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Animal rights and the torturous suffocation of chickens

Animal rights and the torturous suffocation of chickens at Helensville poultry farm

The recent deaths on 4th December of between 180,000 and 190,000 chickens in a west Auckland poultry farm was devastating. These birds, housed in a large indoor shed, suffocated due to a power cut and subsequent generator issue. No air was being pumped into the shed, an alarm also failed, and a worker found them all dead in the morning.

It’s distressing for those of us who consider the sentience of animals of high importance; that is, the recognition that these birds were capable of suffering.

The birds died of suffocation. They were entrapped in a confined space and there was inadequate oxygen for them to breathe.

That sounds like a special kind of torture to me. Maybe not deliberate, but definitely a torturous death. They had no rights, no claim to be respected as individuals, and no chance. They had nothing but a painful existence and death.

Animals, including chickens, share with us a range of sensibilities that I believe should entitle them to many of the rights that humans enjoy. Humans have the right to freedom from torture and slavery. Chickens bred for meat have this right denied them. They are enslaved and tortured throughout their miserably short lives just so we can either make a profit from their bodies or eat their flesh.

Back to the Helensville smothering - that these chickens died in this painful way is a huge failing on the part of the farm. The Helensville farm supplies to Tegal who has a monopoly on the chicken meat market in New Zealand. Tegal claims on its website that: “when you choose a Tegal product, you can be assured that the utmost care has been taken to ensure we have raised happy and healthy chickens”.

The incident at the Helensville farm is so clearly in breach of Tegal’s claims that it brings into question anything else they may say.

Animal welfare expert Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere has been quoted as saying the deaths were “catastrophic” and ”among the largest number of any stock animal I’ve heard dying en masse” Would that be outside of the numbers of chickens killed daily in slaughterhouses in New Zealand for meat? Not trying to be funny, but really it depends how you look at it.


Ferrere is right – the deaths were catastrophic. But I would expect Ferrere and I are singing from rather different hymn sheets. While he regards chicken farming as acceptable if welfare standards are adhered to, I see all chicken farming as catastrophic by its very nature. We should not be enslaving and killing chickens for meat full stop. They should have the right, like we do as humans, to a life free from torture, slavery and death.

If you think the chicken sitting stuffed on your table had a good life – in any sense of the word - think again. Recent reports suggest that free range meat chicken claims fail to stack up. What consumers should know is that there is no official certification system for free range and no auditing for whether chickens have access to the outdoors. In New Zealand there are only codes of welfare which include minimum standards. These, however, are not legally binding and are only set to encourage high standards. There are no penalties for non-compliance.

Free range is problematic for chickens bred for meat in any case. The rapid growth of these birds, coupled with lameness and large flock size mean that many can never even hobble to the outdoor area (if indeed there is one).

A news article in October, 2018 detailed the horrific suffering of birds at an industrial chicken meat operation in New Zealand. An employee wrote a letter of complaint to the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) detailing how birds were collected for slaughter and the distress the experienced. The description in the article written by Gerard Hutching is worth quoting:

“They come for them at night, when they are docile enough to be handled. They grasp them by the feet, sometimes five in each hand then carry them to the transport cages.

All night it goes on, until by morning thousands have been removed. The operation is meant to be over by the time it's light, but it continues until noon. By then 250,000 chickens have been sent to the slaughterhouse.

Left behind are thousands of dead birds which have been smothered in the panic”.

Those who prepare a chicken or two for the Christmas table, all the while lamenting the deaths of the suffocated chickens at Helensville, should look deeper into the practices of meat chicken farms. By buying the chickens and fueling the market, consumers are participating in one of the most depraved industries in New Zealand.

Most chickens raised for meat in New Zealand are housed in large sheds that require the maintenance of an artificial environment to keep them alive. These sheds may be up to 2250 meters squared and hold 40,000 adult birds. They are hot housed like tomatoes, and they are experiencing a breach of animal rights Make no mistake , chickens bred and raised for meat are some of the most exploited and abused animals on the planet, and that is even without been suffocated in a shed.

Many New Zealanders love to eat these chickens. New Zealand raises about 120 million meat chickens every year. According to the Poultry Industry Association, New Zealanders eat around 20 chickens a year, or 37.5 kilograms of chicken meat.

People in New Zealand are generally aware of the concept of good animal welfare. It would shock them to know what many chickens raised for meat go through. These chickens who are called commercial strain broilers have been selectively bred over the years to favour rapid weight gain. They double in size every week. These chickens reach ‘slaughter weight’ at around 5-6 weeks. As a result they are often afflicted with lameness, breast blister and heart failure. They are literally teetering on the verge of structural collapse when they are killed.

Footage by animal rights group Direct Animal Action of a poultry farm last year revealed horrific suffering. Birds lay prone on their backs dying and chicks walked around with deformed legs.

But the worst is yet to come. There are well known issues associated with killing birds en masse in modern day slaughterhouses. Research published in the International Journal of Poultry Science claims that electrical stunning of birds is not always reliable. In addition, ”when the neck is not properly cut some birds will enter the scalding tank before they are dead and some may display obvious signs of consciousness”

Probably the vast majority of people in New Zealand most likely care about what animals endure before they are killed for meat. They hope that the animal has had a good life. They don’t agree with animals being enslaved and tortured. But really, unless you stop eating them and boycott the meat industries, there are no reforms that can make this better. We cannot reform an inherently rotten and oppressive system – we need to dismantle it.

The meat chicken industries (in fact all meat industries) are shaping our thoughts and ideas about the lives animals in animal agriculture live. They need us to believe that the chickens killed for your meal lived on Old MacDonald’s farm and that eating roast chicken is a good old fashioned ‘kiwi thing’. They literally describe their free range chickens as ‘living the kiwi dream’ and having a ‘life of fresh air, sunshine and good food’. Equating your purchase of their ‘product’ ( a dead chicken) with personal and national identity markers (kiwi dream) they are persuading you in subliminal ways.

Tegal also claims that their chickens are ‘free from fear and distress’ . Really? Tell that to every chicken everywhere who ever got raised in an industrial farm and slaughtered at five to six weeks of age. Is that the kiwi dream? To be born and raised for death? To be someone’s meal?

Instead of accepting Tegal’s false claims we should think for ourselves. What constitutes a good life and who is defining the parameters? These are the questions we need to ask if we care at all about animals.


Maybe the suffocated chickens at Helensville had a merciful death compared to what was to come for them.

Don’t be part of the horror. Keep chickens and all animals off your plate.


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