In 2020, David Coman-Hidy, president of the Humane League, told me about his work trying to persuade companies to shift from live shackling of chickens to atmospheric killing. In live shackling, which remains the dominant method, workers turn chickens upside down to shackle them by their legs to a conveyor. These are birds that have barely ever moved being handled by low-paid workers with inhuman production quotas. The birds flap and squawk in terror, and the shackling can leave them with broken legs or dislocated hips.
The conveyor is supposed to drag them through electrified water, stunning them before their throats are slit. But the panicked, spasming birds sometimes miss the bath, and their throats are cut while they are conscious and terrified. If the kill isn’t clean, they are pulled through boiling water that defeathers them while still conscious. You can watch the process here, if you have the stomach for it.
The Humane League, and others, are trying to persuade chicken producers to simply gas the birds to death. I’ve never forgotten what Coman-Hidy said when I asked him how he could bear to spend his days negotiating over the finer points of chicken slaughter: “The thought experiment that helped me is if I could die, or have a member of my family die, by being euthanized by gas, or have what I just described happen to them, what would I give to get the gas? And the answer is everything.”
This is activism that does not permit itself the comforts of purity. The Humane League and Mercy for Animals have become, in a way, part of a system they loathe. They are fighting to see farm animals treated in a way that’s far beneath what they believe to be moral, but far above what’s become normal. And they’re succeeding.
Battery cages, for instance, are small cages where egg-laying hens are kept for almost the entirety of their mature lives. According to 2017 guidelines by the industry group United Egg Producers, each bird should have 67 to 86 square inches of usable space within the cage. As the Humane League notes, a typical piece of paper is no more than 90 square inches.
The European Union has phased out battery cages and India has declared them illegal. In the United States, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington have either banned them or are in the process of doing so. Dozens of companies have pledged to source only cage-free eggs, including Trader Joe’s, Unilever, Pizza Hut, Mars and Hormel Foods. By no means do these pledges render the lives of these chickens luxe, and many cage-free hens still suffer terribly. There is simply no way to humanely raise so many birds, in such close quarters. But better is better.
Most meat, of course, is produced outside the United States. And so the Humane League founded the Open Wing Alliance, which now has 80 member organizations in 63 countries, to share strategies and drive global campaigns, like the successful effort to convince Yum! Brands to go cage free. Mercy for Animals works in Brazil, Canada, India and Hong Kong.