If the outcry over the killing of Cecil the lion tells us anything, it's that people are capable of genuine moral outrage at the needless killing of animals. And good for them. Animals are conscious beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain, and we have an obligation to make their lives as good as possible.
But in a given year, the typical American will cause the death of 30 land animals, and 28 chickens, by eating meat. And these animals aren’t just killed, they effectively live lives of constant torture and suffering — not directly at the hands of the people who eat them, but at the hands of the meat producers who sell them.
What we do to chickens
Think about chickens, for example. A little over 8.5 billion broiler chickens — the kind raised for their meat — were killed in 2013, according to the US Department of Agriculture, accounting for the vast majority of the 11 billion animals killed for meat, eggs, and milk every year. For context, that's about 1 million chickens killed every hour.
Broiler chickens have been bred to ridiculous sizes:
This extreme weight pushes the chickens' bodies to a structural breaking point, and impaired walking ability is common as a result. "Broilers are the only livestock that are in chronic pain for the last 20 percent of their lives," University of Bristol veterinary researcher John Webster once said. "They don’t move around, not because they are overstocked, but because it hurts their joints so much."
But they're also overstocked. "It’s common for 20,000 chickens to live crammed in one shed that provides less than one square foot of space for each animal," the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says. "Another common practice is to keep these sheds dimly lit for 20 hours each day to keep the birds awake and eating constantly."
Broiler chickens are also forced to live in their own shit for the mercifully few weeks they're alive. Here's how the New Yorker's Michael Specter describes entering a broiler chicken farm: "I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe. … There must have been thirty thousand chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn’t move, didn’t cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way."
It's not just meat eaters
If anything, the treatment of chickens used for egg production is even worse. About 97 percent of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined to what are known as "battery cages." These cages typically hold 5 to 10 birds each, and United Egg Producers' minimum standards state that each bird be given 67 square inches — a smaller space than a standard 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper. And that's for farms that comply to the voluntary standards; UEP estimates that about 15 percent of hens are raised by farmers that don't, and offer more like 45 to 50 square inches per bird.
One of the worst aspects of battery cages is that because their residents are hens, they disrupt the egg-laying process, causing substantial pain to the birds. "The worst torture to which a battery hen is exposed is the inability to retire somewhere for the laying act," the Nobel laureate ethologist Konrad Lorenz once said. "For the person who knows something about animals it is truly heart-rending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cagemates to search there in vain for cover."
You can take action to stop this
The best way to end this cruelty would be to pass legislation restricting the overbreeding of chickens and requiring them to be raised free-range with plenty of space. The Humane Society has been doing exceptional work getting states to ban battery cages and otherwise improve conditions for farm animals. But you, individually, can also take actions that reduce chicken suffering.
Suppose a supermarket stocks chickens in units of 1,000. If you buy two or three chickens every month, and then stop, you probably won't cause them to stock 1,000 less. But you might if the supermarket is just at the threshold between order sizes. That will likely only happen about 1 in 1,000 times you buy chicken — but when you do, you save 1,000 chickens. The expected chickens saved by you not buying a single chicken is 1/1,000 times 1,000 chickens: one chicken. That then affects the chicken wholesaler's purchasing decisions, which affect farms' decisions about how many chickens to produce.
This isn't purely theoretical. Estimating the elasticity for chicken — that is, the amount less produced for every chicken that stops being demanded because a buyer became a vegetarian — is tricky, but economists have studied this, and numbers range from 0.06 to 0.7 for chicken. That means that by giving up chicken, a given person will keep 1.68 to 19.6 chickens from existing, per year. They will be spared a truly horrendous plight. The elasticity for eggs is even higher: 0.91 fewer eggs are produced for every egg not consumed, per the book Compassion by the Pound by researchers F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Luck. And the fewer eggs that are produced, the fewer hens are necessary, and the fewer have to live in horrific conditions.
What you and Walter James Palmer have in common
Let's say you eat chicken. You thus cause massive suffering to anywhere from 1 to 20 chickens any given year. How does that compare with Walter James Palmer's killing of Cecil the lion?
Well, you certainly inflicted more suffering. Palmer wounded Cecil with a crossbow, causing him significant pain for 40 hours, before killing him with a gun. Given that male lions live about 10 to 12 years in the wild, and Cecil was already 13, Palmer didn't deny him much more happy life. So compare those 40 hours of pain and couple years of happy lion life to the weeks of excruciating agony that broiler chickens endure toward the end of their lives — and then consider that you're very likely inflicting that agony on more than one chicken. Palmer also likely prevented some animal suffering: Lions are carnivores, and Palmer increased the life expectancy of Cecil's prey by ending his life. He didn't increase it by much, given how old Cecil was and how little gazelle killing he had left in him, but it's still a factor.
Of course, there's the intangible factor that lions are a threatened species and Palmer made their continued survival marginally less likely. There's a decent argument that lion hunting shouldn't be allowed at all, even though hunting has been an effective conservation tool in other cases. But the contribution of a single killing toward the extinction of lions as a whole is minimal, especially the killing of a lion who is past reproductive age.
This is a subjective comparison, of course. But I think it's almost certainly the case that eating chicken, as raised in the US, is a greater moral wrong than killing Cecil the lion.
Palmer has faced the wrath of internet vigilantes for his actions. Signs saying "WE ARE CECIL," "#CatLivesMatter," and "ROT IN HELL" have been posted on the door of his dental office in Bloomington, Minnesota. He's received death threats on Twitter. More than 100,000 people have signed a White House petition calling for Palmer to be extradited to Zimbabwe.
And given that extradition to Zimbabwe is something that could actually happen (the US Fish and Wildlife Service has pledged to assist Zimbabwe in "whatever manner requested"), something much worse than internet vigilantism should be in his future. A report in the Zimbabwe Independent from inside one of the country's prisons depicts a hellhole where severe hunger and even starvation is the norm, bread is only provided twice a month, there aren't enough beds in the prison hospital, and patients are forced to sleep on the floor. Given Zimbabwe's record as one of the worst human rights abusers among all the nations of the world, the account is not particularly surprising.
If you're a meat eater and want Palmer to face that plight, fine. After all, he probably eats chicken too, and kills lions, so he's got one up on you. But his total moral wrongs aren't what'll land him in prison. The lion killing is — and you do something even worse. If you think he belongs behind bars, ask yourself: Do I do things that justify the same punishment for me?
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Correction: This article originally stated that the elasticity for eggs; it's 0.91, not 0.94.