United Poultry Concerns May 2001
Chickens and Chimpanzees:
The Odd Couple of the Animal Rights Movement

By Karen Davis, PhD

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 chickens?

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 issues.

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
FAX: 757-678-5070

(Chickens and Chimpanzees: The Odd Couple of the Animal Rights)

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