On September 1st 1914, in Cincinnati Zoo – one of the oldest in the United States – at around 5:00pm, a bird called Martha, named after George Washington’s wife, was found dead at the bottom of her cage.
Martha was the last of a species called the passenger pigeon. A hundred years earlier, there had been more passenger pigeons than any other bird on the planet. Alexander Wilson, an early proponent of what we’d now call bird-watching, wrote of a flock he saw passing between Kentucky and Indiana in 1800 and estimated it was made up of 2.2 billion birds. Other early settlers in North America wrote of the bird’s migrations as extending for miles on end and tended to put its population somewhere around 4 billion. Their flocks, it was said, would cause the skies to grow dark, the air thunderous with the beating of their wings. One flock, seen in Ontario in 1866, took a full 14 hours to pass over a single point.
The arrival of man into any landscape pretty much always results in a demise of native wildlife: settlers expand out into their surroundings, claiming areas for farming, lumber and fuel. Like all creatures native to these areas the passenger pigeon suffered from this expansion; but, on the whole, their decline was executed in a far more intimate manner. The vast numbers they travelled in made them exceedingly easy targets and mostly they were shot for food. Their sheer quantity, however, also led settlers to quickly develop a grizzly attitude of sport around the bird. Competitions sprang up around their migration trail, all almost exclusively with one goal: to shoot as many birds as possible. One competition required participants to bring down a minimum of 30,000 just to be in contention for the prize. Seemingly in a prolonged state of delirium at the limitless riches on offer, and charged with a need to supply food for a rapidly increasing and expanding population, the slaughter increased as the century drew on. It also got increasingly bizarre.
Professional hunters of the bird, inspired by the successful methods of industrial production, tried to come up with new techniques for slaughtering the birds in larger numbers: grain soaked in alcohol to make them drunk and sluggish; large, elaborate netting contraptions; bushels of burning sulphur below their nests to suffocate them; acres of trees set alight simply to scare the birds out; one especially gruesome method involved the capture of a live pigeon which would then have its eyelids sewn shut and be left as bait, attracting others with its distressed calls.
None of this, of course, seemed to make the number of birds diminish especially visibly. Things were beginning to change though, the rapid evolution of communication and transport in the country allowing the killing to be carried out with ever-increasing efficiency. April 1871 saw the largest nesting assembly of the bird on record – some 136 million birds blanketing the plains of south central Wisconsin. The telegraph system, recently installed nationwide, allowed the hunters to track the pigeons, pursuing them relentlessly from site to site as they took flight and moved on, effortlessly wiping out whole exhausted colonies at a time. The other great innovations of the period, railroad cars, were used to ship out millions of the pigeons to butchers and general stores across the country at an average of 20 cents a dozen.
Another gathering occurred in Michigan seven years later, but it was to be the last. The population plummeted sharply towards the latter end of the century. The last recorded sighting of a passenger pigeon in the wild was in Ohio 1900. Fittingly, it was shot. By 1909, Cincinnati Zoo had the three remaining birds on the planet, two males and a female, all the offspring of previously confined birds, and the final chance to bring the species back from the brink of extinction, to restore the vast drumming of countless billions of wings back to the skies, to see the plains of Ontario grow dark once again with their passing overhead. By 1910, however, only the female – Martha – remained. She survived a further four years then, caged and alone, she died.
But there’s no time to mourn for Martha, I’m afraid. Now we must zip forwards in time a hundred years later. It is the present day. Things are very different here: at present the earth’s population consumes something like 50 billion animals every year, a number which is likely to double over the next forty years. If our eating habits remain as they are, the vast majority of these animals we eat will continue to be those which the modern age has found to be the most easily and effectively farmed: chickens.
There’s something of a vogue for organic meat these days, particularly chickens: we like to think of ourselves as a discerning and compassionate generation of consumers, much more careful in selecting what we eat than in the recent past. Sadly, the statistics show this is to be somewhat of an illusion: 96 percent of the chickens we consume are hatched and slaughtered in factory conditions. The mechanization of meat production in America has evolved beyond recognition since the passenger pigeon’s demise and has become the standard industry model the world has seen fit to replicate.
Chickens found their lives beginning to grow shorter in the 1950s when farmers discovered that, instead of simply waiting for the chickens to reach their adult size, they could be brought indoors when they reached 10 weeks old and force-fed oats and animal fat using the bluntly apposite ‘cramming machine’. Shortly after this, it was also found that introducing antibiotics into the chickens’ feed caused them to grow faster still and meant they didn’t get sick. Finally, it was discovered that containing them in barns with the lights kept on meant they would eat (and grow) around the clock. The foundations for what would become modern meat production were established.
By the 1970s chickens were being bred to specific internal biological patents, in pursuit of a bird which put on weight faster, younger, with less feed: the bird we’ve now grown familiar with. Chickens are essentially babies when they’re killed – normally 38-40 days old – but have been forced to a grotesquely proportioned adult size at an unnatural pace. These days the constant lighting used in the factory farms is kept dim so as to discourage the birds from moving about and losing any weight. Around half of all broiler birds develop something called tibial dyschondroplasia – a condition where the weight of their bodies causes their leg-bones to buckle and twist. Unsurprisingly, this means that a lot of the birds, at 6 weeks, tend to spend much of their lives motionless: lying down, rising only to eat.
All of this may sound unpleasant (it is unpleasant), but the worst potential for suffering comes at the end of a chicken’s life. 900 million chickens and hens a year are slaughtered in the UK; the process each of them goes through is as follows.
A team of ‘catchers’ enters the sheds to gather the chickens by hand; the legal maximum they’re allowed to bunch together is three in each which are carried upside down to a crate. Increasingly common in the UK are machines which hoover the birds up through a large nozzle and drop them into the crate. They’re then packed into plastic containers – the sort you may have seen stacked up inside passing lorries.
On arrival at the slaughterhouse the plastic containers are forklifted from the lorry into the plant. The birds are removed, then have their legs slotted upside down into metal manacles so they’re hanging from a long, moving wire. They’re moved through a stunning bath, which is precisely what it sounds like: a basin of salt-water with an electrical charge running through it. The aim with this is not to kill the chickens but merely to ensure they’re unconscious. The stunning bath has become the most controversial element of the killing process: many of the birds, as you or I or any other animal might do in the situation, lift their heads to avoid the water. The Humane Slaughter Association (for there is such a thing) estimates that of the average 13,200 birds which are killed every hour, around 30 to 50 of them remain conscious when killed.
This killing is done by the line of birds passing before a rotating blade which cuts through the chickens’ necks, severing the vessels carrying blood between the brain and heart. In the UK a double blade is used – whereas the USA favours just one – and a person is now required on each production line to make sure each of the birds is dead.
After this they’re moved through to the bleed tunnel and then the scald tank to sap the blood, loosen the feathers and strip them clean; then the chicken’s feet and head are removed; they’re refrigerated; and finally they’re take to the factory floor where they’re gutted, stuffed and packaged-up to be sent out, sold and eaten.
When looking at our progress as a species it’s customary to read our history as a narrative of improvement, the achievements of each generation bettering those of the previous, the good things we do broadly outnumbering the bad, nudging our enlightenment forward. This, on the whole, is probably true, but those bad things are still worth bad things and, as such, worth addressing.
I should say that this is categorically not the point at which this about-faces into a haranguing animal liberation. There is always more than enough human bloodshed to make any talk of life and death of animals seem pretty much unimportant. But it isn’t unimportant: it seems we’ve voided any sense of equilibrium when it comes to animals; while the sight of a person in pain will cause us to flinch or weep or intervene, we’re often content to view suffering on a far more imposing scale if it happens to be inflicted on animals.
Curiously, animal-libbers seem to have little interest in industrialised meat (or leather) production, preferring to direct their attention towards the undeniably more essential work going on at medical laboratories, no doubt due to the more appealing critters in question. Also, as with the rest of us, the super-abundance of chickens and the other animals we consume has bred a moral murkiness in our minds: their ubiquity and sheer number cause us to deny them their evident sentience, and to do so on a quietly titanic scale.
In each of these birds, in the stories of their fates, we see the inverse of the other: both are stories of excess; but whereas one, the passenger pigeon, was numerous enough to fill the sky and become hastily blitzed from creation not long after man discovered it, the chicken, on the other hand, is now a monstrous parody of extinction, currently numbering more than double the amount of people on the planet. If there is a theme which both stories share it’s one which has plainly been constant to human history: animals uprooted from nature and brutalised for the sake of a sensation, a taste on our tongues.
I first wrote this for an old blog in November 2010 when I had nothing better to do.