United Poultry Concerns  

The Experimental Use of Chickens and Other Birds in Biomedical and Agricultural Research


 In 1994, a researcher at an international symposium on the artificial insemination of poultry joked to his colleagues that his talk on Beyond Freezing Semen should be titled “The Night of the Living Dead.” He was discussing his creation of bird chimeras—birds with genes from other species inserted into their embryos. Of birds hatching in his laboratory with no outward sign of the desired change, he said: “We simply throw them away.”  (Robert Etches 2001)

Millions of Birds Are Used in Research and More Will Be Used in the Future

“The numbers of birds, rats and mice being used in research is expected to grow exponentially with use of transgenics and other new avenues of research.”
—Christopher J. Heyde, AWI Quarterly, Summer 2002, p. 15.

Although no one really knows how many birds suffer and die in experimental laboratories worldwide, because no one is counting, birds are among the 95 percent of warm-blooded sentient animals who are now being used in all kinds of invasive research. Birds and farmed animals alike are excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act in the United States, and while no precise figures are available, it is estimated that at least 25 million birds, rats and mice are experimented on each year in U.S. biomedical research facilities, a figure that is expected to grow (Heyde, p. 14).1

Millions of birds suffer miserably each year in government, university, and private corporation laboratories, especially considering the huge numbers of chickens, turkeys, ducks, quails, and pigeons being used in agricultural research throughout the world, in addition to the increasing experimental use of adult chickens and chicken embryos to replace mammalian species in basic and biomedical research. For example, Colgate-Palmolive sponsored the development of the CAM (Chorioallantoic Membrane) Test, an eye irritation test in which vivisection of fertilized chicken eggs is necessary to expose the egg’s interior membrane to the materials being tested.

In 1993, a workshop on The Production of Avian Antibodies, held in Berlin, Germany, focused on the use of chickens instead of mammals to produce monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies (used in diagnostic testing). Instead of collecting blood from mammals to obtain antibodies (which causes pain and distress to animals), antibodies are extracted from the yolks of eggs laid by caged laboratory chickens who must endure painful immunization injections and ultimately be disposed of. According to the publisher of The Laboratory Chicken (2002), within the last five years, “the chicken has found increased use in biomedical research, principally for production of polyclonal antibodies to be used in a wide variety of research efforts” (Fulton).

Birds are Used in Pharmaceutical and Genetic Engineering Research

Multinational pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, Bayer, and Pfizer maintain permanent laboratory flocks of chickens and other avian species to test their products on.2 Companies like AviGenics and Embrex in the U.S. and Shanghai Fudan Xinyang Biological Technology Corporation in China are among the growing number of biotechnology firms that are being funded through government and university programs to develop genetically modified chickens for a wide array of projected uses in medicine and agribusiness (Shanghai). A typical “breakthrough” article proclaims that genetically modified chicks “could become drug factories.” According to one article, two U.S. biotechnology companies have already produced genetically modified birds who can lay eggs containing specific drugs, proteins, and antibodies targeting human medical problems. With hens laying an average of 200 eggs per hen each year, both companies say yields could be “large and lucrative” (Reuters).

Birds are Used in Agricultural Research

In addition to spending millions of dollars on experiments funded by its corporate trade organization, the US Poultry & Egg Association, the poultry industry receives indirect government funding in the form of research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and its numerous university extension programs. Tillman notes that “Agricultural studies are fundamental to the production agriculture departments of U.S. Land Grant Colleges” (p. 29). Studies of the effects of food deprivation, artificially-induced diseases, and heat stress are among the many types of experiments that are repetitively conducted on birds at taxpayers’ expense. Slaughter experiments are also routinely performed on live chickens, turkeys, ducks, ostriches, and emus, in which these birds are subjected to varying levels of electric shock in order to test the effect of various voltages on their muscle tissue for the meat industry. For example, the Spring 2002 issue of the Journal of Applied Poultry Research has an article in which USDA researchers describe shocking 250 hens in a laboratory simulation of commercial slaughter conditions to show that “subjecting mature chickens to electrical stimulation will allow breast muscle deboning after 2 hours in the chiller with little or no additional holding time” (Dickens et al.).

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