United Poultry Concerns Thinking Like a Chicken
The Dignity, Beauty, and Abuse of Chickens: As Symbols and in Reality
By Karen Davis, PhD

This paper was presented at the International Conference on The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History, Yale University, New Haven, CT, May 17 - May 19, 2002.


Then they all settled down in the soft green shade of the lemon tree, with each little chick taking its turn to fly up to the best and softest seat on Granny Black's back. And while they waited for the sun to go down again, she told them about the great big world outside the chick run, or the days when she was a chick, or the story she liked telling best of all-the Miracle story about Eggs. How the broken fragments they had hatched from were once smooth, complete shapes; how every chicken that ever was had hatched out in exactly the same way; how only chooks could lay such beauties; and how every time they did, they were so filled with joy that they could not stay quiet, but had to burst into song; and how their song was taken up by England the cock and echoed by every single hen in the Run. --Mary Gage, Praise the Egg(1981, 11).

In this paper I look at some of the ways in which chickens have figured in Western discourse through history, with a focus on the symbolic appearance of the chicken in the contemporary environmental and animal advocacy movements, and in media culture, reflecting primarily the mass production of chickens for food. The morality at issue is the extent to which the real nature of chickens has been accurately portrayed or distorted in the guise of the symbolic chicken, and the political uses to which the symbolic chicken has been put. I raise questions concerning the extent to which the real bird is present in or absent from the symbolic bird, and the implication of elaborating myths and images around individuals and groups for the purpose of exploiting them. I consider the chicken in part as a "feminine" symbol in Victorian and contemporary culture.

The Chicken is an Archetype of Mother and Child

The chicken figures as a symbol of parental and spiritual love in the literature of the West. In Matthew 23:37, for example, Jesus invokes the symbol of a mother hen and her chicks to express the relationship he desires to have with the Hebrew people when he says, "O, Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings." Jesus uses the hen and her sheltering wings not only as a metaphor for his desired relationship with Israel but as a symbol of Christian love conceived in the image of a mother's love for her children. The hen symbolizes ideal maternal love and Christian love: she is self-sacrificing, nurturing, protective, and comforting. The chicks, who like human youngsters are precious though inclined to be errant, symbolize the Hebrew people as Jesus is portrayed as having viewed them with respect to his mission.

Foregoing orthodoxy while maintaining a sense of the sacred in earthly life, Page Smith and Charles Daniel evoke the hen and her chicks in an elegiac and symbolic tribute to the chicken in The Chicken Book, when they write: "As each chick emerges from its shell in the dark cave of feathers underneath its mother, it lies for a time like any newborn creature, exhausted, naked, and extremely vulnerable. And, as the mother may be taken as the epitome of motherhood, so the newborn chick may be taken as an archetypal representative of babies of all species, human and animal alike, just brought into the world" (Smith and Daniel, 321).

This tribute is elegiac, because The Chicken Book is about the "rise" and "fall"--the "tragedy"--of the chicken, as is noted in the book's original 1975 subtitle. Historically, The Chicken Book appeared at the beginning of the last quarter of the 20th century, by which time the natural life of the chicken, along with symbols and images of the chicken as a model of courage and domestic virtues, had been replaced by the so-called industrial chicken, a lumpen product divorced from the land and from everybody's family life, especially the bird's own, and represented in correspondingly demeaning and industrialized images. While it would be rash to suggest that before the 20th century, the life of chickens was rosy, ahead lay a fate that premonition would have tried in vain to prevent from coming to pass, a fate embedded in attitudes and practices of the past.

Classical, Renaissance, and Victorian Regard for Chickens

In the chapter entitled "The Century of the Chicken," in The Chicken Book, Smith and Daniel document the decisive period of the chicken's catastrophe as having begun in the 1830s, when Eastern fowl were imported into the West. During this time, the chicken fell under the influence of what the authors call an "intoxication of inquisitiveness" towards the bird, an intoxication that continues. The appearance of the chickens from Asia--Shanghais (later called Cochins), Brahmas, and Malays--launched an obsession with chicken breeding whereby, in the words of Smith and Daniel, the chicken became "as powerful a totemic figure in the barnyards of amateur scientists as it had been for centuries in primitive tribes" (205). The new magic that inhered in the bird was "the mundane magic" of genetics, "scientific magic whereby a man (much less frequently a woman) could shape and mold and modify another living creature to his own desire and intent" (226). As with cockfighting, the chicken-breeding mania brought men of leisure and working men together in a frenetic competitive "democracy," in this case consisting of breeding experiments, poultry shows, blue-ribbon prizes, and a proliferation of new breeds, colors, conformations, sizes, and strains of chickens.

The hen, as noted, has long been viewed as a paragon of motherhood. The First Century A.D. Roman historian and biographer Plutarch wrote praisingly of the hen in De amore parentis, "What of the hens whom we observe each day at home, with what care and assiduity they govern and guard their chicks? Some let down their wings for the chicks to come under; others arch their backs for them to climb upon; there is no part of their bodies with which they do not wish to cherish their chicks if they can, nor do they do this without a joy and alacrity which they seem to exhibit by the sound of their voices" (quoted in Smith and Daniel, 160, and Davis 1996, 31).

The Italian Renaissance ornithologist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, wrote of mother hens in the 16th century: "They follow their chicks with such great love that, if they see or spy at a distance any harmful animal, such as a kite or a weasel or someone even larger stalking their little ones, the hens first gather them under the shadow of their wings, and with this covering they put up such a very fierce defense-striking fear into their opponent in the midst of a frightful clamor, using both wings and beak-they would rather die for their chicks than seek safety in flight. . . . Thus they present a noble example in love of their offspring, as also when they feed them, offering the food they have collected and neglecting their own hunger." (quoted in Smith and Daniel, 162, and Davis 1996, 31).

The rooster has been similarly praised. Historically esteemed for his sexual vigor and figuring in religious history as a symbol of divine fertility and the life force, the cock, or rooster, as he became known in the Victorian period, was extolled for his domestic virtues as well. According to Aldrovandi, the cock is "the example of the best and truest father of a family. For he not only presents himself as a vigilant guardian of his little ones, and in the morning, at the proper time, invites us to our daily labor; but he sallies forth as the first, not only with his crowing, by which he shows what must be done, but he sweeps everything, explores and spies out everything."

Finding food, he "calls both hens and chicks together to eat it while he stands like a father and host at a banquet . . . inviting them to the feast, exercised by a single care, that they should find something nearby, and when he has found it, he calls his family again in a loud voice. They run to the spot. He stretches himself up, looks around for any danger that may be near, runs about the entire poultry yard, here and there plucking up a grain or two for himself without ceasing to invite the others to follow him." (quoted in Smith and Daniel, 65, and Davis 1996, 33).

Likewise, a 19th-century chicken breeder wrote to a friend that his Shanghai cock was "very attentive to his Hens, and exercises a most fatherly care over the Chicks in his yard. . . He frequently would allow them to perch on his back, and in this manner carry them into the house, and then up the chicken ladder" (quoted in Smith and Daniel, 216, and Davis 1996, 33).

The 19th-century enthusiasm for the chicken, which perhaps should more accurately be called enthusiasm for breeding and manipulating the chicken, though not without affection for the bird on the part of many enthusiasts, resulted in a close scrutiny of the chicken's behavior and in writings that recorded this scrutiny. Observers ascribed to the cock and hen a set of Victorian virtues based on what they saw. The relationship between the rooster and hen seemed to reflect the ideal relationship between a Victorian husband and wife. As Smith and Daniel write: "The attentive and courtly cock was described as the kindly arbiter of the barnyard, the keeper of order, the defender of the female. And she, of course, was, in her plump, comforting shape, the epitome of the uxorious, the dutiful wife who laid her eggs and faithfully attended to her children, never presuming to intrude into her husband's world. The splendor of the cock and the simple comeliness of the hen comported almost ideally with the Victorian male's image of himself in relation to the opposite sex, and there is no doubt that the popularity of 'domestic fowl' with upper-class Victorians was in part a consequence of the relative ease with which they could be transformed into symbols of domestic felicity in human society" (Smith and Daniel, 223).

In addition, the birds seemed to symbolize the sexual underside of Victorian domestic bliss. Just as the cock's being a dutiful husband and father did not stop him from chasing after other hens in the barnyard and exuding a sexual energy in excess of his spousal duties, so the Victorian male's being a dutiful husband and father did not prevent him from pursuing maids, prostitutes, and lower-class women generally. It could be, as Smith and Daniel speculate, that Victorian wives who took refuge in childbearing from the sexual demands of their husbands learned this strategy from the hens in the poultry yard, who, when brooding eggs and chicks, were left alone by the roosters. At least they couldn't fail to see the analogy (Smith and Daniel, 222-225). It could also be that these "strategies" are simply common features in the lives of the female sex of both species.

The Family Life and Social Behavior of Wild and Feral Chickens

It is one of those moments that will be engraved on my brain forever. For I really saw her. She was small and gray, flecked with black; so were her chicks. She had a healthy red comb and quick, light-brown eyes. She was that proud, chunky chicken shape that makes one feel always that chickens, and hens especially, have personality and will. Her steps were neat and quick and authoritative; and though she never touched her chicks, it was obvious she was shepherding them along. She clucked impatiently when, our feet falling ever nearer, one of them, especially self-absorbed and perhaps hard-headed, ceased to respond. -- Alice Walker, "Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road?"

The descriptions of chicken behavior thus far cited, and the symbols and analogies this behavior provided to the Victorians, belong to a time when chickens still roamed rather freely, living in a manner not totally dissimilar to that of their wild and feral relatives. The chicken's family unit and social organization were still more or less intact, and many farm birds spent most of their day foraging in the woods and fields and drinking from brooks and springs. It is thus useful at this point, before moving on to the modern industrial phase of the chicken which was then in the making, to look briefly at some of the behavior of feral chickens as described by 20th-century ethologists. When living on their own, what do chickens do?

In a field study of feral chickens on a coral island northeast of Queensland, Australia in the 1960s, McBride and his colleagues recorded the birds' social and parental behavior over the course of a year. Here, for example, is a hen and her chicks in a moment of human disturbance:

When a broody hen with very young chicks is disturbed by a man, the hen gives a full display and the alarm cackle. When pressed closely, the hen hides her chicks in the following way: she regularly turns and makes a short charge at her pursuer. As she turns, she pushes one or two of her chicks into a hollow, while giving a particularly loud squawk among the clucks. If the chick finds the hollow, it remains still while extremely well camouflaged. If not hidden, it gives a strong distress chirp and the dam [hen] returns for it.

Once the chicks are all safely hidden, the hen gives an alarm call that is "taken up by distant males who converge on the dam" (McBride 140). In the following scene, we see the rooster with his hens and their young.

When a group moved it was the male who gathered the females together before moving. The hens maintained contact with him while moving, and he controlled the movement when it crossed open ground. When disturbed he gave the alarm call and walked parallel to the predator or potential predator while the hens quietly hid. When the flock was disturbed, males were actually observed to drive the females away, by rushing toward them with wings spread. While hens fed, males spent the majority of the time on guard in the tail-up, wing-down alert posture. . . . Males used the typical broody hen display when charging, tail fanned, wings down and feathers puffed. Both went to roost in the trees at night and called the brood or flock to them. (McBride, 143)

While they were raising their chicks, the hens separated from the roosters, rejoining them after their chicks were weaned in about six weeks or so. Thereafter, "[t]he flocks comprised one alpha male, four to twelve females, with up to six subordinate males roosting on the same range. The cock was the center of his flock; closest to him were the older dominant hens and the young subordinate pullets were at the periphery. The subordinate cocks were also at the periphery, or solitary as they moved between flocks" (McBride, 131).

Occasionally roosters from other territories joined the flock, but according to the investigators, "No serious fights were observed during any of these intrusions, though the males made several rushes at each other" (135). Typically, the "trespassing territorial males left after a contest involving crowing, display and territorial tidbitting" (135), and in the non-breeding season, the areas became "overlapping territories" in which all of the birds and their progeny mingled (133). The only real fight the investigators ever saw among roosters took place in a pen, and this fight, which for one bird was fatal, they attribute to "the restriction of movements in the pen, as well as to the inability of a defeated bird to escape by flying into a tree" (McBride, 158).

Chickens Relegated to the Wasteland of Foregone Conclusions

They have been bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency. It is literally meaningless to suggest that they be liberated. --J. Baird Callicott (1980, 330)

Although there are places in the world where chickens continue to roam free, as described in the McBride study above, most chickens no longer live outdoors. Nor do they enjoy the "pampered" life of the domestic chickens of the Victorian period. The majority of chickens-billions of them in the United States alone-live in barren ammonia-filled buildings, totally out of sight. Hens used for egg production are not only confined in buildings, but in cages in which they have no litter, no nests, no perches, and no ability to move (de Boer and Cornelissen 2002, 176). Like factory-farmed animals in general, these chickens are frequently dismissed as beyond the pale of moral concern because, it is argued, they have been bred to a substandard state of intelligence and biological fitness, and because they are "just food" that is "going to be killed anyway." Moreover, the environmental havoc wrought by concentrating millions of chickens in small areas exceeding the capacity of the land to sustain them has led some environmentalists to blame them for the mess, as if they, and not we, were responsible for their predicament and its unwanted consequences. This base element in environmental ethics is epitomized in an article that appeared a little over twenty years ago.

In 1980, an environmentalist named J. Baird Callicott published an article in the journal Environmental Ethics, in which he sought to distinguish between the moral status of "domestic" animals and the moral status of "wild" animals. He based his argument on criteria derived from The Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold, whom Callicott describes as "universally recognized as the father or founding genius of recent environmental ethics" (Callicott 1980, 313). In putting the terms "domestic" and "wild" in quotation marks, I draw attention to the presumption these terms entail concerning the actual nature of creatures versus the categories we impose upon them to suit our own purposes. While the Victorians regarded domestic life as having a vital niche in the natural and social order, the environmental movement, which began in the middle of the 20th century, challenged this viewpoint. In particular, genetically manipulated factory-farmed animals were condemned as virtually worthless forms of existence instead of the just accusation that they have been deprived of a life worth living.

In "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," Callicott draws upon the "father" of the modern environmental movement, Aldo Leopold, to argue that wild animals and species of animals have characteristics entitling them to a moral considerateness that is intrinsically inapplicable to the characteristics of domesticated and individual animals. The smallest unit of ethical considerability is the biotic community of which the individual "nonhuman natural entity" is a component of value only insofar as it contributed, in Leopold's words, to the "integrity, beauty, and stability of the biotic community" (Callicott 1980. 324-325).

Regarding domesticated versus wild animals, the relevant distinctions for Leopold are between things that are "unnatural, tame, and confined" and things that are "natural, wild, and free." Domestic animals, farmed animals in particular, "have been bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency." They are "creatures of man," making "the complaint of some animal liberationists that the "natural behavior" of chickens and bobby calves is cruelly frustrated on factory farms" about as meaningless as "to speak of the natural behavior of tables and chairs." Leopold, apparently, did not consider "the treatment of brood hens on a factory farm or steers in a feed lot to be a pressing moral issue" (Callicott 1980, 330). Therefore, neither the moral nor the physical ecology in which we force these animals to live is relevant to the "philosophical aspects of environmental problems" (Hargrove 1992).

Viva, the Chicken Hen

Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf. --Aldo Leopold 1949 (1996, 137)

If I think like a mountain, will I be able to hear this hen singing? --Karen Davis (1995, 203)

Not long after the Callicott article appeared, I moved to a place where for the first two years the owner continued her practice of raising a flock of about a hundred chickens each summer for slaughter. That is how I became acquainted with Viva, the chicken hen, the first chicken I ever really knew. In the essay I later wrote about her (Davis 1990), I described how one day in August, I was surprised to discover the chicken shed, which I had gotten into the habit of visiting, deserted, until I saw one severely crippled hen stumbling around by herself inside . I took this hen, whom I named Viva, into our house, where she lived with my husband and me until she died a few months later in November.

Though Viva was crippled, she was resourceful and eager to get around. To steady herself, she would spread her wings out so that the feather ends touched the ground, and standing thus she would totter from side to side in a painstaking adjustment before going ahead, a procedure that had to be repeated every other step or so. Just one unsuccessful foray off the rug onto the hardwood floor caused her to avoid bare floors thereafter. Viva was not only strong-willed and alert; she was expressive and responsive. She would always talk to me with her frail "peep" that never got any louder and seemed to come from somewhere in the center of her body that pulsed her tail at precisely the same time. Also, rarely, she gave a little trill. Often after one of her ordeals, in which her legs would get caught in her wings, causing her terrible confusion and distress, I would sit talking to her, stroking her beautiful back and her feet that were so soft between the toes and on the bottoms, and she would carry on the dialogue with me, her tail feathers twitching in a kind of unison with each of her utterances.

The Rhetoric of Exploitation

This kind of nature and experience did not seem to have a niche in environmental ethics, including the radical branch of deep ecology, in which "things natural, wild, and free" are celebrated as corresponding to the "human" order of experience and idealized existence while the rest of things are relegated to the wasteland of foregone conclusions. The complacent view, upheld by the environmentalists, that farmed animals in general, and chickens in particular, are disentitled to moral consideration, that they are content with, intended for, and even consensual partners in their miserable fate, has made it easy for agribusiness to mislead the public into believing that these animals do not suffer very much from being treated in ways that would drive wild animals and humans-men anyway--insane. Thus, egg producers blandly assert that hens in battery cages are "happy," because they lay many eggs, whereas the real reason these hens lay many eggs, often even when they are sick and dying, is that they are subjected to artificially extended daylight hours and other manipulations that keep their overworked ovaries pumping out eggs (Duncan 1999). Likewise, the broiler chicken industry will tell you that the birds' rapid weight gain and large size are "proof" that the birds are healthy, whereas in reality these traits signify exactly the opposite. Broiler chickens are fragile overgrown baby birds afflicted with metabolic disorders, painful lameness, obesity, and other systemic diseases associated with poor health and suffering in humans (Duncan 1994; 2001).

In what I thus refer to as the rhetoric of exploitation, those who subjugate others, for whatever reason, insist that their victims have an a priori ontological status whereby their very being is synonymous with the diminished roles assigned to them. The focus is shifted away from "this is how we use them" or "this is what we do to them" to "this is who they are" and even to "this is what they want." The exploited ones are conveniently stripped of all autonomy save that of masochism and their "choice" of being slaves and the deprecated instruments of the exploiter's will. Not only are the exploiters relieved of accountability towards their victims; they will even cynically insist that their victims are luckier than they are. I've heard it said in the poultry industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "these chickens live (or eat) better than we do." Yet no one is asking to take the birds' place or reprimanding their colleagues for "anthropomorphism."

Those who question the treatment of intensively raised chickens are assured that the birds are not suffering and that their situation is actually an improvement over their former way of life on range or in the woods and fields, just as the slaveholders insisted that African Americans were better off in being slaves than in being free, because now they were being "taken care of" and because it was better to be a slave in a "civilized Christian" society (to be "domesticated") than to be at liberty in a heathen jungle (to be "wild"). Another assertion is that we cannot know whether chickens are really suffering, despite every indication pointing to the conclusion that they are suffering, because chickens "can't speak," as if their body language and tones of voice comparable to our own became indecipherable in the field of commerce. Also, we are told that it is "meaningless" to compare the suffering of a chicken with that of a human being. As one chicken farmer confronted with the suffering of his birds exploded, "How the hell can you compare the feelings of a hen with those of a human being?" (Church cited in Davis 1996, 19). I myself have been upbraided on talk shows by radio hosts over the past several months with: "How do you dare to compare the suffering and death of thirty-five million chickens with the suffering and death of thousands of innocent people on 9/11?" (Stern).

My answer is, "easily." In addition to the much larger number of innocent chickens who were killed, and the horrible deaths they endured in the slaughterhouses that day, and every day, was the misery of their lives leading up to their horrible death, including the terror attack they endured several hours or days before they were killed, euphemistically referred to as "chicken catching." I compare all this to the relatively satisfying lives of the majority of human victims of the 9/11 attack prior to the attack and add that we have a plethora of palliatives, ranging from proclaiming ourselves heroes and avengers to the consolation of family and friends to the relief of painkilling drugs and alcoholic beverages, and more, including our ability to make some sort of conspecific sense of the tragedy, whereas the chickens have no insulation, no compensation, no comprehension, and no relief. Biologist Marian Stamp Dawkins has pointed out that other species including chickens may very well suffer in states "that no human has ever dreamed of or experienced" (Dawkins 1985, 29). The fact that intensively raised chickens are forced to live in systems that do not reflect their psyches, but rather ours, makes it inevitable that they are suffering in ways that elude us.

As sentient creatures, we have enough in common with chickens to make reasonable judgments about their suffering, and we have ample scientific evidence to support empathy for them. The idea that human beings cannot logically recognize suffering in a chicken, or draw meaningful conclusions about how a human being would react to the conditions under which a caged hen lives, or about how the hen feels behind bars, is unfounded, because there is a basis for empathy and understanding in the fact of human evolutionary continuity with other creatures that enables us to recognize and infer, in those creatures, experiences similar to our own. We are told that we humans are capable of knowing just about anything that we want to know-except, ironically, what it feels like to be one of our victims. We are told we are being "emotional" if we care about a chicken and grieve over a chicken's plight. However, it is not "emotion" that is really under attack, but the vicarious "feminine" emotions of pity, sympathy, compassion, sorrow, and indignity on behalf of the victim, a fellow creature-emotions that undermine business as usual. By contrast, such "manly" emotions as patriotism, pride, conquest, and mastery are encouraged (Davis 1996, 19-20).

The Rhetoric of Apology

It is partly under this oppressive cloud that the animal advocacy movement has sometimes suffered anxiety about its own mission. When I first became involved in the animal rights movement in the 1980s, I was struck by what I subsequently termed the rhetoric of apology in animal rights (Davis 1994), our tendency to try to win people over and show solidarity with our species by deprecating ourselves, the animals, and our goals when speaking before the press and the public, as when an advocate begins a sentence with "I know I sound crazy, but . . ." I once heard a demonstrator tell a reporter at a protest at a chicken slaughterhouse, "I'm sure Frank Perdue thinks we're all a bunch of kooks for caring about chickens, but . . ." I thought, does it matter what the Frank Perdues of this world "think" about anything? Frank Perdue is a mass murderer with the soul and criminal record of a gangster (Ruling). Can we imagine him standing in front of a camera, saying, "I know the animal rights advocates think I'm a kook, but . . .?"

A further aspect of the rhetoric of apology in animal rights is the idea of selective nonhuman animal "personhood," whereby certain animals are being patronizingly "elevated" to the level of the least competent members of human society-human babies and the cognitively disabled-as a basis on which to establish a claim for their (and perhaps eventually some other animals') legal recognition or "rights." The proposal of the Great Ape Project to extend the moral "community of equals to include all great apes" could very well be the beginning of a larger break in the species barrier (Cavalieri and Singer, 4), but the assumption that "some animals are more equal than others" and that mentally intact, functioning adult members of other species are comparable to human infants and the mentally challenged is elitism (Davis 1995-1996). In this outlook, humans are still the crown of creation, and all other mammals are inferior forms of existence by comparison, similar to the "domestic" animals of environmental ethics vis a vis "wild" animals. Birds aren't even in the picture, even though in her book The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, avian physiologist and ethologist Lesley J. Rogers says that "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" (Rogers 1995, 213, 217).

Chickens are Sensitive Beings with Minds of Their Own

In Minds of Their Own, Rogers raises the question whether domestic animals have "lesser minds," and she observes that:

An ultimate aim of breeding programs for domestic animals is to obtain animals that have minds so blunted that they will passively accept overcrowded housing conditions and having virtually nothing to do but eat-and then to eat standard and boring food delivered automatically. There is no evidence that domestic chickens, or other domestic breeds, have been so cognitively blunted that they need or want no more behavioural stimulation than they receive in battery farms. In fact, if domestic breeds are reintroduced to more natural conditions and bred there, they adapt rapidly to the better conditions. It is possible to change some aspects of behaviour by selective breeding but only within limits. Domestic breeds may be more docile, or less fearful and more accepting of the presence of humans, but these behaviours reflect temperament and motivation, not cognitive abilities (Rogers 1997, 185).

However, given that in industrial farming "the identities of individual animals are completely lost" and animals are seen only as "bodies, to be fattened or to lay eggs, . . . [t]heir higher cognitive abilities are ignored and definitely unwanted." Meanwhile, Rogers says, domesticated chickens "have retained complex cognitive abilities." The view that they are stupid "has more to do with how we think of chickens than with the abilities of the chickens themselves" (Rogers 1997, 184). In the new age of genetic engineering, chickens will be treated even worse than they are now. They will suffer in ever greater numbers from human-created disabilities, and though these so-called designer animals will continue to possess minds and consciousness, "they will not be treated as such" (Rogers 1997, 185).


. . . the literal truth: they were selling and eating "poor dead mommie and baby animals." Carol J. Adams (1990, 76)

In this paper I have considered the cultural role of the chicken as having a feminine connection in Western society. From antiquity through the 19th century, the hen served as a symbol of ideal motherhood in scripture and in classical, neoclassical and Victorian writings. The Victorians endowed both hens and roosters with the attributes of domestic happiness as they conceived it, in which hens were the dutiful, industrious, and prolific wives of the male bird, and both birds served their human "master" by "giving" him eggs, and ultimately their lives, in exchange for his patriarchal care.

In the 20th century, the chicken hen was degraded from being a mother to being a "breeder," a "layer," and an "egg-laying machine" (Jasper, 367, quoted in Davis 1996, 30). Roosters were banished to "breeder" houses and, in the egg industry, they were (and are) buried alive in trash cans (Davis 1996, 49, 92, 122). Today the majority of hens and roosters exist only as unrealized potentials in the baby chickens who are slaughtered by the millions each day without ever having known the comfort of a mother's wing or heard a rooster crow.

For most people in our society, chickens are nothing but meat. It is this relegation to the obscenity of being perceived and valued only as "meat"-faceless bodies to be fattened or lay eggs and be eaten--which has led feminist writers, such as Carol J. Adams, to identify a connection between meat production, meateating, and pornography. In "meat" you have what Adams calls "masked violence and muted voices," the literal but obliterated reality of "multiple violations" (Adams, 63-82). In addition to murder, farmed animal products are the result of the manipulation of animals' sex organs and reproductive lives. The natural family life of animals is dismembered in order to facilitate the dismemberment of their bodies. In America's consumer culture, male and female chickens alike are pornographically dismembered into eggs, legs, thighs and breasts.

"Carl's Jr."

I told him I'd heard of a pornographic chicken advertisement they were currently running. He said, such an interpretation is "paranoid, anxiety ridden." He said that nowhere in the ad is it said that the chicken is female. I told him it doesn't matter whether the chicken is literally male or female; the fact is that animals are feminized through meat eating, male and female alike. I pointed out that KFC had done "are you a breast man or a thigh man." He said, "Just because another group had used that kind of language, did that taint everything?" I said, it is part of our cultural currency. --Carol J. Adams, conversation with Robert Wisely of CKE Restaurants

The prurience of "poultry" is highlighted in the advertisement referred to above, which is currently being run by an American fast-food company, CKE Restaurants, in which five men dressed as scientists search a live chicken for her (or his) "nuggets." The imagery of this advertisement suggests a gang rape. After peering under the bird's wing and other lewd behaviors, one of the men removes his plastic glove, implying he will now do an anal search of this bird with his bare hand. In a letter to a protester, a company spokesman explained that the ad was designed to attract their "most frequent customers, the young male audience" (Espinosa).

This, then, is an example of the degraded and degrading symbolism of the chicken in contemporary society. This is what our society has done to the lively, cheerful, and beautiful chickens, who in their native jungle habitat spend long hours vigorously scratching under the leaves to uncover the tiny seeds of the bamboo tree, which they love to eat (Dawkins 1993, 153), and whose love of their children, as has eloquently been observed, definitely resembles our own.


Adams, Carol J. 1990. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum. Reprinted 2000.

Adams, Carol J. 2002. Phone conversation with Robert Wisely, 14 January.

Callicott, J. Baird. 1980. Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair. Environmental Ethics 2: 311-38.

Cavalieri, Paola, and Peter Singer. 1993. The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Church, Daniel C. A question of the chicken and the egg. The Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA) 5 September, A1.

Davis, Karen. 1990. Viva, The Chicken Hen (June-November 1985). Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics 5: 33-37. http://www.upc-online.org/viva.html

Davis, Karen. 1995-1996/ Expanding the Great Ape Project. PoultryPress 5.4: 2-3. http://www.upc-online.org/expand.html

Davis, Karen. 1994. The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights: Some Points to Consider. Speech. National Alliance for Animals Seventh Annual International Animal Rights Symposium, 8-10 July, Washington, DC. http://www.upc-online.org/summer94/rhetoric_of_apology.html

Davis, Karen. 1995. Thinking Like a Chicken: Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection. In Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, ed. Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan, 192-212. Durham and London: Duke University Press. http://www.upc-online.org/thinking_like_a_chicken.html

Davis, Karen. 1996. Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry. Summertown, TN: The Book Publishing Company.

Dawkins, Marian Stamp. 1985. The Scientific Basis for Assessing Suffering in Animals. In In Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer, 27-40.New York: Basil Blackwell.

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Duncan, Ian J.H. Welfare Problems of 'Meat-type' Chickens. 2001. Farmed Animal Well-Being Conference (UC-Davis) 28-29 June. Summarized in Poultry Press (quarterly Newsletter of United Poultry Concerns) 11.3: 2. http://www.upc-online.org/fall2001/well-being_conference_review.html#broiler

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Rogers, Lesley J. 1995. The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken. Wallingford, Oxon, UK: Cab International.

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Ruling the Roost: What's bigger than tobacco, more dangerous than mining, and foul to eat? 1989. Southern Exposure: A Journal of Politics & Culture 17.2: 11-61.

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Walker, Alice. 1988. Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road? Living by the Word: Selected Writings 1973-1987. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Karen Davis, PhD, is the founder and President of United Poultry Concerns. She is the editor of United Poultry Concerns' quarterly Newsletter PoultryPress and the author of several books including Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry; Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless "Poultry" Potpourri; A Home for Henny; and More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality.

United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. For information write to :

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

(Thinking Like a Chicken - The Dignity, Beauty, and Abuse of Chickens: As Symbols and in Reality)

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