As the nation prepared for its annual turkey feast, animal rights advocates asked a federal judge on Monday to give the holiday fowl the same legal protections as cows, pigs and other animals when they are slaughtered.

The Humane Society of the United States argued in U.S. District Court that the process for slaughtering chickens and turkeys is cruel, and requested the government include poultry under a federal rule that requires livestock to be killed humanely.

"It's the bare minimum we can ask for these animals that are going to be slaughtered," said Jonathan Lovvorn, animal protection attorney with The Humane Society of the United States.

About 10 billion turkeys, chickens and other birds are slaughtered for human consumption each year in the United States — about 45 million turkeys for the Thanksgiving holiday alone.

The Humane Society sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture two years ago asking for poultry to be covered by the nearly 50-year-old Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which says livestock must be stunned or rendered unable to feel pain before they're killed.

An industry spokesman said there already are methods to ensure the animals don't suffer needlessly.

"We already operate with humane methods of slaughter," Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said before the hearing. "This is just the kind of campaign (by animal activist organizations) meant to make life difficult for people who turn animals into food."

Typically, birds at slaughterhouses are shackled upside down on a conveyer line, then stunned by being dipped into electrically charged water or immersed in a mist that carries a low-voltage charge. Their necks are then cut by a machine and they are dipped into a vat of boiling water to loosen their feathers, the lawsuit said.

The process is cruel, the Humane Society said, because some birds aren't fully incapacitated by the electrical charge, and go through the slaughter process fully conscious.

A call to Agriculture Department officials wasn't returned before the hearing.