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Sunday, February 5, 2017, 23:55

Be gentler with our chickens in the Year of the Rooster

By Paul Stapleton

As we enter the Year of the Rooster, spare a thought for this bird, otherwise known as the chicken. In another world, if we happened upon a rooster or its female counterpart the hen in its original jungle home, we might have considered it a lucky sighting considering its rather special characteristics: large size, colorful plumage, red crown and fleet-footedness. But in the real world, roosters and hens are commonplace — to the point of inundation. One estimate has 19 billion of them on the face of the earth at any one time, and up to 50 billion individuals over the period of a year.

Be gentler with our chickens in the Year of the Rooster Those born in the Year of the Rooster are said to be punctual, beautiful, hard-working and honest, but also self-aggrandizing. The latter attribute is not surprising to anyone who has seen a cock strut around a barnyard.

The Chinese zodiac aside, when we usually have occasion to think about chickens it is most often to decide whether we want to eat their meat deep fried, baked or simply stir fried. Little thought goes to the actual animal. And that lack of concern for this sentient creature may help to explain their huge population, which continues to grow. In 1980, the meat from chickens made up only 19 percent of our global consumption. Presently, we are at almost double that amount. Here in Hong Kong, the average person eats over 60 kilograms of chicken a year roughly, following the global trend toward consuming more and more of this delicious bird.

The reasons for this long-established trend of rising chicken consumption are many. Concerns about health have caused many people to replace their intake of red meat with white, which is perceived as healthy for the heart. But when looking for reasons behind worldwide trends it is best to follow the money — and that is also true in the case of our rising consumption of chicken. In a word, chicken is cheap. And this is because factory chicken coops have perfected the science of poultry husbandry.

The misery of chickens in factory farms is now an old story. The story of their short lives — six to seven weeks for broilers raised for meat — makes such sad reading that it is best not to describe it as we enter the festive season and the Year of the Rooster, when millions of these birds will stare up at us from a plate. Suffice to note just one of many indignities suffered by this bird: Nature took away its ability to fly, but man has taken away its ability to walk. Those raised for meat have been bred to have such a large breast that their legs sometimes collapse beneath them.

Hens raised for laying eggs arguably have things better because they often live as long as a year, although chickens in the wild live up to six years. However, once their productivity of four to five eggs a week slows down, they are culled, which is a nice way of saying their meat is of a quality good enough only for chicken soup or pet food.

Ironically, the bird known as red jungle fowl is an unlikely example of a wildly successful species. Via its reciprocal relationship with homo sapiens, it has manipulated us into propagating its numbers into the billions and turning it into one of a dozen iconic animals in the Chinese zodiac, the token avian member, even beating out the majestic eagle. But the cost of that “success” in numbers is a life that is nasty, brutish and short, although not at all solitary.

So is there anything we can do for a New Year’s resolution as a token salute to this gentle bird to show our gratitude as we enter its eponymous year? Indeed we can. Some farmers raise their chickens in a kinder way. Roosters and hens raised organically are allowed outdoors and given more space to hunt insects and socialize, and generally live a less stressful and slightly longer life. Of course buying organic chicken and free-range eggs costs significantly more, but this small gesture on behalf of our iconic bird can result in considerably less misery for this group of animals, while perhaps we can enjoy a meal with slightly less guilt.

The author is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.

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