Employing Euphemism to Falsify the Fate of Farmed Animals
By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns
Published in Animal Agriculture is Immoral: An Anthology, 2020.
“If the power of discourse lies in its inevitable restructuring and re-creation of reality, the ability of human beings to offer counterinterpretations places inevitable limits on the exercise of that power. Animals, however, never talk back.” – Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate 1
“The animal’s life and destiny are under the control of the symbolic signs of others.” – Roberta Kalechofsky, Animal Suffering and the Holocaust 2
Degradation of nonhuman animals, in both word and deed, is inherent in raising them for human consumption. Their food is chosen; their social, familial, and physical environment is controlled; their reproductive organs and activities are manipulated; their bodies are genetically reconstructed to maximize “food” traits; and they are physically mutilated without painkillers. How long they live is determined by humans. They can be abused and killed at will based on economic “necessity.” An example in poultry and egg production is the routine culling – intentional killing – of birds who are not gaining weight fast enough or laying enough eggs to justify their existence economically.
The physical degradation of farmed animals is matched by the rhetoric of exploitation whereby their identity and what is done to them are cast in a language of falsification to facilitate the animal farming enterprise. Trapped in a world which their psyches did not emanate and which they do not understand, farmed animals are imprisoned in a belittling concept of who they are. Humans, by virtue of a shared verbal language, can aggressively challenge the degradation of their identity and abusers’ lies about how they are treated. By contrast, a nonhuman animal, such as a chicken, is powerless, short of advocacy intercession, to protect her identity and render her experience truthfully, as when she is characterized by her abusers as an “egg-laying machine” or a “broiler” that doesn’t suffer.
Falsification of farmed animals’ identity and experience is expressed through the euphemistic vocabulary of farmed animal production and destruction. In this discussion, I draw particular attention to the euphemistic term euthanasia. Agribusiness representatives, government agencies, and industry veterinarians employ this term to describe – disguise – the killings that, in addition to slaughterhouse slaughter (euphemized as “processing” and “meatpacking”) are conducted by farm workers and hired crews at the behest of whoever owns the animals, with occasional news media coverage in terms that whitewash the reality. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals, while rightly defining euthanasia as a “good death,” makes all kinds of allowances for situations in which inhumane killing may be considered “euthanasia.”3 An example can be seen in “Water Based-Foam Depopulation of Poultry as a Disease Control Method,” which cites AVMA support for this U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved method of mass-suffocation of poultry:
Euthanasia of large numbers of birds in a quick, efficient manner with welfare consideration. The process is used to control disease spread or end suffering of dying birds during disease outbreak or natural disaster situations.4
According to Merriam-Webster, “Euphemism derives from the Greek word euphēmos, which means ‘auspicious’ or ‘sounding good.’ The first part of ‘euphēmos’ is the Greek prefix eu-, meaning ‘well.’ The second part is ‘phēmē,’ a Greek word for ‘speech’ that is itself a derivative of the verb phanai, meaning ‘to speak.’ Among the numerous linguistic cousins of ‘euphemism’ on the ‘eu-‘ side of the family are ‘eulogy,’ ‘euphoria,’ and ‘euthanasia’; on the ‘phanai’ side, its kin include ‘prophet’ and ‘aphasia’ (‘loss of the power to understand words’).”
Speaking of farmed animals, euphemism is the cover-up equivalent of the mass burials of these animals in the ground or the stomach – their “euthanasia.” Call it collusion, conspiracy, complacency or corruption, a pact between agribusiness and the major news media guarantees that the animals will not truly be seen, heard or empathized with. A stock photo or video clip of a piglet “nursery,” a “meatpacking” plant or a “poultry processing” plant does not enlighten a public content to let industry and the media interpret the meaning of these images. See, for example, “Millions of Pigs Will Be Euthanized as Pandemic Cripples Meatpacking Plants.”5
Though current society seems to have forgotten that the word “euthanasia” means, literally, a good death, or to die well –exemplifying a “loss of the power to understand words” – there’s a kind of implicit social agreement that this term can magically relieve us of culpability for inflicting horrible death and atrocity on innocent nonhuman creatures. Between December 2014 and June 2015, more than 33 million chickens, turkeys, and ducks were suffocated to death with firefighting form and carbon dioxide in the Midwestern states of Iowa, Minnesota, and elsewhere in response to the avian influenza epidemic that began on poultry farms in 2014.
Media reports of the reign of terror – in which the birds were attacked by death squads, shoved into kill carts, and suffocated to death slowly with carbon dioxide and fire-fighting foam – referred to these episodes of mass-extermination as euthanasia, without quotation marks, that is, without irony. Channeling the mentality of agribusiness, a New York Times article, “Egg Farms Hit Hard as Bird Flu Affects Millions of Hens,” empathized with farmers “forced to euthanize their own live inventory.”6
The poultry industry uses three methods to destroy thousands and millions of birds at a time in response to a disease outbreak, a natural disaster, or, in the case of the coronavirus outbreak, because there weren’t enough workers to slaughter and process the birds due to coronavirus-related worker shortages. The industry term for the mass-destruction or removal from one farm site to another location of chickens, turkeys, and other “food” birds is “depopulation.”
The three depopulation methods are ventilation shutdown, fire-fighting foam, and carbon dioxide poisoning. In the first case, the birds die slowly of heat stress and suffocation, by being deprived of air in the sheds with the temperature intentionally turned up. In the second case, they suffocate to death by being smothered under a rolling carpet of fire-fighting foam. In the third case, they suffocate painfully and slowly to death of carbon dioxide poisoning, administered to them through hoses with a force that can simultaneously burn and freeze their lungs as described in “Mass Depopulation of Poultry as a Disease Control Method.”7 For more, see “Mass Destruction of Sick and Unwanted Birds.”8
In contrast to misusing the term euthanasia to describe the mass-killing of farmed animals and laboratory animals, awareness of its true meaning persists in society, as is evident in the fact that we do not call mass-killing, live burial, suffocation, throat-cutting, gassing, paralytic electric shock and the like “euthanasia” in the case of ourselves. No one refers to ethnic cleansing as “euthanasia.” Speciesism is not a mere abstract concept. It’s the wellspring of our attitude toward nonhuman animals. It determines the fate we subject them to and our language of justification.
I suspect that once the coronavirus news cycle has passed, the sympathetic media attention being paid to the plight of “meatpackers” and “processors” will dissipate. For the animals, nothing will change, since the major media, aligned with the spirit and dictates of agribusiness, have shown them no mercy, compassion or acknowledgement to begin with. The occasional op-ed expressing compassion for our animal victims is overwhelmed by the standardized coverage. A rare exception is “Our Cruel Treatment of Animals Led to the Coronavirus” by philosopher David Benatar, published in The New York Times on April 13, 2020.9
Another exception is novelist Jonathan Saffron Foer’s “The End of Meat Is Here,” published in The New York Times on May 21, 2020.10 Foer, the author of Eating Animals, writes surprisingly, given his investigative knowledge of the life of farmed animals as “woven through with misery,” that sick workers, plant shutdowns, and a backlog of animals “forced” some farmers to “euthanize their animals, often by gassing or shooting them.” This false characterization by an animal advocate helps to instill in the public mind our species’ radical disconnection, emotionally and ethically, from nonhuman animals, whose lives we devalue and insult with such thoughtless language.
A May 4, 2020 article in the Progressive Farmer, “Hard Decisions: How Consumers View Mass Depopulation,”11 prompted by a United Poultry Concerns press release, “‘Depopulation of Poultry Does not Mean ‘Humanely Killed,’”12 bypasses the animals and their plight, focusing instead on how to manage the negative publicity of “mass depopulation.” An industry representative is quoted: “producers should expect to see visuals hitting the news and social media that will be shocking.”
Actually, this prediction is what has not happened. Farmers needn’t worry that the major news media will blow their cover. Or that “visuals,” if shown, would shock a public worried about having enough “meat” on the table – a worry amped up by the media. As for social media, these outlets seem mainly to attract those who already care strongly one way or the other.
So what’s a farmer to do? Advises the industry representative: “[S]hare that this is an incredible crisis for you and your family just like it is for families all around the world. Share the fact that you are an animal lover and have dedicated your life to spending more time with animals than humans. Remind people you are just one person in a community of farmers all dealing with this heartbreaking reality.”
But what, for the farmer, or the corporation, is the “crisis,” the “heartbreaking reality”? It can’t be what the animals are being put through, since for them a terrible death and its attendant pain and terror await regardless. More to the point, the “crisis” is the loss of income, the “waste” and disposal of animals whose purpose, from the farming perspective, is to become a marketable product.
Back in the days when I attended farm animal “welfare” conferences, I used to wonder, listening to the speakers and watching their slides, “Do they honestly, personally believe that the filthy, cobwebby, manure-filled buildings, cages and related contrivances of cruelty to chickens constitute welfare?” To what extent, I wondered, did self-deception figure in the professional deception that relies on euphemisms, including that the captive birds are “happy,” “content,” and “singing,” and that corporations like Perdue Farms, Cal-Maine, and Tyson Foods “care” about their animals.
Currently, some animal advocates seek to turn agribusiness adversaries into allies in an effort to change the chicken industry from maniacally cruel to marginally kinder. This includes encouraging receptive farmers to transition from raising chickens to pursuing a livelihood in plant-based agriculture. The ultimate goal of this ambition is to reverse the business of transforming plants into “chicken” by transforming “chicken” into plants. Real chickens in this remake no longer figure in the plant-based versions of themselves, or in the cellular meat versions that are being developed, in which the components of their flesh are constituted for mass-production without any involvement of actual chickens in the process.
These metamorphic efforts, in which language and reality are mutually transformative for better or worse, remind me a little of how in ancient Greek and Roman mythology, people seek to transform the goddesses of vengeance and retribution, known as the Erinyes or Furies, by giving them the euphemistic name Eumenides, meaning “the Kindly Ones.” Something to remember about the Furies, though, is that they personify guilt and the pursuit of justice in the wake of murder and other crimes, so transforming them into “the Kindly Ones” amounts to a euphemistic subterfuge to avoid moral reckoning.
The carefully constructed obliteration of our animal victims from the coronavirus coverage and from all of our abusiveness toward them, linguistically and literally, shows how casually we turn our Furies into “Kindly Ones” where other species are concerned. In these instances, “the Kindly Ones” function as a disabled conscience. With our words of commission and omission we muzzle our guilt – the condition of guilt we refuse to feel. The animals are being euthanized – put to sleep – so we can rest easy and return to normal.
ANIMAL AGRICULTURE is IMMORAL: an anthology
1. Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 5.
2. Roberta Kalechofsky, Animal Suffering and the Holocaust: The Problem With Comparisons (Marblehead, MS: Micah Publications, 2003), 55.
3. American Veterinary Medical Association, Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2020 Edition. https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/2020-Euthanasia-Final-1-17-20.pdf.
4. Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, “Water
Based-Foam Depopulation For Poultry During Animal Health
5. Tim Mak, “Millions Of Pigs Will Be Euthanized As Pandemic Cripples
Meatpacking Plants,” National Public Radio, May 14, 2020.
6. Stephanie Strom, “What Do You Do With 33 Million Dead
Birds?” The New York Times,
May 15, 2015. Online title, “Egg Farms Hit Hard as Bird Flu Affects Millions of Hens.”
7. United Poultry Concerns, “Mass Depopulation of Poultry as a
Disease Control Method,”
July 11, 2006. https://www.upc-online.org/poultry_diseases/71106usda.html.
8. United Poultry Concerns, “Mass Destruction of Sick and Unwanted
9. David Benatar, “Our Cruel Treatment of Animals Led to the
Coronavirus,” The New York
Times, April 13, 2020.
10. Jonathan Saffron Foer, “The End of Meat is Here,” The New York Times, May 21, 2020.
11. Victoria G. Myers, “Hard Decisions: How Consumers View Mass
Depopulation,” Progressive Farmer, May 4, 2020.
12. United Poultry Concerns, “‘Depopulation’ of Poultry
Does Not Mean ‘Humanely Killed.’”
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, articles, essays, and campaigns, including her groundbreaking book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry. Her latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl.