Plane Crashes and Slaughterhouses: Who Suffers More?
By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns
This article was first published Jan. 15, 2020 by Animals 24-7.
Helpless in a Cage
On January 8, 2020, passenger flight 752, headed from the Iranian capital of Tehran to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, killing all 176 occupants, including 167 passengers. The jet continued flying for several minutes before turning back toward the airport. According to The New York Times, “The plane, which by then had stopped transmitting its signal, flew toward the airport ablaze before it exploded and crashed quickly” (1).
One can only imagine being strapped in a plane that is about to crash, being, in the final moments before death, a conscious individual, helpless in a cage. In considering such circumstances, is it impertinent to compare this experience with that of chickens (any animals) hanging face down on a slaughter line as it moves toward a large rotating knife that will cut their throats? Is the terror of the chickens any less palpable in those final moments than the terror of the airline passengers hurled helplessly toward their own deaths?
Even granting the terror the chickens must be feeling, there are those who are outraged by the very idea of comparing anything a chicken might feel with the feelings of a human being, for the simple reason that, no matter what, the feelings and nature of humans are considered “superior to” and vastly “more important than” those of any other sentient species – a view not shared by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson or by me. (2)
Probably, if questioned, few people, even those who grant that other animals can form lasting emotional relationships amongst themselves, would concede that their experiences could equal the range and depth of human social and familial experience.
In the following discussion, I address the question of “superior suffering” by focusing on an aircraft catastrophe that took place nearly twenty years ago in American skies. My suggestion at the time – that slaughterhouse chickens could suffer as much as human beings in situations involving the utmost pain and fear in the victims – evoked a controversy that continues to this day as to “who suffers more” (3).
September 11, 2001 – The Worst Suffering Ever?
For many Americans, the worst, most unjust suffering to befall anyone happened on September 11, 2001. Mark Slouka, in his essay “A Year Later,” in Harper’s Magazine, puzzled over “how it was possible for a man’s faith to sail over Auschwitz, say, only to founder on the World Trade Center.” How was it that so many intelligent people he knew, who had lived through the 20th century and knew something about history, actually insisted “that everything is different now,” as a result of 9/11, as though, Slouka marveled, “only our sorrow would weigh in the record”? (4)
People who said they’d never be the same again seldom said that about other people’s and other nations’ calamities. In saying that the world as a result of the 9/11 attack was “different now,” they didn’t mean that “before the 9/11 attack I was blind, but now I see the suffering that is going on and that has been going on all around me, to which I might be a contributor, God forbid.” No, they meant that an incomparable and superior outrage had occurred. It happened to Americans. It happened to them.
Following the 9/11 attack, I published a letter in 2001 that raised consternation. Without seeking to diminish the horror of 9/11, I wrote that the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attack arguably did not suffer more terrible deaths than animals in slaughterhouses suffer every day. Using chickens as an example, I observed that in addition to the much larger number of chickens who were killed on 9/11, and the horrible deaths they endured in the slaughter plants that day, and every day, one had to account for the misery of their lives leading up to their deaths, including the terror attack they had suffered hours or days before they were killed, blandly described as “chicken catching.” (5)
I compared all this to the relatively satisfying lives of the majority of human victims of 9/11 prior to the attack, adding that we humans have a plethora of palliatives, ranging from proclaiming ourselves heroes and plotting revenge against our enemies to the consolation of family and friends and the relief of painkilling drugs and alcoholic beverages.
Moreover, whereas people can make some sense of their own tragedy, being members of the species that inflicted it, the chickens, by contrast, have no cognitive insulation, no compensation for their suffering, and thus no psychological relief. The fact that they are forced to live in systems that reflect our dispositions, not theirs, and that these systems are inimical to their nature as revealed by their behavior, physical breakdown, and other indicators, shows that they are suffering in ways that equal and could even surpass anything we have known.
“Not Speciesist” to Superiorize Human Suffering – Peter Singer
I wrote my rebuttal in response to comments by philosopher Peter Singer, who in a review of Joan Dunayer’s book, Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, challenged her contention that we should use equally strong words for human and nonhuman suffering or death. (6, 7)
Singer wrote: “Reading this suggestion just a few days after the killing of several thousand people at the World Trade Centre, I have to demure. It is not speciesist to think that this event was a greater tragedy than the killing of several million chickens, which no doubt also occurred on September 11, as it occurs on every working day in the United States.” There are reasons, Singer wrote, for thinking that “the deaths of beings with family ties as close as those between the people killed at the World Trade Centre and their loved ones are more tragic than the deaths of beings without those ties; and there is more that could be said about the kind of loss that death is to beings who have a high degree of self-awareness, and a vivid sense of their own existence over time.”
“Tragedy” versus Raw Suffering
There are reasons for contesting this statement of assumed superiority of the human suffering over that of the chickens in slaughterhouses, starting with the fact that it is not lofty “tragedy” that’s at issue, but raw suffering. Moreover, there is evidence that the highly social chicken, endowed with a “complex nervous system designed to form a multitude of memories and to make complex decisions,” as avian expert Lesley J. Rogers put it in her book The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, has self-awareness and a sense of personal existence over time. (8)
Not only have we humans broken these birds’ ties with their own mothers, families, and the natural world, but who are we to say that chickens living together in the miserable chicken houses could not have formed ties? The chickens at United Poultry Concerns (the sanctuary I run) form close personal attachments. Even chicken exploiters admit that they do. Rogers, quoted above, pointed out that studies of birds, including chickens, “throw the fallacies of previous assumptions about the inferiority of avian cognition into sharp relief.”
It is reasonable to assume that animals in systems designed to exploit them suffer even more, in certain respects, than do humans who are similarly exploited, comparable to the way that a cognitively challenged person might experience dimensions of suffering in being rough-handled, imprisoned, and shouted at that elude individuals capable of conceptualizing the experience. Indeed, one who is capable of conceptualizing one’s own suffering may be unable to grasp what it feels like to suffer without being able to conceptualize it, of being in a condition that could add to, rather than reduce, the suffering.
It is in this quite different sense from what is usually meant, when we are told it is “meaningless” to compare the suffering of a chicken with that of a human being, that the claim resonates. Biologist Marian Stamp Dawkins says that other animal species “may suffer in states that no human has ever dreamed of or experienced.” (9)
Cognitive Distance from Animal Suffering
But even if it could be proven that chickens and other nonhuman animals suffer less than humans condemned to similar situations, this would not mean that nonhuman animals do not suffer profoundly, nor does it provide justification for harming them. Our cognitive distance from nonhuman animal suffering constitutes neither an argument nor evidence as to who suffers more under horrific circumstances, humans or nonhumans.
Even for animal advocates, words like “slaughter,” “cages,” “debeaking,” “forced molting” and the like can cause us to forget that what have become routine matters in our minds – like “the killing of several million chickens that occurs on every single working day in the United States,” in Peter Singer’s reality-blunting phrase – is a fresh experience for each bird who is forced to endure what these words signify.
That said, our cognitive distance can be reduced. Vicarious suffering is possible with respect to the members of not just one’s own species but also to other animal species, to whom we are linked through evolution.
Reams of data aren’t necessary. We need only enlist our basic human intelligence to imagine, for example, how a grazing land animal, such as a sheep, must feel in being forcibly herded onto a huge, ugly ship and freighted from Australia to Saudi Arabia or Iraq, jammed in a filthy pen while floating seasickeningly in the Persian Gulf on the way to being slaughtered.
Our Curse Laid on Chickens
In the 18th century, the New Jersey Quaker, John Woolman, noted the despondency of chickens on a boat going from America to England and the poignancy of their hopeful response when they came close to land. (10) Behind them lay centuries of domestication, preceded and paralleled by their vibrant, autonomous life in the tropical forests. Ahead lay a fate that premonition would have tried in vain to prevent from coming to pass.
Among land animals, chickens constitute the largest, most expanding universe of pain and suffering on the planet. There is no fate worse, no suffering worse, no injustice worse than what has befallen chickens in their encounter with human beings. For them, every torturing second of being alive in our grasp is as bad as it gets. I therefore submit that the continuous, unrelieved suffering of chickens and other intensively-farmed animals compares in magnitude, intensity, and injustice with the suffering of human beings in horrific plane crashes and similar episodes of massive violence.
1. Treibert, Christiaan, et al. 2020. “Video Shows Ukrainian Plane Being Hit Over Iran.” The New York Times, January 9.
2. Watson, Paul. 2020. Human Lives Are Not More Important Than Animal Lives. Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting, January 5.
3. Jarvenpaa, Mikko. 2019. “From Shepherd to Advocate: Why I Focus on Animal Suffering.” Sentient Media, May 15.
4. Slouka, Mark. 2002. “A Year Later: Notes on America’s Intimations of Mortality.” Harper’s Magazine September: 35-43.
5. Davis, Karen. 2001. “An Open Letter to Vegan Voice,” December 26. Published in Vegan Voice 2002 (NSW, Australia), No. 9 (March-May): 17.
6. Singer, Peter. 2002. “Book Review: Animal Equality: Language and Liberty by Joan Dunayer .” Vegan Voice (NSW, Australia), No. 8 (Dec.-Feb.): 36.
7. Dunayer, Joan. 2001. Animal Equality: Language and Liberation. Derwood, MD: Ryce Publishing.
8. Rogers, Lesley J. 1995. The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken. Wallingford, Oxon (UK), Cab International.
9. Dawkins, Marian Stamp. 1985. “The Scientific Basis for Assessing Suffering in Animals.” In Defense of Animals. Ed. Peter Singer. New York: Basil Blackwell. 27-40.
10. Woolman, John. 1971. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman. New York: Oxford University Press.
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. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl (Lantern Books, 2019).