Millions of turkeys and chickens deemed at risk of catching this year’s avian bird flu were massively killed in the cruelest way possible, via a combination of extreme heat and suffocation, according to a new report from the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).

AWI analyzed USDA records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request for “depopulations” of backyard flocks and commercial poultry facilities – a term the nonprofit emphasizes is not the same as humane euthanasia.

“The term ‘depopulation’ is used to describe the rapid destruction of a population of animals in response to urgent circumstances, and is not to be confused with ‘euthanasia,’ which literally means a good dead,” AWI wrote in a press release.

Most of the mass killings happened at commercial flocks, which made up 52 of the 91 flocks analyzed, or 57 percent, with turkeys the most victimized species, according to AWI’s report.

At least 73 percent of depopulations in February and March used Ventilation Shut Down Plus Heat (VSD+) – an inhumane method in which workers seal birds into a barn or other building to cut off airflow and then then turn up the heat to at least 104 degrees, and sometimes to as high as 170 degrees, according to AWI.

The brutal practice, whose goal is a 100% death rate, takes hours, involves intense suffering for the animals, and is opposed by at least 3,500 veterinary professionals, according to AWI.

“The killing of millions of sentient creatures by essentially baking them alive is a moral tragedy of immense proportions,” said Dena Jones, AWI’s farm animal program director. “ Intentionally inflicting death in such a manner is unacceptable.”   

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the use of VSD+ after the deadly avian flu outbreak to hasten mass culls of infected birds within 48 hours and noting the process should only be used in “constrained circumstances” – specifically, when no other methods were available 

But AWI’s analysis shows that VSD+ seems to become the norm – rather than the last resort it was intended to be.

Thousands of birds also didn’t die within the USDA’s desired timeframe, per the AWI analysis, which found that eight of 12 culls involving more than 200,000 birds took longer than 48 hours.

Those depopulations involved more than 11.1 million birds. 

The largest depopulation, of about 2.8 million birds in Wisconsin, took 16 days, while the second largest killing – of about 5.3 million birds in Iowa – took a week, according to AWI’s report.

Because VSD+ is approved by the USDA, facilities that choose to use it also are eligible for reimbursements – funded by taxpayer dollars.

Other killing methods also are cruel and inhumane, with carbon dioxide gassing historically used.

But there is a solution that would drastically reduce the risks to human workers and consumers and the suffering endured by animals in this broken system – choosing a plant-based diet.

A growing amount of research shows that plant-based diets rich in whole grains and fresh foods have monumental health benefits, while also undercutting the cruelty for animals, the environmental degradation, and the human health risks resulting from the factory farming that fuels our food system.

“The modern animal agriculture industry in the United States routinely puts profits over the well-being of both animals and workers,” Jones said. “It runs slaughter lines as fast as possible, provides animals the lowest levels of care required and offers minimal health and safety protections to its workers.”

Choosing plant-based foods also sends a forceful message to Big Ag that the status quo can’t continue. It’s time to usher in a new era of compassionate co-existence, and we’ll keep doing all we can for better treatment for all animals.