9 June 2018

Are Feminists Right to Resist Comparison with the Females of Other Species?

Published Today on Animals 24-7

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

A woman employed on a chicken “breeder” farm in Maryland wrote a letter once to the local newspaper berating the defenders of chickens for trying to make her lose her job, threatening her ability to support herself and her daughter. For her, “breeder” hens were “mean” birds who “peck your arm when you are trying to collect the eggs.” In her defense of her life and her daughter’s life, she failed to see the comparison between her motherly protection of her child and the exploited hen’s effort to protect her own offspring – for the hen a losing battle.

Animal farming erects an unbridgeable boundary between humans and “animals,” especially farmed animals. The “them” versus “us” pervades industrial farming which is rooted in traditional farming. The poultry industry takes pains to ensure that producers convey “the message that hens are distinct from companion species to defuse the misperceptions.” It isn’t that agribusiness elevates “companion species” particularly, but that dogs and cats are the basis of the $30 billion pet food industry that serves as a dumping ground for millions of newborn male chicks (“hatchery debris”) and slaughterhouse “refuse.” See: Who is In Your Dog’s Food?

Male chicks in a plastic bag
Male chicks are suffocated to death in plastic bags or ground up alive at the hatchery.
Photo courtesy of The Animals Voice

The idea that humans are a vastly superior order of being, distinct from the rest of creation, pervades society despite Charles Darwin’s demonstration of the evolutionary continuity of living creatures. Even among “progressives,” interference with the presumption of human superiority and exceptionalism can ruffle feathers. Hostility among human groups is an integral part of human history, but just as bickering individuals and nations come together against a common enemy, so most people are united in defense of human supremacy over, and radical separation from, all other forms of life.

This prejudice can be seen in the resentment of some core feminists toward any suggestion that their suffering and other experiences are comparable to those of nonhuman females. They believe that cross-species comparisons crimp their identity as unique. They do not want to share the “privilege” of oppression. An article I recently wrote titled “The Hen is a Symbol of Motherhood for Reasons We May Have Forgotten, So Let Us Recall” was rejected by a progressive publication for implying similarities between human mothers and chicken mothers. The editors considered the comparison a slur against women. Carol J. Adams, in “The Feminist Traffic in Animals” in Neither Man Nor Beast, describes how far some feminists will go to deny other animals’ capacity for meaningful social relationships, and even their fear of death, to which she responds that these beliefs “are possible only as long as we do not inquire closely into the lives of animals as subjects.”

Key West hen with chicks
Mother hen with her chicks in the Florida Everglades. Photo by Davida G. Breier

While some women may wince at comparison with their female counterparts – their sisters – in nature or captivity, men, on the other hand, relish linking themselves to “wild” animals, by which they mean powerful male predators – jaguars, pumas, wolves and the like whom they iconize as masculine. What man chafes at being likened to a Big Cat?

Feminists who resent comparisons with nonhuman female animals whose behavior is similar in all relevant respects are not liberated in my view. An environmentalist named J. Baird Callicott in 1980 dismissed all farmed animals categorically as having been bred to “docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency. It is literally meaningless to suggest that they be liberated,” he wrote in “Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair,” Environmental Ethics 2:311-338.

This sounds a lot like a stereotypical Victorian man’s view of women – and it is every bit as factitious. Yet even today, some feminists are battling a demeaning image of themselves as the equivalent of a mere “farm animal,” which is itself a demeaning and ignorant caricature.

Though science remains speciesist, the fields of cognitive ethology and evolutionary biology are expanding our understanding of how intimately we are connected to the other animals on the planet. In “The Chicken Challenge: What Contemporary Studies of Fowl Mean for Science and Ethics,” Carolynn L. Smith and Jane Johnson present the science showing that chickens “demonstrate complex cognitive abilities”:

The science outlined in this paper challenges common thinking about chickens. Chickens are not mere automata; instead they have been shown to possess sophisticated cognitive abilities. Their communication is not simply reflexive, but is responsive to relevant social and environmental factors. Chickens demonstrate an awareness of themselves as separate from others; can recognize particular individuals and appreciate their standing with respect to those individuals; and show an awareness of the attentional states of their fellow fowl. Further, chickens have been shown to engage in reasoning through performing abstract and social transitive inferences. This growing body of scientific data could inform a rethinking about the treatment of these animals. pp. 89-90.

In May, 2018, Marc Bekoff, PhD, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, published a Mother’s Day plea for mother cows on the Psychology Today website. In “What Would a Mother "Food" Cow Tell Us About Her Children?” he writes that he is “freely using the word ‘children’ rather than ‘offspring’ or ‘young’ that are usually used when writing about young nonhumans. These youngsters are, of course, their children, and many behavioral patterns have evolved so that they receive the best parental care possible.”

Cow licking her newborn calf
This mother cow and her calf were torn apart for slaughter. Courtesy of United Poultry Concerns

To deny our kinship with creatures who are other than human risks estrangement from the living world to a pathological degree. To feel slighted that a hen or a cow or a sow could love her children as a woman loves hers is petty and dissociated from reality. I agree with animal rights author and attorney, Jim Mason, who in a recent interview advises against “separation from our kindred animals. “ He urges us to “practice a sense of kinship by seeing behaviors that we share with other animals . . . and see these as your own experiences. Dwell on that – emotionally and spiritually. Feel that sense of the things we have in common with these others.” Read the complete EVEN interview with Jim Mason.

I hope that any feminist, or anyone at all who relates to the attitude of a male farmer who snorted, “Who the hell knows or cares what a hen wants,” will reconsider. Such sentiments of alienation will not make the world a more just place for any sentient being.


KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. She is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities and other groundbreaking publications.