7 June 2017

Anthropomorphic Visions of Chickens Bred for Human Consumption

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

This essay was written for publication in Critical Animal Studies: Thinking the Unthinkable, ed. John Sorenson, Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, Inc., 2014. It appears in Section 4 of the anthology: “Animals, Food, Power, and Human Identity.”

“The misery of egg-laying birds has been well documented, but what about the life of chickens bred for eating?” (Purvis 2006)

In 2004, a professor of agriculture at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, gave a talk in which he argued that the animal rights movement consists mainly of urbanites with “anthropomorphized visions of animals.” Animal rights people, he said, know animals mainly as pets, and having been taught that humans “really are like animals,” these people have a sentimentalized view of animals (O’Rourke 2004:1567).

Granted, animal rights people may be tempted to try to turn their companion animals into duplicates of themselves, surrounded as so many of us are by machines and multilayers of comfort in an entirely humanized, technologized world into which our animal companions – our cats and dogs and pet birds – must fit along with the home furnishings and appliances. Rhetorically, some animal advocates may be tempted to portray all animals on the planet as existing in a kind of Disneyesque framework of utopian harmony outside of any natural ecological order. It is possible for even the most dedicated animal rights advocate to slide unwittingly from sensitivity to sentimentality toward the members of other species, to the point where the identities, needs and desires of other creatures become artificially fused, or confused, with the advocate’s own, resulting in a false anthropomorphism of over-zealous “humanization” of both domestic and free-living animals. That said, the majority of activists I have worked with for more than thirty years are passionate about wanting nonhuman animals to be able to live according to their natures and be respected for who they are. The desire to share our lives companionably with certain animals, and to protect all animals from human cruelty as much as possible, is quite different from the desire to separate our species from the rest of the animal kingdom, except in the role of a controlling, subjugating force.

Animal exploiters brandish the term “anthropomorphism” to silence criticism of their mistreatment of animals. Ever since Darwin’s theory of evolution erupted in the nineteenth century ( The Origin of Species appeared in 1859), “anthropomorphism” has been used to suppress objections to the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals and to enforce the doctrine of an unbridgeable gap between humans and other animals – except when convenient, as in the use of nonhuman animals as experimental “models” for human diseases, or dressing them in costumes and making them do demeaning tricks for our amusement. The term “anthropomorphism,” which originally referred to the attribution of human characteristics to a deity, now refers almost entirely to the attribution of consciousness, emotions, and other mental states, once commonly regarded as exclusively or predominantly human, to nonhuman animals.

While sentimentalized anthropomorphism may be a risk for animal advocates, anthropomorphism based on empathy and careful observation is a valid approach to understanding other species. Indeed, we can only see the world “through their eyes” by looking through our own. The imposition of humanized traits and behaviors on other animals for purely selfish purposes, forcing them to behave in ways that are that are unnatural to the animals themselves, is not the same thing as drawing inferences about the emotions, interests and desires of animals rooted in our common evolutionary heritage.

Humans are linked to other animals through evolution, and communication between many species is commonplace. Reasonable inferences may be drawn regarding such things as an animal’s body language, facial expressions, and vocal inflections in situations that produce comparable responses in ourselves. Chickens, for example, have a voice of unmistakable woe or enthusiasm in situations where these responses make sense. Their body language of “curved toward the earth” (drooping) versus “head up, tail up” is similarly interpretable. Behavioral resemblances do not require an exact match. One may consider these resemblances in terms of the common wellspring from which all experience flows, or in the form of a musical analogy, in which the theme of sentience and its innumerable manifestations hark back to the matrix of all sentient forms. Anthropomorphism conceived in these terms makes sense. One may legitimately formulate ideas about nonhuman animals, their desires, needs, deprivations, and happiness, that the rhetoric of exploitation seeks to discredit. One may proffer a counter rhetoric of animal liberation.

The treatment of chickens bred for human consumption exemplifies false anthropomorphism as its worst. Paradoxically it entails the industrialized severance of chickens from all human sympathy and connectedness with the natural world, while simultaneously imposing on them a set of humanized constructions designed to reflect only what we want to extract from them at the expense of who they are and what they need in order to continue being chickens.

In this discussion I focus primary attention on chickens bred commercially for their flesh as opposed to chickens bred for their eggs. Chickens bred for meat production and characterized by the poultry industry as “broilers,” “fryers,” and “roasters” represent the largest number of land animals bred specifically for human consumption. Globally, more than 40 billion chickens are being slaughtered for meat each year out of an estimated 65 billion farmed animals killed for this purpose. Approximately 5 billion egg-laying hens are in battery cages throughout the world, many of them in production complexes holding up to a million or more birds (Davis 2009:v).

Despite the disparity in numbers, battery-caged hens have received more attention to their plight among animal activists than have chickens bred for their flesh. Why is this? One reason, I believe, is that the suffering of egg-laying hens in battery cages is much more dramatically apparent to most people than the suffering of chickens in broiler sheds. Hens crammed together in battery cages allow an onlooker to distinguish a few hens out of thousands, and images of their torture and frustration, their entanglement in wires and beating of their wings against cage bars, are distressing even to people who are unfamiliar with chickens. By contrast, chickens bred for meat are not raised in cages, although this could change by the end of twenty-first century (Davis 2009:120-121; Texha 2012). Instead they are raised to the age of six weeks old on floors in enormous buildings the size of football fields, where they appear to the eye in their first week of life as thousands of indistinguishable fuzzy yellow chicks eating, drinking, and mixing with the sawdust and wood chips. In the weeks that follow their weight multiplies approximately sixty-five times until, sitting heavily and inert in layers of excrement, lame and in pain, they appear to a person standing in the doorway of the stench-filled shed like lumps of dough stretching into the dark, or what a journalist once called, “a sea of stationary grey objects” (Purvis 2006).

How did they get this way? Ever since the 1950s, chickens have been divided into two distinct types – broiler chickens bred for meat production and laying hens bred for egg production. Battery cages for egg-laying hens – identical units of confinement arranged in rows and tiers – and confinement sheds for broiler chickens became standardized during the 1940s and the 1950s in North America, and spread through Europe in the decades that followed. The development of the broiler chicken industry from a family enterprise to a commercial agribusiness was featured in a special issue of Broiler Industry magazine in July 1976. As the United States of America celebrated its 200th anniversary that month, the chicken industry celebrated its 50th, according to the editors. Ray Goldberg, who with John Davis coined the term “agribusiness” in the mid-1950s at the Harvard Business School, observed that one would have been “hard-pressed 50 years ago to find even a dozen flocks of chickens in lots of as large as 10,000 per farm that were being raised especially for supplying poultry meat” (Goldberg 1976:14).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture traces the beginning of continuous year-round production of broiler chickens to a farmer named Cecile Long Steele in Ocean View, Delaware. In 1923, Steele raised a winter flock of 500 birds, overcoming traditional dependence on seasonal egg-laying and the raising of chicks by mother hens in the spring and early summer. The chicken industry sets 1926 as the start of its era. In that year, Steele and her husband Wilmer built a farm capable of producing 10,000 chickens year round, and the first railroad car full of live broiler chickens (as opposed to “run-of-the-farm fowl”) was shipped from New Hampshire to New York City, at a time when live chickens were being transported from New England to New York by truck and from the Midwest to Eastern markets by train, to be slaughtered in the backrooms of grocery stores (Coleman 1976:14).

My own acquaintance with broiler chickens began in the mid-1980s, when my husband and I rented a house on a piece of land that included a backyard chicken shed in Maryland. One day in June about a hundred young chickens appeared in the shed. A few weeks later the chickens were huge. I knew little about broiler chickens at the time, but I was impressed by how crippled these birds were. I saw what Jim Mason and Peter Singer meant when they wrote in Animal Factories that the fleshly bodies of broiler chickens “grow so quickly that development of their bones and joints can’t keep up. . . . Many of these animals crouch or hobble about in pain on flawed feet and legs” (Mason and Singer 1990:45).

The chicken industry tells the public that thanks to pharmaceutical research, better management, diet and related improvements, poultry diseases have been practically eliminated. However, industry publications and my own experience tell a totally different story. A major part of this story concerns what has been done to chickens genetically to create an unhealthfully heavy, fast-growing bird, falsely promoted to consumers as “healthy,” even though poultry is the most common cause of foodborne illness in consumer households (Greger 2006:47). These chickens have been rendered ill and unfit as a result of genetic manipulation, unwholesome diets, drugs, antibiotics, and the toxic air and bedding in the chicken houses where they live in almost complete darkness until they are rounded up, thrown in crates and trucked to the slaughterhouses. Their bodies are abnormal. As I wrote in my book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, “When you pick up a chicken on the road who has fallen off a truck on the way to slaughter, the huge white bird with the little peeping voice and baby blue eyes feels like liquid cement” (Davis 2009:vi).

A description in the The Atlanta Journal Constitution in Georgia in 1991 is as true today as it was then:

Every week throughout the South, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers, instead of being condemned and destroyed. [One inspector said:] “I’ve had bad air sac birds that had yellow pus visibly coming out of their insides, and I was told to save the breast meat off them and even save the second joint of the wing. You might get those breasts today at a store in a package of breast fillets. And you might get the other part in a pack of buffalo wings.” (Bronstein 1991:C1)

Even if you rescue a chicken from the poultry shed when the bird is only a day or two old and provide the seemingly healthy little creature with wholesome food, fresh air, and compassionate care, the genetic pathologies built into them will begin to emerge in the form of cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, crippled joints, and unnatural gaits. The breast muscle of these birds grows disproportionally large and pendulous, and the internal organs are squeezed by the amount of fat and overproduction of muscle tissue, impairing their ability to breathe. Often the birds swell up with fluid and their faces and combs (the fleshy red crest on top of their heads) turn purple from oxygen deficiency. Often their skin and intestines are rotting from bacterial infections such as gangrenous dermatitis and necrotic enteritis. Such chickens usually die of heart failure within a few days, weeks or months, even though chickens in Nature can live up to thirty years, and traditional domestic chickens can live for ten years or more. The difference in lifespans reflects the fact that human tampering with the natural fitness of chickens, who evolved to thrive in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia and the rugged foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, has not benefited them.

As noted, the twentieth century saw chickens divided into two distinct utility strains, two separate “divisions of labor,” one for egg production, the other for meat production. In both cases the model of the chicken is based on metaphors derived from industrial technology. Hens bred for commercial egg production went from being nurturing and attentive mother birds, surrounded by their broods of frisky, playful chicks, to being characterized as “efficient egg machines” (Skinner 1974:367). Roosters were stripped of their role as the vigilant and protective heads of their own families and turned ignominiously into semen providers. Today, factory-farmed chickens are not only in factories; they are regarded by the chicken industry as factories. The poultry industry manual Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production states that the “technology built into buildings and equipment is embodied genetically into the chicken itself” (Bell and Weaver 2002:108).

Biologically, chickens bred for meat production are a hybridization of passive growth characteristics on the one hand and forced labor on the other, what the industry calls “productivity.” What does this “productivity” consist of? Contrary to what we usually think of as work – physical and/or mental effort exerted to do or make something – the notion of the “work” of chickens on a factory farm may seem strange. Granted, “egg-laying” hens are caged in horrible conditions, but while they are there, aren’t they just laying eggs the way apples fall from a tree? (Actually, no. The formation and laying of an egg is an extremely complex biological activity in female birds.) And while chickens bred for meat have been forced to become what University of California professor Michael Watts calls industrial “sites of accumulation,” how does becoming buried in one’s own flesh constitute work or anything that could reasonably be regarded as forced labor?

If this seems farfetched, consider Watts’s imagery in his essay “The Age of the Chicken,” where he writes that “the ‘designer chicken’ establishes the extent to which nutritional and genetic sciences have produced a ‘manmade’ broiler, a cyborg, to fit the needs of industry.” There is “something grotesque,” he argues, “about the creation of a creature which is a sort of steroidally enhanced growth machine, producing in unprecedentedly short periods of time enormous quantities of flesh around a distorted skeleton. . . . What is striking about the chicken is the extent to which the ‘biological body’ has been actually constructed physically, to meet the needs of the industrial labor process” (Watts 2002:15-16).

The labor of chickens bred for meat production is internalized forced labor. Like everything else in their lives, including their lives, their work is invisible. This is because, in addition to its being conducted in dark buildings without any windows, the work has been built into the chicken’s genome with the result that the bird’s body is locked in a state of perpetual warfare with itself and with the essential nature of the chicken as such. A former chicken farmer captures something of the pathology inside these birds when she writes that “the sign of a good meat flock is the number of birds dying from heart attacks” (Baskin 1978:38).

To the poultry industry, chickens are units of production no different in the moral outlook of their owners than the machinery of production. They are specialized divisions of labor while they are alive either piling on flesh or churning out eggs. At the same time, industry officials cultivate the idea that they care about the welfare of the birds, but do so in a way that ensures public ignorance and complacency. While accusing animal advocates of “anthropomorphism” for saying the chickens are miserable, they will turn around and tell you the chickens are “happy,” and call their brand of anthropomorphism “science.”

The National Chicken Council trade group in the United States tells people that “the physical welfare of animals is very important to the broiler chicken industry” and that economic profitability cannot be achieved without careful attention to welfare (Lobb 2002). However, this is not how the system actually works. Chickens do not gain weight and lay eggs in inimical surroundings because they are comfortable, content, or well-cared for, but because they are specifically manipulated to do these things, artificially, through genetics and management techniques that have nothing to do with happiness, except to destroy it. In addition, chickens in production agriculture are slaughtered at extremely young ages, before diseases and death have decimated the flocks as they would otherwise do, even with all the medications. Like humans, chickens can be profoundly mistreated and still “produce,” just as people can be overweight, sexually active, and able to bear children in conditions of poverty and enslavement. Like humans, chickens can “adapt” to mistreatment up to a point, although the abuses heaped upon chickens are so overwhelming that animal science professor Dr, John Webster calls industrial chicken production “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal” (Webster 1994:156).

To understand Webster’s indictment, we have to imagine what it must feel like to be one of these birds. If they appear in the poultry shed as anonymous masses of glimmering flesh spread silently across the floor, in reality each and every bird is a conscious individual who is living as intimately with his or her own body and feelings as you and I are with ours. Despite the damage that has been done to them physically, chickens possess ancestral memories of who they intrinsically are. Their retention of species identity and integrity can be glimpsed in sanctuaries such as ours that provide them with opportunities for natural expression despite their physical infirmities. They socialize together, sunbathe, dustbathe, and dig in the earth with their claws and beaks as best they can. They will perch on a low branch or a bale of straw until it becomes too painful for them to make the leap. They plod eagerly out of their houses in the morning into the yard, ready for sunlight and fresh air. They are very affectionate birds who often enjoy sitting in your lap and may even come up to you specifically for a hug. I speak from personal experience with hundreds of chickens rescued from the “broiler” chicken houses on the Eastern Shore of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, where our sanctuary is located in the heart of the Delmarva chicken industry.

One approach to understanding the suffering of chickens on factory farms is provided by social analyst Karl Marx’s concept of “alienation.” Applying this concept to factory employees in the nineteenth-century capitalist system that reduced workers to widgets whose only value was economic productivity (a situation that persists in Third World countries to which assembly line work is outsourced for cheap labor), Marx described four interrelated aspects of alienation: from the product, from the productive activity, from the species life, and from nature. We can consider the plight of chickens similarly as beings who have been forcibly shunted into environments and experiences that are alien and inimical to their nature and wellbeing.

From their own products

Factory-farmed chickens are alienated from their own products, which consist of their eggs, their chicks, and parts of their own bodies. The eggs of chickens used for breeding are taken away to be artificially incubated and hatched in mechanized hatcheries, and those of caged laying hens roll onto a conveyer belt out of sight. Parents and progeny are severed from one another. Factory-farmed chickens live and die without ever knowing a mother hen or a parental rooster. The relationship between the chicken and his or her own body is perverted and degraded by factory farming. An example is the cruel conflict in young broiler chickens between their abnormally rapid accumulation of breast muscle tissue and a developing young skeleton that cannot cope with the weight, resulting in crippling, painful hip joint degeneration and other afflictions that prevent the bird from walking normally, and often, or finally, from walking at all. Human sufferers can obtain pain relief medication; the chickens receive no such kindness.

From their own productive activity

Chickens are alienated from their own productive activity, which is reduced to the single biological function of laying eggs or gaining weight at the expense of the whole bird. Normal species activity is prevented so that food will be converted into this particular function only and not be “wasted” (Bell and Weaver 2002:866). Exercise of the chicken’s natural repertoire of interests and behaviors conflicts fundamentally with the goals of factory farming.

From their own societies

Chickens are alienated from their own societies. Their species life is distorted by crowding and caging, by separation of parents and offspring, by the huge numbers of birds crowded into a vast confinement area – somewhat as if one were compelled to live one’s entire life at an indoor rock concert or political rally, after the show was over – and by the lack of natural contact with other age groups and sexes within the species. Chickens should be living in small groups that spend their days foraging for food, socializing and being active; thus, the egg industry will cynically tell you that one of the advantages of the battery cage for egg-laying hens is that it satisfies the chicken’s need to be part of a little flock. More aptly, Dr. Michael Baxter writes, “Forcing hens into such close proximity as occurs in a battery cage disrupts normal social interaction and suggests that the hens continually strive to get further apart. The ongoing regulation of social spacing and continuous awareness of other hens in the cage provide evidence of social conflict and indicate that hens are stressed by being housed so close together” (Baxter 1994:618).

From the natural world

In the most encompassing sense, factory-farmed chickens are alienated from surrounding nature, from an external world that answers intelligibly to their inner world. There is nothing from them to do or see or look forward to; no voluntary actions are permitted, no joy or zest of living. They just have to be, in an existential void, until we kill them. Deterioration of mental and physical alertness under these conditions has been suggested by some animal scientists as an adaptive mechanism offsetting chronic, inescapable suffering. However, in an article entitled “Animal boredom: do animals miss being alert and active?”, biologist F. Wemelsfelder explains more reasonably that “It would be conceptually meaningless to assume that such states could in any way come to be experienced by an animal as ‘normal’ or ‘adapted.’ Behavioural flexibility represents the very capacity to achieve well-being or adaptation; impairment of such capacity presumably leaves an animal in a helpless state of continuous suffering” (Wemelsfelder 1991:122).

Animal Genocide

Until I began writing my book The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale several years ago (2005), I understood the term genocide to refer exclusively to the direct killing or attempted direct killing of every member of a human group with the goal of physically destroying that group and its presence on earth. Native American scholar Ward Churchill’s book, A Little Matter of Genocide, broadened my understanding. The term genocide was originally formulated by the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. According to Churchill, “Lemkin makes it absolutely clear from the outset that his concept of genocide was never meant to pertain exclusively to direct killing, this being but one means to the end of destroying the identity of targeted groups” (Churchill 1997:70).

In an effort to characterize what was happening to the Jewish people and other targeted victims of the Nazis in the 1930s, Lemkin wrote that genocide had two phases: “one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor” (Lemkin quoted in Churchill 1997:68). This concept of genocide allows us to consider humanity’s relentless, wholesale assault on the individuals, families, and communities of other animal species, including chickens, as a “genocidal” project. As Lemkin described it, genocide represents the imposition of the oppressor’s pattern of life on the life pattern of an oppressed group, a process that may, but does not invariably, entail the complete and direct annihilation of the victims. For example, a colonial economy’s dependence on the labor of subjugated people requires keeping the oppressed population alive to do the work; destroying all of them physically would destroy the economic system on which colonialism is based and which in essence, it is.

Similarly, the goal of the chicken industry is not to annihilate chickens literally as a physical form of existence; rather, the goal is to reconstitute chickens as nothing but food. This entails destroying the healthy bodies, psyches, family and social life of chickens and replacing them with a human-manufactured construction in which pathologized biology and public perception replicate each other so that the chicken as a natural being ceases to exist. Humanity is projected back to itself anthropomorphically in the scene of stationary grey objects into which the vibrant tropical forest fowl and zesty denizens of old-fashioned farmyards have been reduced to mere raw material for the mass production of corpses. The bloated, featherless, rubbery body on the kitchen counter, the big smooth oblong chlorinated breasts laid out on Styrofoam and plastic trays in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, reflect not who chickens are, but who we are. Consumers eat pieces of “finger” flesh incorporating chemical additives for taste, texture, color, and pathogen control. They eat dead legs and boneless “wings” that often are not wings at all but pieces of the chicken’s shoulder blades (Russell 2010:10-13).

Anthropomorphic Solutions to Chicken “Welfare” Problems

Thus far we have considered the plight of chickens caught in the toils of agribusiness in which they and their identities are forcibly reconstructed to reflect human desires. We have called the impregnation of chickens with humanized traits a type of anthropomorphism, and we have represented this enterprise as a genocidal assault on chickens (or more accurately, a “gallocidal” assault, since chickens belong to the order known as galliforms, meaning “cock-shaped” ground-nesting birds). The ethical dilemma posed by their plight has been characterized in public debates mainly in terms of the fact that chickens can suffer, by which is usually meant that they can experience the physical sensations of their abuse. But there is more to suffering than painful sensations alone. Suffering in the broadest sense refers to a condition of injury, trauma or disease that may or may not be consciously felt by the sufferer, as when a malignant tumor is developing quietly, unbeknown to the victim. A question is whether it is ethical to inflict injury on chickens, or any other animals, deliberately, in order to serve the interests of agribusiness and consumerism, as long as they do not “feel the pain” of their injury. A related question is whether it is ethical to inflict injury or trauma on chickens (or any other animals) as a “welfare” measure ostensibly for the purpose of reducing or eliminating their sensations of suffering in the dystopic environments they are forced to live in.

What if the sensations of suffering felt by chickens on factory farms could be genetically eliminated? What if scientists could create chickens, turkeys and other farmed animals whose “adjustment” to abusive handling, cruel treatment, and pathogenicity consisted in their inability to experience their own existence and instead be creatures who were essentially the oblivious entities that their owners already treat them as being? In the early 1990s, an engineer predicted that the future of chicken and egg production would come to resemble “industrial-scale versions of the heart-lung machines that brain-dead human beings need a court order to get unplugged from” (Burruss 1993:16A). As long as they don’t “feel” anything, is it ethical to do this to chickens?

Over the years, arguments have been made for surgically or genetically altering chickens in the name of “better welfare” on factory farms. In the 1980s, a poultry researcher sought to justify partial beak amputation of female chickens in the egg industry by claiming that “practices such as removing a portion of a hen’s beak . . . although causing temporary pain to individuals, can be of much benefit to the welfare of the group” (Craig 1981:243-244). In fact, debeaking has been shown to cause chronic pain and impairment in chickens while doing nothing for the welfare of the group but increasing its misery. Similarly, agribusiness philosopher Paul Thompson has proposed the notion that if blinded chickens “don’t mind” being crowded together in confinement as much as do chickens who can see, it would “improve animal welfare” to breed blind chickens (Thompson 2007:4). A breeder of featherless chickens in Israel makes “welfare” claims for raising naked chickens on factory farms, despite the fact that feathers help to protect the skin of chickens from injuries and infections, and factory farms are loaded with skin irritants and opportunities for skin laceration (Davis 2009:121). In these and similar cases, the animal welfare benefits (so-called) are attached to prospects of increased profitability for business. If blinded chickens or featherless chickens or beakless chickens or any other type of genetically or surgically mutilated chickens can be shown to increase economic efficiencies, the solutions will be (they already are) represented as a “holistic fit between a farm animal and its environment” (Thompson 2007:3).

In the above examples, the infliction of injury and representations of “improved welfare” have come from within agribusiness. However, similar ideas have come from outside of agribusiness as well. The genetic engineering of chickens to fit them to industrial farming conditions has been offered by some as a welfare solution of sorts. For example, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer said he would support the genetic engineering of wingless chickens if it would give them more room in battery cages, adding that “if you could eliminate various other chicken instincts, like its [sic] preference for laying eggs in a nest, that would be an improvement too.” Asked if he would consider it ethical to engineer a “brainless bird,” grown strictly for meat, Singer said he would consider it “an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling” (Broudy 2006).

But would it? Most people who hope for a genetic solution to the suffering of animals on factory farms have no idea of what actually goes on in genetic engineering laboratories, where countless animals are routinely being “modified” and trashed. In 1994, I attended the First International Symposium on the Artificial Insemination of Poultry at the University of Maryland, College Park. In a talk called “Beyond Freezing Semen,” Robert Etches, a researcher at the University of Guelph in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science, joked that his presentation should be called “The Night of the Living Dead.” He was discussing the experimental freezing and thawing of semen obtained by masturbating laboratory roosters for the purpose of creating chicken chimeras – chickens with genes from other species inserted into their embryos. Of birds hatching with no outward sign of the desired change, he said, “We simply throw them away.” And the audience laughed (Etches 1995).

From an ethical standpoint, genetic engineering is not a solution to the suffering of animals on factory farms; rather, it is an extension of the system and mentality that produced and produces such suffering in the first place. Millions of birds and other animals are being tortured in laboratories, forced into mutilated forms of existence and discarded, with no more concern for them or their feelings than if they were paperclips. Moreover, what is the difference from the standpoint of “concern” for animals between surgical amputation of their body parts and genetic amputation of their body parts including their brains? Would a chicken really benefit from being a wingless amputee if the deformity gave her a couple of extra inches of cage space? Even assuming she would, any extra cage space resulting from the elimination of wings would most likely be crammed with more chickens.

Let us look at the wingless “welfare” solution through the lens of a real situation. In the 1990s, Dr. Eldon Kienholz, a professor of poultry nutrition at Colorado State University, described experiments he did on newborn chickens and turkeys, in which he literally cut off their wings and tails to see if by doing so he could demonstrate a savings in feed costs, since feed would not be needed to grow wings and tails in birds raised for meat. Later, he wrote that the de-winged birds, as he called them, “couldn’t get up onto their feet when they fell over.” It wasn’t pleasant, he wrote, “seeing them spin around on their side trying to get back onto their feet, without their wings.” Ultimately, the de-winging experiment haunted Kienholz so much that it became a crucial factor in his decision to retire early from his tenured position as a full professor in a field he could no longer justify being a part of (Davis 2009:175).

As well as the physical effects on a bird of wing amputation, there is a further issue. It involves the question of whether a bird’s wings are mere physical, expendable appendages that can be lopped off like a table leg, or whether a bird’s wings are an integral part not only of the body but of the very being of a bird. Scientific evidence suggests that the consciousness of other animals, including birds, is rooted in and shaped by what neurologist Oliver Sacks has called “deep emotional memories or associations . . . in the limbic system and other regions of the brain where emotional memories are represented” (Sacks 2007:108).

Birds, like humans, possess limbic systems and other areas of the brain in which instincts, memories and emotions are formed and coordinated, and birds have been shown to share with humans a complexly evolved brain that processes information and gives rise to experience in much the same way as the human cerebral cortex. Would it be a consolation or a curse for the wingless hen to retain memories of her genetically amputated wings as she wasted away in her cage on an industrial farm?

The answer is not comforting to conscience. Scientists cite neurological evidence that the amputated stump of a debeaked bird continues to discharge abnormal afferent nerves in fibers running from the stump for many weeks after beak trimming, “similar to what happens in human amputees who suffer from phantom limb pain” (Duncan 1993:5). A memory of the amputated beak part persists in the brain, beak, and facial sensations of the mutilated bird even after “healing” has occurred. Likewise, scientists cite the persistence of “ancestral memories” in intensively bred, factory-farmed chickens who, although they have never personally experienced so much as the ground under their feet, have “the same drive to scratch away to get their food,” given the opportunity, as do their jungle fowl relatives who spend long hours scratching away at the leaves of the forest floor to reach the tiny seeds of bamboo which they love (Dawkins 1993:57). Perhaps these deeply structured memory formations, retentions, and ineffable networks of knowledge in the bodies and brains of factory-farmed birds give rise to “phantom limbic memories” in the individual: to subjective, embodied experiences so integral to the very being of a chicken that even dismembered or mutilated body parts possess a distant memory of who and what he or she really is, ontologically (Davis 2011:49-53).

Expunging animal consciousness: reducing a sensitive being to a nonsentient object

We have touched upon the ethics and effects of amputating the wings and beaks of birds whose brains remain functional. But what if the chicken’s brain could be genetically excised – “expunged”? What if the elements of memory, instinct, sensation and emotion could be eliminated and a brainless chicken constructed? In the United Kingdom, an architecture student named Andre Ford has proposed what he calls the “Headless Chicken Solution” to the suffering of chickens on factory farms. Drawing on agribusiness philosopher Paul Thompson’s “Blind Chicken Solution,” mentioned earlier, Ford envisions the removal of factory-farmed chickens’ cerebral cortex. Removing the chicken’s cerebral cortex, he says, would inhibit the bird’s sensory perceptions so that chickens could be mass-produced without awareness of themselves or their situation in a technologized universe that would make it easier for the chicken industry to make even more money facilitating ever greater consumption of chicken products by the growing global human population. An article in Wired describes his vision:

After this “desensitisation,” the chickens could then be stacked into huge urban farms with around 1,000 chickens hooked up to each large vertical frame. . . . The feet of the chicken would also be removed in order to pack more in. There could be dozens of these frames in the vertical farming system, which Ford refers to as the Centre for Unconscious Farming. Food, water and air would be delivered via a network of tubes and excrement would be removed in the same way. This technique could achieve a density of around 11.7 chickens per cubic metre instead of the current 3.2 chickens achieved in broiler houses. (Solon 2012)

Ford equates removal of the chicken’s brain with the “removal of suffering,” but as we have seen, suffering and the problem of suffering are matters that are far deeper and more complex than science fiction and conventional “welfare” solutions can address. Avian brain removal, far from “removing suffering,” takes suffering to its furthest limit by destroying the birds themselves, exterminating the identity and beingness of birds and replacing who they are with the anthropomorphized identity of their destroyer. Contrary to Ford’s theory, there is no “fundamental difference” between the current dominant poultry production systems and his proposal. De-braining chickens simply taking the dominant systems, and the pathologies they incorporate, to their logical conclusion.

At the same time, there is truth in calling these systems every bit as “shocking” as his vision for improvement. Ford rightly describes them as being “hidden behind the sentimental guise of traditional farming scenes that we as consumers hold in our minds and see on our food packaging.” Such balancing of evils recalls an argument that was made by philosopher Peter Singer several years ago. In an essay called “Heavy Petting,” he compared human sexual assault on female chickens (hens) with agribusiness’s commercial assault on them. Observing that a man’s sexual penetration of a hen is usually fatal to her, and that in some cases the perpetrator will deliberately decapitate the hen in order to heighten his pleasure, Singer says this is obviously cruel. “But is it worse,” he asks, “for the hen than living for a year or more crowded with four or five other hens in [a] barren wire cage so small that they can never stretch their wings, and then being stuffed into crates to be taken to the slaughterhouse, strung upside down on a conveyer belt and killed? If not, then it is no worse than what egg producers do to their hens all the time” (Singer 2001:2).

An irony in Singer’s challenge to conventional thinking is the fact that animal farming is based on sexually assaulting “food” animals. The boundary between animals as food and animals as sexualized objects has always been blurred, even though most people continue to view animal agriculture, with more or less willful blindness, in a wholesome, utilitarian light. Yet the rape of chickens and other farmed animals is an ancient, as well as a contemporary, practice (Dekkers 1994:146-147), not only because these animals are readily available for sexual molestation (I once attended an agribusiness meeting where one of the participants joked that a farm boy’s first girlfriend is a mule), but because farmed-animal production consists of manipulating animals’ genitals, reproductive systems, and mating behavior in order to control them and their biology for meat, milk, and egg production. Sexual violence – anthropomorphizing and “mating” with nonhuman animals – is built into animal farming, where the actual treatment of the animals so used is anything but wholesome.

Consider, for example, the attitude of agribusiness “welfare” consultant, Temple Grandin, who, even while professing to care about farmed animals, fully upholds incarcerating, mutilating, and killing them, as well as having sex with them for business purposes. In her book Animals in Translation, in a section called “How to Make a Pig Fall in Love,” she cheerfully describes men sexually assaulting captive pigs – getting sows to “stand for the man” while he sit on her back and artificially inseminates her – and insists that these pig breeders “respect the animals’ nature.” Not only does she show that sexual assault is a standard pig farming practice; she suggests by her tone that the restrained female pig enjoys the enforced sexual encounter with her abuser (Grandin and Johnson 2005, 104).

Similarly, poultry industry turkeys– who are masturbated for their semen by teams of men called “milkers” if the birds are male, and artificially inseminated with syringes shoved into their vaginas if they are female – are said to welcome this experience. Reflecting the jocular agribusiness viewpoint, journalist Peter Perl wrote in The Washington Post regarding male turkeys being masturbated by big-muscled men: “They don’t mind it. . . . They find it pleasing. . . . Some turkeys actually get so excited by the mere arrival of the milkers that they cannot be milked in time” (Perl 1995:16).

In reality, the “excitement” of turkeys in the breeder facility expresses terror, pain and stress so severe that the victims often die of heart attacks from chest muscle strangulation caused by the brutality of the encounter. Their terror is similar to the fright that is shown by ducks and geese bred for the production of foie gras (fatty liver) in being manhandled and orally assaulted with slurry-filled metal funnels shoved down their throats three times a day for the purpose of inducing liver disease for the pleasure of “gourmet” diners. After working at a ConAgra turkey breeding facility in Missouri, Jim Mason, author of An Unnatural Order, described the violent manner in which the milkers physically restrained and masturbated the male turkeys and “broke” the females (Mason quoted in Davis 2001:84-85). When I attended the Artificial Insemination of Poultry Symposium at the University of Maryland, mentioned earlier, among all of the other obscenities represented by the speakers as “scientific” and normal, attendees were shown slides of men sexually manipulating turkeys with the word L O V E spread across their knuckles in red. Posted on display boards at the conference were close-up photographs of the vents of female chickens into which tubes were inserted. In light of such things, it cannot be surprising that we have the impertinence to anthropomorphize depraved human sexual behavior, in perverse order, as “acting like animals.” In reality, the only creature that “acts like animals” in the scurrilous manner attributed to other animal species is us.

Conclusion: The Chicken Anthropomorphized as “World Conqueror”

Smithsonian magazine, the monthly publication of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, has an article in the June 2012 issue celebrating global chicken production and consumption. “How the Chicken Conquered the World” features a cartoon depiction of the “Chicken Conqueror” dressed as Napoleon on the cover (Adler and Lawler 2012). The editors of this publication of culture and archeology seemed eager to “dress up” the magazine by not only glitzing the story of turning chickens into a “crispy” corpses – “the ubiquitous food our era” – but by illustrating the account with what they called “astounding” images. Readers were invited to take a peek at the editorial brainstorming process: “What if you were to take portraits of raw chickens, dressed up as some of the most famous leaders in history . . . Chickens-Dressed-Like-Napoleon-Einstein-and-Other-Historical-Figures”?

From a conventional perspective, dressing up a defenseless and defeated creature as a “conqueror” may seem funny and clever; otherwise it is callous and cruel. And there is nothing new about it. Anthropomorphic derision of nonhuman animals in a spirit of malevolent jollity is an age-old old ritual in the carnivalesque tradition of taunting and tormenting helpless victims, both literally and figuratively. Opposing the sanctimony of pious sentiments and ceremonies, the carnivalesque spirit emphasizes mockery, sarcasm, cruelty, gluttony, and a grotesque concept and physical abuse of bodies. In the carnivalesque tradition, humans and other animals are mixed derisively together. Only the eyes, wrote cultural analyst, Mikhail Bakhtin, “have no part in these comic images,” because eyes “express an individual, so to speak” (Bakhtin 1967:316 quoted in Davis 2001:91).

Apart from the Napoleon cartoon, all of the other images of chickens dressed as “historical figures” in the Smithsonian article are headless corpses. Looking at them, I thought about the testimony of former Tyson chicken slaughterhouse worker, Virgil Butler, who wrote before he died in 2006 of how the chickens who were about to be slaughtered would stare at him with their eyes as they hung upside down on the conveyer belts, fully conscious and filled with excruciating electric shocks administered to their faces through cold, salted electrified water on the way to having their throats cut. He said of these chickens, “They try to hide their head from you by sticking it under the wing of the chicken next to them on the slaughter line. . . . You can tell by them looking at you, they’re scared to death” (Davis 2009:131,141).

Virgil said he became a vegetarian when he could no longer look at a piece of a dead chicken or any other meat anymore without seeing “the sad, tortured face that was attached to it sometime in the past” (Davis 2004:4). He quit his job and changed his life when he could no longer turn a blind eye or hide his head in a “headless chicken solution,” however manufactured or tricked out as “animal welfare,” to ease his conscience. This essay is written in memory of him and the billions of chickens who have already suffered and died. It is written in a spirit of hope for the billions of chickens we can save from a miserable life by saying within ourselves, “Let there be peace, and let it begin with me,” and acting on this desire.



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Karen Davis, PhD is the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Her articles have appeared in Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, Sister Species, Encyclopedia of Animals and Humans, and Experiencing Animal Minds: An Anthology of Animal-Human Encounters.

Her books include 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 A Home For Henny. Karen Davis and her work were profiled in “For the Birds” in The Washington Post and she was inducted into the U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame “for outstanding contributions to animal liberation.”