This article appeared in Satya, May 2001, pp. 16-17. Satya is a
monthly magazine promoting Vegetarianism, Environmentalism, Animal
Advocacy, and Social Justice. Address: P.O. Box 138 Prince St.
Station, NYC 10012. Tel: 212-674-0952. Web site: www.satyamag.com.
Editor-In-Chief: Catherine Clyne.
Let me begin by saying that I abhor the privileging of any mammal or
bird in the fight for animal rights. It is mainly for this reason
that the Great Ape Project has always left me ambivalent and a little
infuriated with its demand for an "extension of the community of
equals to include all great apes" (Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer,
The Great Ape Project, 1993). Please don't get me wrong. I want
great apes to have legal rights, absolutely without question. Only,
why should chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans get first dibs at
justice? I already know the answer--I've heard it a thousand times.
Because they're "more like us." Because they share 99 percent of our
genes. Because they open the door for other species to squeak, sneak,
or peak through, at least. That you have to start somewhere, I will
agree, so the "squeak & sneak" argument appeals to me most. Still. .
For all the attention they've received, the great apes are patronized
shamelessly by their leading advocates who illogically and unjustly
compare them with the least competent members of human society:
infants and the mentally disabled. They argue anthropomorphically
that the great apes have shown mental behaviors most similar to human
mental behaviors, while failing to stress that such demonstrations
depend upon anatomical and physiological resemblances--such as
fingers and vocal mechanisms-that facilitate scientific
"interpretation" far more easily than do, say, fins, wings, bird
claws, and non-ape-like mechanisms of vocalization. It is based on
humanocentric criteria that the great apes are thus paraded as
deserving a shot at being granted a place sort of beside and sort of
below us on a little bit of land set aside for semipersons. As avian
specialist Dr. Lesley Rogers says concerning the Great Ape Project in
her book Minds of Their Own (Westview Press, 1998), "By shifting the
boundary to allow apes into the same group as humans, we are still
saying that 'some animals are more equal than others.'" Indeed, why
should other creatures have to "prove" their "entitlement" to
"personhood"? And what further torments must they endure at our
hands, and for how much longer, that we may or may not extract from
them this "proof"?
In an article I wrote called "Expanding the Great Ape Project,"
(Between the Species, 1996), I took issue with this elitism and
pleaded for its expansion: "Equality Beyond Primatology." I argued
especially for the inclusion of birds, both by way of illustration
and for their own sakes. In general, I complained that even to be a
nonhuman "person" on the highest level within the Great Ape universe
of thought was to be a poor contender according to its standards of
value: the vaunted chimpanzees rank with "intellectually disabled
human beings" in Singer's words. Where does this put the majority of
the animal kingdom? What about birds? More specifically, what about
Adult nonhuman animals, from gorillas to guinea fowl, negotiate
complex environments every day and perform a multiplicity of
cognitive acts, including practical decision-making. Adult animals
embody such a repertoire of experiences accompanying their growth
that it is nonsense to equate it with the experiential repertoire of
human babies and the cognitively disabled. Fair pleading demands that
we stop "defending" other animals from ourselves by calling them
"dumb." Just as human verbal language is one of the many languages of
life, so our particular type of intelligence is one among many. If
people feel threatened by the idea of equality beyond human
primatology, that is our problem to solve.
The issue was crystallized a number of years ago by Carl Sagan in his
book The Dragons of Eden (1977). To make the case that at least some
"beasts" employ reason--which should earn them points toward having
some "rights"--Sagan contrasts chimpanzees and a chicken in an
anecdote taken from the annals of early animal ethology. A researcher
reported watching two chimpanzees luring a chicken with food while
hiding a piece of wire. Like Charlie Brown to the football, the
chicken reportedly kept returning, only to be tricked again. This
revealed, in Sagan's view, that "chickens have a very low capacity
for avoidance learning," whereas the chimpanzees showed "a fine
combination of behavior sometimes thought to be uniquely human:
cooperation, planning a future course of action, deception and
cruelty." To wit, chimpanzees may be considered as candidates for
rights, but chickens may not.
Despite the push to give special status to apes, thus perhaps opening
the door for all other animals, nothing materially has changed-for
any animals for that matter. They're all still rotting for cuisine or
science, or whatever. Yet, there is a change on the horizon for
chickens. Although just a nanoshift, I am happy about it.
Getting "Ready" for Chickens
Who was it that said, "I'm so low down I declare I'm looking up at
down?" If we were to imagine, say, a dung heap, picture the chimp
perched on top and the chickens scrounging around at the bottom of
the pile. That's rather how it was when I decided to start an
advocacy group for chickens in the late 1980s, and was told by some
that if I was going to "do" farm animals, I had better do pigs
instead, because people weren't "ready" for chickens.
So now I'm sitting here poring over all the media coverage that
McDonald's received on announcing that in setting minimal animal
welfare standards for its global suppliers of food products, the
company would "do" chickens first-hens used for commercial egg
laying, no less. And I'm thinking, now isn't this interesting,
amazing really. At the start of the new century-a new millennium
even--the chicken whom I was told people weren't ready for, has been
pulled up out of the deepest oblivion into the spotlight along with
chimpanzee. What a difference a decade can make.
I feel cheap saying this. I myself am not looking up at down except
vicariously, and I am not happy about the plight and fate of
chickens. I am not an optimist of the intellect; only of the will.
Still, word is getting out about the widespread abuse of these birds.
I know for a fact that there are thousands of people in this country
who care deeply about chickens; and I know that it is possible to get
people who never thought about them before to care very much. I have
seen this happen because I am at the forefront of making it happen.
For example, I persuaded a journalist who had never heard of "forced
molting"--the egg industry practice of depriving hens of food for 10
to 14 days, causing them to lose their feathers, in order to
manipulate the production of eggs--to do a cover story about this for
The Washington Post (4/30/00). Another Post writer did a feature
story about my work as the founder and director of United Poultry
Concerns. ("For the Birds," 10/14/99), which was awarded a
distinguished Ark Trust Genesis Award in 2000 for spotlighting animal
When I talk about change in regard to chickens, I am not just talking
about media attention, but about attitude. Nobody ever says to me
anymore that people "aren't ready" for chickens. Attention is finally
being paid to the largest number of abused warm-blooded vertebrates
on the planet, both in the animal advocacy community and in the
public domain, in the U.S as well as in the U.K. The enormous
popularity of last year's hit movie Chicken Run, which featured
emotive clay-mation chickens conspiring to escape an egg farm, gives
reason for hope. But there's more.
Consider the following: Recent polls show that Americans are willing
to pay more for eggs that come from hens treated less inhumanely.
Last year a bill was introduced in California that would have banned
the forced molting of hens. This year, two bills were introduced in
Illinois and in Washington State that would ban the practice as well.
Washington State was also considering a bill that would prohibit
keeping hens in tiny cages as well as debeaking them as a way of
controlling their distorted behavior behind bars. Although these
bills were killed by agricultural committees, such proposed
legislation indicates great public concern. While the United States
lags far behind Europe, which not only bans forced molting but has
decreed that hens must be out of cages entirely by 2012, the U.S.
egg industry--under increasing pressure--has merely set 2012 as the
year when each hen is supposed to get 67 square inches of space in
the cage instead of the standard 48.
Abusing chickens for fun is also becoming less acceptable. In 1998
voters in Missouri and Arizona banned cockfighting; Oklahoma is set
to go next. In the past year, two abusers of chickens were convicted
of cruelty to animals: a Denver disc jockey who had a hen dropped
from a balcony in order to record her suffering on the air, and an
egg farmer who left thousands of hens to starve to death in their
cages rather than comply with Washington State's environmental laws.
To see chickens beginning to be vindicated after the long reign of
oblivion and denigration they've suffered since the mid-20th century,
when these earth-firstiest, earth-thirstiest of birds disappeared
from the American landscape, is enough to make me weep. Which is
exactly what I did a few years ago in an airport, not from any
blinding perception that an aircraft is a form of avian evolution,
but because I was engrossed in a book called The Development of Brain
and Behaviour in the Chicken (1995) by avian specialist Lesley
Rogers. The emotion that shook me at the airport derived from Rogers'
saying such things as, "it is now clear that birds have cognitive
capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates" and "With
increased knowledge of the behaviour and cognitive abilities of the
chicken has come the realization that the chicken is not an inferior
species to be treated merely as a food source."
These were the words of a scientist. I wished then, as I do now, that
I could inscribe these words into the minds of every existing human
being and every generation to come. It was this driving impulse that
led me to start United Poultry Concerns after meeting a chicken named
Viva. It is no exaggeration to say that Viva changed my life. From
the moment I pulled her out of a muddy shack in Maryland and saw her
face, I knew that I had a story to tell that would never let go of
me. I have lived to see the day when the chicken as well as the
chimpanzee is starting to receive some attention, and for this I am
grateful and semi-elated though far from satisfied.
Karen Davis, Ph.D. is President and Director of United Poultry
Concerns, a non-profit organization which promotes the compassionate
and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of
Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern
Poultry Industry, and More Than A Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth,
Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001). For information, call
(757) 678-7875 or visit www.upc-online.org.
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(Chickens and Chimpanzees: The Odd Couple of the Animal Rights)