The slaughter is finished. It took a week to complete, but in response to a deadly flu outbreak Hong Kong has managed to kill nearly every one of the 1.3 million chickens raised within its borders.
Reports of the slaughter came on the television news. I saw footage of a chicken being yanked from her tiny cage, then thrust into a garbage bag to suffocate, smothered between white plastic and the weight of other dying chickens.
As a vegan -- somebody who avoids all meat, dairy products and eggs -- it's been hard for me to watch such images. Just as it hard to contemplate the human killings in Rwanda or the Persian Gulf War, so it is hard to imagine the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent animals.
I'm not equating chickens with people. Chickens can't learn calculus, write plays or compose music. But they tremble with fear as they go to their death. And, like people, they show great motivation in avoiding pain. Now, 3 million pounds of them lies rotting in Hong Kong landfills, the victims of a horrific and senseless slaughter.
In terms of numbers, though, Hong Kong's emergency action doesn't compare to what the U.S. egg industry does on a daily basis: It kills more than half a million male chicks almost as soon as they poke their way through their shell.
A newly hatched chick, if you've ever held one, is as affectionate as a kitten. They hatch with their eyes open and can hop around almost immediately. Watch a chick hatch from his shell and sit with him and he'll bond with you almost immediately, pecking food from your hand and seeking out your warmth and the rhythm of your heartbeat.
But if it's a male chick at an egg farm, he will die before he takes a bite of seed or a drink of water. The reason is that in the U.S., there are two breeds of chickens -- "layers," to produce eggs, and "broilers," to produce meat. U.S. growers produce 76 billion eggs each year. To produce that many, farmers require about 200 million new female layer chickens each year.
An unwelcome thing happens when egg producers breed 200 million female layer chicks: They also get 200 million male layer chicks, which, to the egg industry, are worthless. They can't lay eggs and they won't grow enough flesh to be worth raising as broilers. So they're killed. The egg industry employs "sexers" -- people who do nothing all day but examine the birds' feather patterns to determine their sex. The males are tossed into discard containers. The more fortunate ones are gassed. Many are dropped alive into grinders, to be ground into fertilizer.
Such waste and needless suffering doesn't end at 1.3 million Hong Kong birds or 200 million American chicks. It extends to 9 billion animals killed each year in awful ways before being consumed as hamburger, fried chicken or pork chops by the American public. Slaughter lines at chicken factories hum at thousands of birds an hour, the victims hanging upside down with their throats cut. At pig and cattle facilities, the lines move at hundreds of animals an hour, with blood everywhere. Stand outside a goat slaughterhouse; the screams you hear can be mistaken for those of children.
From a public health standpoint, we would be much better off without it. There is no nutrient in meat, dairy products or eggs that cannot be obtained from vegetarian sources. Vegan foods have no cholesterol and tend to be very low in both total and saturated fat. As a result, heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans, is extremely rare among vegans. Dr. Marion Nestle of the American Cancer Society estimates that vegetarians and vegans suffer cancer fatalities at a rate of one-third to one-half less than meat eaters.
Since the meat we're eating does our health no good, we should consider animals that are killed for meat to have died as pointlessly and cruelly as the 1.3 million birds that were thrown away in Hong Kong. If the slaughter that happens each day in the U.S. received just a fraction of the attention that Hong Kong's chickens received, we would be on our way to a more vegetarian nation. And a lot of needless suffering, for both humans and animals, would be prevented.