Personhood Beyond the Human Conference at Yale University
Experts Gather at Yale to Discuss Whether Animals Are People
By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
The Personhood Beyond the Human conference at Yale University, December 6-8, 2013, reveals growing support among ethicists, lawyers, scientists and others
for changing the status of nonhuman animals from one of legal thinghood, with no rights, to a status of personhood with a capacity for legal rights. The
Nonhuman Rights Project, founded by attorney Steven Wise, is breaking ground on legal rights for nonhuman animals, for whom, he says, “The passage
from thing to person constitutes a legal transubstantiation.”
While nonhuman primates were the main topic of the conference, reflecting the Nonhuman Rights Project’s current lawsuits on behalf of chimpanzees, as
a speaker I seized the opportunity to shine a light on chickens. In “The Provocative Elitism of ‘Personhood’ for Nonhuman Creatures in
Animal Advocacy Parlance and Polemics,” I argued that animal advocates cannot allow the idea to take hold that only the great apes and certain other
“higher” animals are fit to be “persons.” Working to change the moral status of the great apes should not be done at the expense of
other animals. Nonhuman animals should not be ranked according to a hierarchy of “intelligence” or be cognitively equated with toddlers and
mentally incompetent human adults, as has been suggested by some animal advocates.
An adult chicken raising her chicks does not think like a six-year-old. She thinks like a mother hen, in which respect she is like all other attentive and
doting mothers of all species.
Illustration from Nature's Chicken by Nigel Burroughs
"What must we do to prove we are ‘persons’?"
Since a criterion for “personhood” is often cited as a nonhuman animal’s demonstration of self-recognition in a mirror, I read the
following excerpt from my essay, “The Social Life of Chickens,” about our hen, Freddaflower:
Chickens in my experience have a core identity and sense of themselves as chickens. An example is a chick I named Fred, sole survivor of a classroom
hatching project in which embryos were mechanically incubated. Fred was so large, loud and demanding from the moment he set foot in our kitchen, I assumed
he’d grow up to be a rooster. He raced up and down the hallway, hopped up on my shoulder, leapt to the top of my head, ran across my back, down my
arm and onto the floor when I was at the computer, and was generally what you’d call “pushy,” but adorably so. I remember one day putting
Fred outdoors in an enclosure with a few adult hens on the ground, and he flew straight up the tree to a branch, peeping loudly, apparently wanting no part
“Fred” grew into a lustrously beautiful black hen whom I renamed Freddaflower. Often we’d sit on the sofa together at night while I
watched television or read. Even by herself, Freddaflower liked to perch on the arm of the sofa in front of the TV when it was on, suggesting she liked to
be there because it was our special place. She ran up and down the stairs to the second floor as she pleased, and often I would find her in the guestroom
standing prettily in front of the full-length mirror preening her feathers and observing herself. She appeared to be fully aware that it was she herself
she was looking at in the mirror. I’d say to her, “Look, Freddaflower - that’s you! Look how pretty you are!” And she seemed
already to know that.
Freddaflower loved for me to hold her and pet her. She demanded to be picked up. She would close her eyes and purr while I stroked her feathers and kissed
her face. From time to time, I placed her outside in the chicken yard, and sometimes she ventured out on her own, but she always came back. Eventually I
noticed she was returning to me less and less, and for shorter periods. One night she elected to remain in the chicken house with the flock. From then on
until she died of ovarian cancer in my arms two years later, Freddaflower expressed her ambivalence of wanting to be with me but also wanting to be with
the other hens, to socialize and nest with them and participate in their world and the reliving of ancestral experiences that she carried within herself.
*Karen Davis’s presentation at the Personhood Beyond the Human conference can be viewed on UPC’s website at www.upc-online.org/videos.
To read “The Social Life of Chickens,” go to
Photo by Franklin Wade
Liqin Cao and Freddaflower