dictates that chicks are okay as long as they arrive at their final destination within 72 hours of their hatch date. Chicks absorb the yolk in their egg before hatching, which gives them enough nutrition that, in nature, they won’t starve to death while the rest of the hen’s clutch of eggs hatch; some always take longer than others. This is the basic principle that allows the mail order chick business to exist. Metzer says that 90 percent of his chicks get where they’re going within two days and the rest in three.
“The fact that they can not starve to death and die of dehydration in a 72-hour period does not make it humane,” says Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, an animal rights organization that focuses on poultry. She raises the point that because hatchery chicks are incubated en masse—and do hatch at different times—a chick that’s part of the “Monday” group didn’t necessarily hatch on Monday morning. “Seventy-two hours from when? When they’re put in shipping boxes or when they’re taken to a truck?” she says. If they have to be shipped at all, Davis would like to see chicks reach their final destination within 24 hours of hatching, although she doesn’t see an easy way to enforce it. There doesn’t seem to be any scientific research on how far apart chicks actually hatch on average under a hen and, therefore, how long chicks usually go without food or water after hatching in nature.
It’s clear that many farmers and backyard chicken keepers want the shipment of day-old chicks to continue. And, other than this summer, it’s not an issue that’s gotten a lot of attention even among the animal welfare community. “There’s so much to attend to as far as farmed animals are concerned,” Davis says. “You can go into a [factory farm] and videotape and document what’s going on there and show it on the internet, but you can’t really do that when the birds are in a cargo area of an airplane.” And other than dying on the way to their destinations, chicks don’t have a lot of ways to communicate how they feel about the experience of being shipped in the mail in a cardboard box. The wisdom thus far has seemed to be: As long as they arrive alive, the system is working.
But even within the industry, not everyone agrees that shipping day-old chicks should continue as is. “I think it’s ridiculous I can buy light bulbs and get them overnighted from China, but I put a baby chick on a plane and then get told it will be two to three days and no guarantee on that,” says Tom Watkins, vice president of Murray McMurray hatchery in Iowa. He thinks there’s a real need for kind and compassionate animal transportation. “I care very much about the chicks. Things are not ideal. While even [in] the best of circumstances not every chick will make it, we need to give them a fighting chance,” he says.
The chick shipping season generally goes from February through October, months that—especially lately—are full of winter snowstorms or heat waves, both of which can be deadly to chicks. Either the chicks can die from overheating or freezing or because of postal delays that take the chicks far beyond the 72-hour period. In mid-February 2021, winter storms were so severe that the USPS actually suspended the shipment of all live animals from February 12 through February 16. Because of the dates, it may not have had much of an effect on chicks (they usually ship on Monday or Tuesday), but, generally speaking, if the post office isn’t shipping chicks, it doesn’t mean the chicks aren’t hatching. Commercial hatcheries may be able to slightly delay hatching with advanced notice, but they certainly don’t have the resources to care for all the surprise chicks. (Hatcheries also can’t hold on to them and ship them a week later since the USPS only accepts day-old and adult birds.) MyPetChicken, a hatchery popular with backyard keepers, announced it was suspending chick shipments for the week of February 15 and “would use as many as possible” as six-week-old birds or perhaps put them back into their breeding program.
The 4,800 chicks that died in Maine got a lot of press thanks to the way they fit into the narrative about USPS delays over the summer. Regular—and some might say predictable—losses from the weather or chicks that are too weak after a long delay between hatching and getting into a heated brooder easily cause more deaths every year.
A farm store employee in the Pacific Northwest tells Modern Farmer that her store had an order of a few hundred chicks, hatched Tuesday, February 9 and set to arrive by Friday—before the USPS restriction on live animal shipment went into effect. Modern Farmer is not identifying the employee as she was not authorized to speak to the press about her job. The chicks got stuck on the way there because of the winter storm in the region. Between the delay and the long weekend, there’s no way that the chicks would make it to their final destination alive. “Other stores had non-arrival and delay notices, too,” she says. The number of chicks that don’t make it in time can add up quickly when multiplied across farm stores and personal orders throughout a weather-affected region.
She adds that February cold snaps are common and are why she never orders chicks this early. She also avoids even incubating them at home due to the risk of the power going out and the chicks’ heat source with it. “I’d prefer to see them start shipping in March when the temperatures don’t seem to be quite as extreme,” she says, adding that she wished more hatcheries had a policy of not shipping during weeks with a federal holiday. “Unfortunately, consumer demand drives us to purchase and ship them this early.” And since the pandemic started, that demand has skyrocketed.
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A Costco-owned slaughterhouse is being accused of engaging in “cruel” animal practices including cramming chickens into “filthy sheds” and breeding them to grow to an unnatural weight.
An undercover investigation allegedly revealed how Lincoln Premium Poultry’s practices directly contrast “Costco’s claim that animal welfare is a critical component” of its chicken supply chain, according to Animal rights group Mercy for Animals “Revealing the hidden price of Costco chicken” investigation.
Representatives for Lincoln Premium Poultry did not immediately return FOX Business’ request for comment.
In 2019, farmers began raising chickens for the Nebraska slaughterhouse which supplies the wholesale club with many of the tens of millions of rotisserie chickens it sells each year, Mercy said.
Dios Ruiz, a service deli worker for Costco Wholesale Corp., places cooked rotisserie chickens in containers at a store in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011. Costco Wholesale Corp., a wholesale membership warehouse company, is (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)https://www.credible.com/partners-widgets/credit-card/rich-cta/?variation=interactive&theme=fox&credclid=abd3fbe6-22c0-4d39-90ec-3a324f3fc376&pageUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.foxbusiness.com%2Flifestyle%2Fcostco-rotisserie-chicken-animal-rights
One year later, the animal’s rights group said it discovered “large piles of dead, rotting animals” on the facility’s grounds outside the barns which housed live chickens.
“Costco members deserve to know the truth about where their chickens come from and how Costco is failing to live up to the animal welfare standards members expect and the company claims to support,” the group said.
Additionally, an undercover investigator captured animals being forced to live for weeks in their own waste while being raised to “grow so large so fast that they often cannot support their weight.” The animals allegedly struggle to walk and “many die from organ failure,” the group said.
Aside from the terrible living conditions, the investigator allegedly witnessed “countless birds with open wounds, ammonia burns, broken bones, and twisted necks and beaks,” the group said.
Costco told FOX Business that “independent audits are regularly performed to ensure all parties are consistently in compliance” and that Costco and Lincoln will “use the results of our audits as well as other sources of information, including this video” to further improve its animal welfare processes.
“Costco is committed to maintaining the highest standards of animal welfare, humane processes and ethical conduct throughout the supply chain,” the company said in a statement. “Lincoln Premium Poultry (LPP) shares our commitment, as do the independent growers selected for the program who have been carefully chosen based on our mutual business philosophies.”
Mercy for Animals says Costco has the “power to implement meaningful animal welfare requirements for these farms” and is urging the company to take action.
According to Mercy for Animals, over 200 companies have already adopted Better Chicken Commitment standards which “ban the worst cruelty from their operations” and so far, “Costco has failed to do the same.”
Increased line speeds benefit no one but chicken producers looking to fatten their profits. Even at existing speeds, conditions inside a slaughterhouse are already immensely dangerous and inhumane. Photo by Kharkhan_Oleg/iStock.com
The Biden administration has withdrawn a deplorable pending rule that would have allowed qualifying chicken slaughter plants in the United States to permanently dial up line speeds from an already inhumane and lightning-fast 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, under the Trump administration, approved waivers for slaughterhouses to operate at faster speeds. Dozens of chicken slaughterhouses received such waivers, including 16 that received waivers in the spring of 2020. It was a terrible decision given that slaughterhouses had been declared coronavirus hotspots. To add insult to injury, the Trump administration soon after began working on a new rule that would allow qualifying chicken plants to operate at the higher speed, without even applying for a waiver. In essence, chicken producers looking to make more profit could simply ratchet up the line speed to kill more chickens with no consideration for animal welfare or worker safety.
The Humane Society Legislative Fund had been working with key leaders in the House and Senate to advance a shift on this issue, directing the USDA to review its policy in the recently enacted omnibus appropriations package and critical lobbying to urge candidate Biden to speak out about line speeds on the campaign trail. Withdrawing this rule was one of our top priorities for the Biden administration. Next, we will continue to focus on ending the waiver for the dozens of slaughterhouses that are already operating at the higher speeds. We and our allies are already suing the USDA to stop this waiver program and revoke the waivers, and we are urging the USDA, under new leadership, to promptly do so.
Increased line speeds benefit no one but chicken producers looking to fatten their profits. Even at existing speeds, conditions inside a slaughterhouse are already immensely dangerous and inhumane. Workers, struggling to keep up with rapidly moving slaughter lines, grab the chickens and slam them into shackles, injuring the animals’ fragile legs while they’re still conscious. Some birds miss the throat-cutting blade and enter the scalder—a tank of extremely hot water—alive and fully conscious. Human injury rates are also high as workers struggle to keep up with fast-moving lines. Imagine the additional risks to animal welfare and worker safety from increasing line speeds even more.
Faster speeds also further increase the risk of pandemic spread in slaughterhouses, where more than 48,000 workers have already been infected with the coronavirus and at least 245 have died. In fact, other federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, had asked that line speeds be slowed down during the pandemic.
We are excited about today’s outcome—it is the right decision for worker safety, animal welfare, food safety and the mitigation of pandemic risk. But there is a great deal more we hope to accomplish in coming weeks and months. President Biden has a strong record on animal protection, and we will be working with his administration to withdraw harmful regulatory actions against animals taken under Trump, including the removal of slaughter speed limits at pig slaughterhouses. We will also work to undo a number of harmful rules finalized by the last administration, including reinstating protections for gray wolves, reversing harmful changes to the Endangered Species Act, and stopping harmful hunting practices on Alaska’s federal lands. It’s a new day, and we are excited to make this one of the best years ever for animal protection policy gains at the federal level.
UPC President Karen Davis’s Letter to the Editor appears Jan. 15, 2021, in Voices of Monterey Bay, a nonprofit online news source serving California’s Central Coast. The letter is a response to “Quieting the rooster chorus,” by Royal Calkins, Jan. 10, 2021 regarding the response of Monterey County officials to the campaign by SHARK & HFA to crush illegal cockfighting in the county.
To the Editor:
Thank you for covering this important milestone in the effort to eliminate illegal cockfighting in Monterey County (and elsewhere). Contrary to the claims of cockfighters, roosters bred for cockfighting are not born surrogates for their trainers. Roosters rescued from cockfighters can usually be rehabilitated to live like normal chickens with their hens in a place where they lose their fear of abuse and enjoy foraging in the soil, sunbathing, dustbathing, perching in trees, and socializing as Nature intended. We currently have four roosters rescued from cockfighting operations in our predator-proof outdoor aviary in Virginia. Over the years we’ve adopted roosters from raids in Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia.
I hope this new task force will effectively curb staged cockfights in Monterey County. Studies of feral chickens, such as the McBride study of flocks off the coast of Queensland, Australia in the 1960s, report that roosters are busy foraging, raising their families, and keeping an eye out for predators: “No serious fights were observed,” the McBride researchers wrote. (McBride, G., et al. 1969. “The Social Organization and Behaviour of the Feral Domestic Fowl,” Animal Behaviour Monograph, pp. 127-181.)
https://v.kr.kollus.com/py5JO1bo?player_version=html5+ Text Size Large / – SmallTo stop the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza(AI), the South Korean government has temporarily banned the movement of people connected to poultry farms around the country this weekend. A task force at the ministry of agriculture says that over 10 cases of the disease have occurred at poultry farms in five cities and provinces. Highly pathogenic bird flu is contagious, can cause severe illness, and kill poultry. Animals, farm owners, and vehicles from poultry farms and related facilities like feed factories and slaughterhouses have been banned from traveling. The task force will be checking locations and can punish farm owners if they violate the law. In the meantime, poultry farms, related facilities, and vehicles will be disinfected.