Have you ever wondered what it’s like to go into a chicken factory farm and witness for yourself the misery of the young birds crammed inside?
One of the brave volunteer investigators of Farmwatch shares, in a very personal way, just what it was like to gather the footage that was released by Radio New Zealand earlier this week.
From the exterior of this huge warehouse-like building, we can hear the faint chattering of young birds. High pitched and constant.
The massive fans blow dusty, smelly air in our faces and machinery noises heave on and off alarmingly. The grass is wet and boggy. We put on our boot covers. When the door opens I feel a rush of heat and there is an overpowering sickly sweet putrid stench. It’s dark and claustrophobic.
We get busy fumbling around with our gear, screwing on lights, zipping up bags, and slowly turning camera lights on dimly as we try to avoid scaring the birds. They get scared anyway.
I scan the sea of bodies for where to start.
The chickens move away from us, terrified, but they have nowhere to go. This giant shed is filled with around 40,000 other bodies in the way. They crowd together to avoid us.
The birds are large – I guess about five weeks old, so their disabilities are really starting to show. They barely walk, taking only a few stiff steps, then sit down again. At this age, their bodies are unnaturally large, and they are almost ready to be caught and killed for the supermarket freezer.
After about one minute I spot a dead chicken on the ground, being stood upon by other chickens. This body has been there a while, a few days at least. It’s red, swollen and decomposing. I know this death was unlikely to have been a fast one.
I kneel down to film – the ground is hot and spongy. My knee slides a little in the wetness. A chicken defecates right next to me, to remind me of what I’m kneeling in.
The floor litter is never changed in the lifetime of these birds, so it’s a thick hot layer of faeces from tens of thousands of chickens.
I notice a bird sitting underneath one of the pan feeders with legs splayed out. I immediately recognise this common sign of lameness. I’ve seen it so many times before. This chicken can’t stand, and will struggle to reach the feed. I sit nearby and watch.
She spins around in frustration, her wings flapping as she struggles to get up. After a few attempts, she gets to the edge of the feeder and just reaches her beak over the edge, but can’t quite get to the feed. She gives up and collapses back down. I know she will likely die here, right under the food. I push that thought away as there’s work to do.
Straight away I see another bird, flat on the ground, legs splayed out unnaturally. Flapping, struggling, desperately trying to stand. I grab some feed out of the feeder for them to eat. But I know it’s the lack of water that will probably kill them first.
I look over at the line of birds drinking from the water drippers – they are standing tall and stretching their necks out to reach the water. The birds with splayed legs have no chance of getting anywhere near that water.
I think to myself, “How is this shit legal? These birds are going to lie here and die slowly from lack of food and water on the floor of this disgusting shed”. Anger rises, but again, I shut it down – I have to get on with my work. Focus. Focus.
Without even moving further into the shed I see another two birds with that same characteristic leg sticking out sideways. They are everywhere. It’s a defect in the genetics of the breed. The industry knows all about it – it’s just one of the many issues caused by growing birds far too fast and keeping them in industrial unnatural environments such as this. And this is a free-range shed, apparently ‘premium’ conditions.
If people saw this for themselves and understood what it means to live (and die) in these windowless barren factories, they wouldn’t buy products like this.
But maybe my expectations are too high. Who knows? What I do know is that chickens are sweet, curious, and intelligent, and a life like this is a shameful example of what we have done to animals for cheap meat.
As I sit filming, a chicken sidles up to me, curious about the camera. I notice her blue eyes. She’s cautious, and I slowly reach out to pat her head, but she darts away – she doesn’t want a bar of it.
We finish up filming and I look back at that first bird sitting underneath the feeder, still sitting there, defeated. Briefly, it crosses my mind to take her out of there, stuff her in my jacket and give her a nice life for a little while. But I know the reality, I’ve been here before. These birds aren’t bred to live past six weeks. There are skilled people who would do their best for her, with a lot of resources, time and kindness. But she won’t live long. She will be in pain.
We leave and I never forgive myself.
When we return to the car we are informed that we smell really bad. There’s really no smell quite like the smell of a broiler chicken shed.
There are hundreds of ‘farms’ just like this one across New Zealand. And that number is growing fast.