A brief summary of the state and federal laws that currently offer protection to the domestic chicken, whether used for food production, as pets or as research animals. The paper examines laws in the United States, Europe and New Zealand.
The bird commonly known as the chicken (Gallus domesticus) is a domesticated version of the Indian and Southeast Asian Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus), still found in the wild today. Some people believe that the bird may have been domesticated first for its use in cockfighting, and only later used as a food source. An adult male chicken is referred to as a “rooster,” adult females are called “hens,” and newly hatched birds are “chicks.”
Most of the almost 9 billion chickens in the United States today are used for food or food production. Chickens are also kept as pets, bred for poultry shows, used as research animals in laboratories, and some are still used for cockfighting, despite the fact that cockfighting is illegal in almost every state.
Over 90% of the 10 billion animals used in animal agriculture in the United States each are chickens. Over 8.7 billion broiler chickens are killed each year for food, and over 337 million battery-hens are used for laying eggs. But the use of animals in agriculture is still the most lightly regulated area of animal use in the United States, and of the regulations that do exist, chickens and other poultry are typically excluded. From an animal welfare perspective, there are no federal regulations regarding the breeding, rearing, sale, transportation, or slaughter of chickens.
Although every state in the United States has an animal anti-cruelty law, thirty states specifically exclude farm animals (or fowl), and/or make exceptions for “common,” “normal,” or “customary” animal husbandry practices; eighteen states also exclude animals slaughtered for food. Prosecuting animal cruelty cases under the remaining states' statutes is often difficult because many states require a “willful” or “malicious” state of mind, which is difficult to prove. When farm animals are involved, only cases of extreme neglect appear to warrant prosecution.
In comparison to the almost non-existent protection offered to agricultural animals in the United States, many farm animals in Europe and the United Kingdom are afforded significant legal protections. Many European animal welfare laws are based in part on the principles of the “Five Freedoms” first defined in 1979 by the UK Agriculture Ministry’s advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council. These five freedoms require that animals have: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from pain, injury and discomfort, and freedom to express natural behaviors.
These five freedoms form the foundation of many forms of animal legislation throughout the European Union, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, and unlike in the United States, chickens are not categorically excluded form this legislative protection. In fact, many countries have enacted specific laws which specifically address the welfare of agriculturally used chickens.