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Ducks and Geese: Meat, Foie Gras, and Down

Ducks and geese belong to the family Anatidae: waterfowl who have been modified for an aquatic existence with webbed feet, bills which are flattened to varying degrees, and feathers that are excellent at shedding water due to special oils.

In natural settings, ducks are active, inquisitive animals who form lifelong friendships and express fondness and loyalty. Their distribution ranges from the tropics to sub-Antarctic Islands, and includes freshwater rivers and lakes as well as ocean habitat.  Ducks are outgoing, social animals who feel most at ease when they’re in larger groups of other ducks, who are called paddlings. They spend their days looking for food in the grass or in shallow water, and they sleep together with their paddlings at night. Ducks are meticulously clean animals who keep their nests free of waste and debris, and they enjoy preening their beautiful feathers. In nature, they may live for 10 years. (1)

Geese also have distinctive behaviors and personalities. They are very loyal. Geese mate for life and are very protective of their partners and offspring. If a goose’s mate or babies become sick or injured, he or she will often refuse to leave their side, even if winter is approaching and the other geese in the group are flying south. When a goose’s mate is killed, the remaining goose will mourn in seclusion. Some geese who lose their mates spend the rest of their lives as widows or widowers, refusing to mate again. Multiple families of geese make up a larger group called a gaggle. Geese look out for others in their gaggle. If they are flying and a goose is shot, some of the geese will lag behind to stay with their injured friend. (2)

The lives of ducks and geese revolve around water. Their health, resilience and emotional well-being are fully dependent on having access to water where they can forage for food, bathe, explore, mate, and raise their offspring. But on commercial farms, these sensitive birds are deprived of their most important environmental needs, with no access to water for swimming or immersion. This deprivation is just one of many cruelties they suffer when they are raised and killed for food.

Duck Meat

People are often surprised to learn that ducks raised and killed for meat are subjected to the same cruel practices as chickens and turkeys on commercial farms: they’re de-billed, force-molted, genetically manipulated for rapid growth, confined in filthy conditions, and endure the same abuse and cruel slaughter as chickens and turkeys. Nearly 25 million ducks were slaughtered for meat in the U.S. in 2011. (3) Like all other animals raised for food, ducks are excluded from protection under the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Lack of Open Water

Ducks have an overwhelming instinctive desire to swim and bathe in open water. Regular access to open water is crucial to ducks’ wellbeing.  Without regular opportunities to fulfill the drive for swimming and immersion, ducks become anxious and dejected, exhibiting persistent neurotic stress behaviors such as head-shaking and obsessive feather-preening. Lack of water also deprives ducks of important grooming techniques and leads to dirty bills, nostrils, and eyes, which increases the risk of infection, especially eye infections, which are common on commercial duck farms. Ducks also use water for thermoregulation and can suffer heat stress or stroke in crowded conditions without water for immersion. (4)

Lameness

Ducks raised commercially are prone to lameness. Because they are mainly aquatic animals, ducks naturally have very weak leg and thigh joints as they do not need to support their own bodyweight when floating in water.  Ducks are therefore not physiologically suited to long periods of exclusively standing and walking on land. Researchers have reported a high incidence of splay leg or spraddle leg in farmed ducks, where the legs splay outwards to either side and the bird is unable to stand. Selection for rapid growth in commercial breeds of ducks has compounded this problem, leading to difficulty in walking and leg disorders. (5)

The flooring in duck production facilities also contributes to lameness and injury. To keep layers of excrement from piling up, many ducks are now kept on wire mesh floors which contribute to a high incidence of leg and foot injuries. Balancing can be difficult on perforated flooring, particularly for rapid-growing birds. Additionally, the skin covering the feet and hock joints of ducks is not as tough as that of land birds, and confining ducks on wire mesh or slats results in injury to the feet and legs.  Especially common is “bumblefoot,” a pus-filled swelling in the pad of the foot that causes lameness. Some researchers have reported footpad injury in all farmed Muscovy ducks they investigated. (6)

Feather-Pecking

Feather-pecking and cannibalism are problems in confined duck operations. In natural settings, ducks spend much of their time using their bills for behaviors such as foraging for food, which involves “dabbling the bill along the water and straining out planktonic organisms,” as well as preening, where “the bill is used to distribute water over the body and remove dirt.” The lack of open water for foraging and preening causes birds to redirect their pecking at other ducks, which can also lead to desperate stress behaviors like cannibalism. (7)

Mutilation

U.S. duck production facilities often “trim” the bills of ducks to reduce the damage of feather-pecking and cannibalism. As with chickens’ and turkeys’ beaks, ducks’ bills are loaded with nerves and sensory receptors all the way to the tip; these help them discern small particles of food as well as detect harmful stimuli, in addition to other important sensory information. When any portion of their bill is sliced off, ducks experience both acute and chronic pain. (8) Bills are cut either with scissors, with a hot blade that cauterizes the bill stump, or by holding the end of the bill against a searing blade for several seconds. (9) Muscovy ducks are also subjected to claw-trimming, which frequently results in bleeding and even amputation of their toes, as it is often performed hastily with one severe cut per foot. (10)

Catching and Transport to Slaughter

The process of being crated and transported to slaughter is non-stop terror for ducks. Workers called “catchers” are hired to move through the grow sheds, grabbing birds as quickly as possible and cramming them into transport crates. Like chickens and turkeys, ducks are handled very roughly by catchers and suffer bruises, lacerations and broken legs and wings. Ducks’ weak leg and thigh joints make them particularly susceptible to injury when being caught and crated for transport. (11) The crates are then loaded onto large flat-bed trucks and hauled for up to 36 hours without food or water, through all weather conditions. Suffocation, dehydration, cardiac arrest from terror, fatal injuries sustained from handling, and exposure to scorching and freezing temperatures mean millions of birds in the U.S. die miserably during transport to slaughter each year.

Slaughter

Because poultry are excluded from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, ducks are typically not rendered insensible to pain before they are shackled and slaughtered. Electric stunning is often used to immobilize the birds so that they are easier to handle, but the voltage used is usually insufficient to produce unconsciousness. (12) Workers quickly pull the ducks from crates, invert them, and hang them upside down by their legs from shackles on a moving line.  Inversion and shackling are extremely traumatic for birds, and pose a particular hazard to ducks because of their weak leg and thigh joints.  On the live-hang line, ducks are dragged head-first through an electrified water bath, then proceed to an automated blade that slits their throats. If the birds were not stunned by the water bath, as is often the case, they frequently miss the blade because they are frantically flapping in pain and terror. Those birds whose throats are not slit enter the de-feathering scalding tank alive, where they drown while being boiled alive.

Harmful If Swallowed: Foie Greed

Foie gras, French for “fatty liver,” is a gourmet food item made from the trauma-enlarged livers of force-fed ducks and geese. Most foie gras is now made from ducks, with 75-80% of production happening in France. (13) Approximately 700,000 geese and 37 million ducks are slaughtered each year in the process of making French foie gras. (14) In the United States, four facilities produce livers for foie gras; the primary producers are Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, and Sonoma Foie Gras in California. In total, the four U.S. production facilities slaughter nearly 500,000 ducks annually. (15) Only male ducks are used in foie gras production. Female ducklings are either raised for meat or killed immediately after hatching. (16)

The production of foie gras inflicts extreme cruelty and suffering on helpless birds. Twice a day for a period of weeks, ducks are grasped roughly by their necks, pipes are shoved down their throats, and they are forced to rapidly ingest several pounds of food at once. (17) The pipes cut the mouth, throat, and esophagus of birds, scraping off layers of sensitive tissue and leaving painful scooped out wounds that are made worse with each subsequent feeding. (18) Each insertion of the pipes triggers the gag reflex in these miserable animals, who convulse throughout each feeding. Many birds die of asphyxiation when food is errantly forced into the trachea. (19)

As floods of corn mash spill from the birds’ overfull throats, their explosive chokes splash feed onto their faces and feathers. The bars of ducks’ cages are caked with vomit and spilled mash, and their bills and bodies are hopelessly encrusted.

This excruciating process occurs two to three times a day, for 15-21 days. (20) During the entire 2 to 3 weeks of force-feeding, millions of birds are confined in cages so small they cannot even stretch their wings. After each traumatic feeding they lie with their faces hanging through or against the bars, first in shock, then dejected and hopeless.

A delicacy?  Foie gras couldn’t be more barbaric. There is nothing refined or remotely civilized about torturing innocent animals for food we don’t need. If you eat foie gras, you support this torture. And if you wear or use down, please know there is a very good chance the feathers came from foie gras victims, whose plumage is removed and sold for down filler.

What’s Good for the Goose? Say No To Down

Down is the soft layer of feathers closest to birds’ skin, concentrated mainly in the chest region. Unlike the feathers on the rest of the body, these feathers do not have quills and are highly valued for insulating clothing, comforters, and pillows. But what many consumers don’t realize is that down is always the product of animal cruelty and suffering.  Most down comes from birds who lived miserable lives of confinement and abuse, before being cruelly slaughtered for meat or foie gras. Ducks and geese typically have their throats slit, and are dumped in scalding tanks of hot water to remove large feathers. (21) Often, the birds are still conscious when they enter the scald tanks, and drown while being boiled alive. (22)

A substantial quantity of down imported into the U.S. also comes from ducks and geese who are subjected to “live plucking,” in which down is cruelly torn from the bodies of birds who are still alive. Live plucking is profitable because one bird can be exploited for multiple feather harvests.  Up to 5 ounces of feathers and down are pulled from each terrorized bird every six weeks from 10 weeks of age until they are up to 4 years old. (23) Plucking birds causes them tremendous pain and distress; the sensation is the equivalent of humans having chunks of hair torn out of their heads. (24)

One undercover investigation revealed workers ripping fistfuls of feathers from geese so violently that the birds’ skin tore open, leaving gaping wounds that the workers crudely sewed back together without administering any anesthetic. The official report stated: “The screaming birds are bound so they cannot bite or scratch. The birds who suffer big sores from the brutal handling are sewn back together with needle and thread on the spot, without any anesthetic. Afterwards they lay on the ground completely in shock from the terror and pain.”

There is no way to tell whether the down in your products was obtained from live-plucked birds.  And even if it was not live-plucked, it came from birds cruelly abused and slaughtered for pleasure–  we do not need to use or consume animal products in order to thrive. If you believe it is wrong to harm and kill animals for pleasure–the reason most of us oppose dog-fighting, for example–then you should not consume meat or foie gras, or use down products.

Most department stores carry wonderfully pillowy down-alternative bedding, and there are many companies providing high quality, cruelty-free down-simulating coats, jackets, and outdoor sleeping bags. Please visit our Vegan Nutrition page for meat-free tips and recipes.

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(1,2) People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, The Hidden Lives of Ducks and Geese
(3) Humane Society of the United States, Farm Animal Statistics: Slaughter Totals
(4) Rodenburg TB, Bracke MBM, Berk J, et al. 2005. Welfare of ducks in European duck husbandry systems. World’s Poultry Science Journal 61(4):633-46.

(5,6) Humane Society of the United States, The Welfare of Animals in the Duck Industry
(7) Raud H and Faure JM. 1994. Welfare of ducks in intensive units. Revue Scientifique et Technique (International Office of Epizootics) 13(1):119-29.

(8) Duncan IJH. 2001. Animal welfare issues in the poultry industry: is there a lesson to be learned? Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 4(3):207-21
(9) Gustafson LA, Cheng HW, Garner JP, Pajor EA, and Mench JA. 2007. The effects of different bill-trimming methods on the well-being of Pekin ducks. Poultry Science 86(9):1831-9

(10) Rodenburg TB, Bracke MBM, Berk J, et al. 2005. Welfare of ducks in European duck husbandry systems. World’s Poultry Science Journal 61(4):633-46
(11) Clauer P. Leg and foot disorders in domestic fowl (small flock factsheet, number 35). Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

http://ext.vt.edu/pubs/poultry/factsheets/35.html.
(12) Raj M and Tserveni-Gousi A. 2000. Stunning methods for poultry. World’s Poultry Science Journal 56(4):291-304.
(13) Guémené D and Guy G. 2004. The past, present and future of force-feeding and “foie gras” production. World’s Poultry Science Journal 60:210-22

(14) Willsher K. 2011. French outrage as German food fair bans foie gras. The Guardian, July 19. www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/19/france-outrage-germany-foie-gras-ban
(15) Grant, Joshua I. Hell to the Sound of Trumpets: “Why Chicago’s Ban on Foie Gras Was

Constitutional and What It Means for the Future of Animal Welfare Laws”; Stanford Journal of Animal Law and Policy. http://aldf.org/downloads/saldf_grant_foiegras.pdf
(16) Rodenburg TB, Bracke MBM, Berk J, et al. 2005. Welfare of ducks in European duck husbandry systems. World’s Poultry Science Journal 61:633-46.

(17) Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (SCAHAW). 1998. Welfare aspects of the production of foie gras in ducks and geese. http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/welfare/international/out17_en.pdf.
(18) Siperstein-Cook L. 2004. Statement on examination of force-fed ducks. Declaration submitted to San Joaquin County District Attorney dated February 20
(19) Beck Y. 1994. Force-feeding of palmipeds and foie gras production: the global review of a choice made by society. Licence Interfacultaire en Environnement, Faculty of Sciences, Free University of Brussels, pp. 39-40.
(20) Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (SCAHAW). 1998. Welfare aspects of the production of foie gras in ducks and geese. http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/welfare/international/out17_en.pdf.

(21) Food and Safety Inspection Service, “Duck and Goose From Farm to Table,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, 26 Apr. 2006.
(22) People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Down and Silk: Birds and Insects Exploited for Fabric
(23) Andrzej Rosinski, “Goose Production in Poland and Eastern Europe,” Department of Poultry Science, Agricultural University of Poznan, 1999.
(24) M.J. Gentle and L.N. Hunter, “Physiological and Behavioural Responses Associated With Feather Removal in Gallus Gallus Var Domesticus,” Research in Veterinary Science 50 (1991): 95-101. and:
(24) J. Janan et al., “Effect of Feather Plucking in Geese’s Blood Glucose Level,” Hungarian Veterinary Journal Jun. 2001.