United Poultry Concerns
14 April 2011
What Happened to Peter Singer?
©2011 Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns


In February, 2010, Kristian Bjorkdahl, a PhD candidate in the Ethics Program at the University of Oslo, in Norway, contacted me for an interview about Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. He was writing a history of the book’s reception, from its publication in 1975 to the present. Having known and read Peter Singer through the years, worked with him on farmed animal issues since the early 1990s, and written a little about him previously, I agreed to the interview. This essay grew out of that interview, which also prompted the theme of my talk, “Chickens Belittled: An Inquiry Into the Representation of Chickens, Animal Liberation, and Animal Welfare in the Writings of Peter Singer and Temple Grandin,” presented at United Poultry Concerns’ Ninth Annual Conference, in Fairfax, Virginia, October 30, 2010, on the topic of Expert Discourse and the Problem of the Chicken.

In this essay I argue that while Peter Singer was hugely influential in launching the modern animal advocacy movement with the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975, he has not sustained an animal liberation position, but has developed instead an often damaging discourse of animal denigration in which chickens in particular have been singled out for disparagement in his writings and lectures. This essay, presented in the interview form that inspired it, looks at the trajectory of Singer’s career through passages from his writings that exemplify an animal liberation perspective versus passages that exemplify an animal “de-liberation” agenda.

I offer an interpretation of Singer’s increased insistence, through the years, on the superiority of human beings at the expense of other animals and animal liberation. I argue that choosing chickens to downgrade in public discourse is a betrayal of chickens, animals, and animal liberation so fundamental that it undercuts his and everyone else’s rhetoric against factory farming and other institutionalized animal abuses, since most people do not care what happens to creatures whom even the “father of animal liberation” characterizes (unjustly and inaccurately) as mentally inferior and uninteresting. My essay focuses on Peter Singer, but more broadly it is about the dangers that all of us who are working to help animals face in our desperate desire to accomplish something we can call progress for animals. The issue involves not only the content of our advocacy, but also the tone and spirit in which we present our case for animals and animal liberation.

Q. Can you narrate how, when, and why you came to read Animal Liberation?

Just as in the early 1960s I became involved in the American Civil Rights Movement, so in the early 1970s I began to agonize over the suffering and abuse of nonhuman animals. I have always hated animal cruelty, and I have a lifelong affinity for animals, especially for birds, but it wasn’t until I read “The First Step” by the Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), in which Tolstoy describes his visit to Moscow slaughterhouses, and then, out of the blue, started getting mail about the slaughter of the harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), in Canada, that I became aware of animal abuse on a large scale. Responding to the news, I joined an IFAW-sponsored tour to the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in March 1974, to see the newborn seals and their mothers on the ice floes off Grindstone Island. I thought no hunting would be taking place where we were going – the idea of the tour was to promote seal-watching instead of seal-killing – but I was wrong. So excruciating was the sight of baby seals being clubbed in the distance, the cries of the mother seals and their young filling the air, and the pink, blood-soaked ice at my feet, that I shied away from animal abuse issues until the early 1980s, when an article in The Washington Post about Ingrid Newkirk, who had recently cofounded PETA, alerted me to the Animal Rights Movement which was just then getting underway in the United States (Brown).

Shortly after, in the spring of 1984, an ad in Washington City Paper for World Laboratory Animals Day, in Washington, D.C., caught my attention. Despite my anxiety about what I might find there, I decided to go. As I looked over the exhibit tables filled with images of animals in laboratories and studied their faces and the suffering in their eyes, I pledged never again to abandon animals to the iniquity of our species because I couldn’t bear my knowledge of their suffering. Around that time, in the early 1980s, I read Animal Liberation and was struck by Peter Singer’s observation that if you think it’s unbearable to know what the animals are going through, remember that what is unbearable to your mind, the animals are literally being forced to endure. Faced with this challenge, I became an animal rights advocate.

In the 1980s, Animal Liberation was the bible of the animal rights movement. PETA promoted it, and everyone read it.[1] Singer’s argument was lucid and compelling. He said that nonhuman animals, being sentient, have interests the same as humans, and that it is wrong to sacrifice their important interests to humanity’s trivial ones. He said that consideration of animals’ interests is a matter of logic, reason, justice, and morality, not mere “sentimentality.” This formula provided the bold, principled approach to animal advocacy that was needed to inspire a Movement.

The terms “animal liberation,” “anti-speciesism” and “animal rights” captured the advocacy imagination and became our rallying cries for freeing animals from human tyranny and liberating ourselves from prejudice not only toward other human groups, but toward other species. Singer said that our tyranny over nonhuman animals was an issue as important as any other moral and social struggle being fought in recent years. For people like me, with a strong instinct for social justice, hatred of cruelty, and a background in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, placing concern for nonhuman animals in a context of concern for mistreated and oppressed human groups made perfect sense. It gave a sense of purpose, coherence and confidence whereby one’s feeling for animals, one’s frustration and desire to help them, could be turned into productive, exhilarating collective action.

Illustration from Nature's Chicken by Nigel Burroughs

Can you describe the impression Animal Liberation made on you?

Together, Peter Singer and the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy brought the suffering and abuse of animals in slaughterhouses, laboratories, and industrial farming most forcibly to my attention. In “The First Step,” written in 1892 as the preface to the Russian edition of Howard Williams’s book The Ethics of Diet (1893), Tolstoy argued that becoming a vegetarian was a necessary “first step” to being the kind of nonviolent Christian he aspired to be and wanted society to become. Tolstoy’s conceptual argument was compelling, but the clincher was his grueling description of cows and lambs in the Moscow slaughterhouses. In the wake of these scenes, I became a vegetarian in the 1970s.

A decade later, I read Animal Liberation. As with Tolstoy’s essay, Singer’s conceptual arguments were powerful, but what really got me were the chapters, “Tools for Research” and “Down on the Factory Farm.” The descriptions in these chapters of battery-caged hens and laboratory animals, the detailed evocation of the horror and misery of animals’ lives in industrial farming and experimental laboratories, and the cavalier indifference of their abusers, made the most searing, indelible and inextinguishable impression upon me. Once those images had burned into my brain, there was no turning back.

What, to you, were the most salient conceptual parts and/or features of Animal Liberation?

Declarations like these: A liberation movement is a demand for an end to prejudice and discrimination based on an arbitrary characteristic like race or sex. We need to rethink all of our attitudes to other groups from the point of view of those who suffer as a result of these attitudes. We have to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. Habits not only of diet but of thought and language must be challenged and altered. One cannot dismiss a problem as trivial until one has taken the time to examine its extent. “The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional, ‘animal-lovers’ has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion” (Preface, 1975, p. xi).

And continuing: The goal of animal liberation is to treat animals as the independent sentient beings they are and not as a means to human ends. This includes avoiding language that tends to degrade animals or disguise the nature of the food we eat. A “ham sandwich” is a moral issue as real and important as how we treat our “pets,” and “loving” some animals while eating others is hypocritical. Just as you don’t have to “love” other people to want them to be treated with equal consideration, so you don’t have to “love” animals in order to apply the basic moral principle of equal consideration of their interests. There can be no moral justification for regarding the pain or pleasure animals feel as less important than the same amount of pain or pleasure felt by humans. The focus of Animal Liberation is not on acts of animal cruelty involving a relatively small number of animals that most of Western society doesn’t support anyway, such as dog fighting, but on the cruelty endured by countless billions of animals whose suffering is directly attributable to human prejudice (speciesism) and the willfully unexamined practice of eating them and experimenting on them.

These arguments resonated morally, intellectually, and irrefutably.

What, if anything, did (or do) you consider the weak points or flaws of Animal Liberation?

Singer sets up his argument in the Preface to Animal Liberation by rejecting the type of sentimental concern and “love” for animals in which an arbitrary preference for “cute” animals and pets overrides basic moral standards of equal consideration for the interests of the members of other species regardless of personal likes and dislikes. In contrast to a “morality” of taste and caprice, Singer grounds his call for animal liberation in the rational utilitarian principles of morality consistent with the intellectual traditions of Western society. This approach is both a deliberate strategy and a reflection of Singer’s own temperament and scholarly milieu. To get a serious hearing for the case for animal liberation, he believed that his book must repudiate the proverbial little old lady in tennis shoes stereotype, which patronizes the topic of how we treat animals as a mere matter of weepy feelings for puppies and kittens, and appeal instead to the more solid values of rationality, logic and justice linking his argument for animal liberation to the great 18th-century arguments on behalf of the rights of women and opposition to human slavery, and to the 18th-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s declaration that animals, being “sensitive beings,” are entitled to relief from human tyranny and oppression. Singer took Bentham’s ethical principle of “not can they reason, but can they suffer,” his denunciation of “man’s dominion,” and developed from these fundamentals a full-fledged modern philosophy of Animal Liberation.

A strictly utilitarian approach to ethics and morality has liabilities as well as benefits. By distancing himself personally and theoretically from loving and valuing animals for their own sakes, by suggesting that emotional empathy with animals might not be necessary for, or could even hinder, the fight for animal liberation,[2] and by expressing little interest in animals apart from their “suffering,” Singer set the stage for an increasing reconciliation with some of the very attitudes, patronizing disparagements of animals and concessions to people’s “trivial” interests, including his own, that he initially condemned. Thirty years after the first edition of Animal Liberation, Singer told Compassion in World Farming that though vegan at home, he “will eat free-range eggs and dairy products when traveling or being entertained,” and that he considered it “positive getting people to buy organically produced meat” (D’Silva).[3]

Even in the process of promoting animal liberation and criticizing the traditional hierarchy of nature set forth by Aristotle and others, Animal Liberation maintains a presumption of human superiority over all other forms of life. The hierarchical point of view starts at the top, with mentally competent adult human beings characterized as “capable of abstract thought, planning for the future and complex acts of communication,” down to the “lowest” life forms. The notion of a vast mental gulf between humans and all other creatures remains. The chief point of contact between humans and other animals is “suffering”; otherwise, precious little that binds us together with other animals is recognized. Over time, even the suffering of animals could not compete with the “superior” suffering of humans in Singer’s philosophy. Animal liberation shrank as his output and reputation grew, and a patronizing contempt for animals, incipient in the first edition of Animal Liberation, became increasingly evident.

An example is Singer’s concept of personhood. In Rethinking Life and Death, published in 1994, “personhood” is a privileged identity to which only mentally competent adult human beings and the great apes are definitively entitled, with the great apes far below humans. As for the rest of earth’s residents – “whales, dolphins, elephants, monkeys, dogs, pigs and other animals” – some, maybe all of them might eventually be shown to be “aware of their own existence over time and capable of reasoning. Then they too will have to be considered as persons,” he says on page 182. The ability to suffer and enjoy life, though worthy of “concern,” does not of itself confer personhood or admit a nonhuman animal to what Singer calls the “community of equals.”

Even to be a nonhuman “person” on the highest level is to be a poor contender within this universe of thought: the vaunted chimpanzees rank with “intellectually disabled human beings” (p. 183). Such categorizing is scarcely distinguishable from the prejudicial attitudes Singer originally castigated. It relegates the entire animal kingdom, apart from humans, to a condition of mental disability that is totally incompatible with the cognitive demands exacted upon real animals in the real world. It illogically and unjustly implies a cerebral and experiential equivalence between the mentally defective members of one species and the mentally competent, fully functional members of other species. Ask yourself: what does a mentally-challenged adult human being who cannot live autonomously in human society, or a 5-year old human child similarly disadvantaged due to developmental immaturity, have in common, neurologically and experientially, with a fully capable adult cockatoo carrying out complex social and parental responsibilities in her forest home? What does a severely mentally handicapped human being have in common with a mentally healthy adult beaver, horse or pig? The answer, cognitively speaking, is nothing.

Illustration from Nature's Chicken by Nigel Burroughs
“What must we do to prove we are ‘persons’”?

Singer presents his ideas about personhood in the 2011 revised edition of his book Practical Ethics on pages 74-75 and following. While conceding that certain animals including some wild birds, previously overlooked, may be eligible for being granted some degree of personhood based on laboratory experiments and field observations showing that they possess a measure of “rationality and “self-awareness” and “future-directed thinking and desires,” he retains his position that a sentient “nonperson” or “merely conscious” being does not qualify for what he calls a “right to life, in the full sense” (p. 85).

Not a perfect analogy, but this approach reminds me somewhat of all those people pronounced guilty and sitting on Death Row who were later found to be innocent. The more we learn about other animal species, the more we discover that our previous, belittling assumptions about them were wrong. Practical Ethics concedes as much in this rather strange comparison on page 103 of the latest edition: “It is difficult to establish when another being has a sense of its own self, or of the past and the future. If it is wrong to kill a person when we can avoid doing so, and there is real doubt about whether a being we are thinking of killing is a person, the best thing to do is to give that being the benefit of the doubt. The rule here is the same as that among deer hunters: if you see something moving in the bushes and are not sure if it is a deer or a hunter, don’t shoot!” (But if it turns out to be “only a deer,” then go for the kill.)

Meanwhile, how much suffering and death at our hands must other animals undergo and may we permissibly inflict upon them before we find them “innocent” of mental inferiority and failure to qualify as “persons”? Before we decide they are more than “merely conscious” beings? – whatever “merely conscious” means as a description of experience. What must the other animals of this world who have evolved autonomously in their own right do to obtain their release from the prison houses of human prejudice?

Singer’s utilitarian commitment to balancing pain and pleasure in ethical considerations foreshadows his later suggestion that nonhuman animals may perhaps be regarded as replaceable, interchangeable entities, so long as the balance of pleasure, broadly conceived as overall happiness and wellbeing, is maintained. (See for example the 1990 edition of Animal Liberation, pp. 228-229.) In a semi-fictional dialogue between himself and his daughter in J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, Singer argues that even if their dog Max were to die or be “painlessly” killed, as long as a new dog experienced and produced the same “good aspects of dog-existence,” the death or killing of Max would not necessarily be a loss or a problem. The idea that most sentient, nonhuman beings are replaceable embodiments of pleasure/pain states is similar to the view of exploiters, for whom nonhuman animals are replaceable, interchangeable units of production. Farmers speak of “replacement” cows, sows, hens. Singer shows awareness of the difficulties of this position on pages 229-230 of the second edition of Animal Liberation, but he seems drawn to it nevertheless. It accords with his overall view that the killing of nonhumans, even for trivial purposes, is not a moral problem so long as the victim is “merely sentient” and dies painlessly, as he says on page 130 of Writings on an Ethical Life.

Here is position he holds on pages 103-104 of the 2011 edition of Practical Ethics:

Roger Scruton, a British philosopher, has said that the untimely death of a human being is a tragedy because there are likely to be things that she hoped to accomplish but now will not be able to achieve. The premature death of a cow is not a tragedy in this sense, because whether cows live one year or ten, there is nothing that they hope to achieve. Even those great apes who can use sign language do not talk to us about their plans for the distant future. Scrub jays hide food for the next day, but as far as we know, they do not embark on long-term projects that will pay off in the years ahead. (If it could be shown that squirrels and other animals who hide food for the winter are doing this with conscious foresight of their future needs, that would be an impressive counter-example, but this behaviour may be instinctive.)

What do you regard as the positive influence of Animal Liberation?

As a result of Animal Liberation, millions of people who were previously unaware of the suffering and abuse of animals in laboratories and on factory farms, who had never before pondered our treatment of animals as a matter of justice and morality, now do. Or if they don’t, they have to defend themselves. Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines, published in 1964 in England, jumpstarted society’s awareness of the atrocity of animal factory farming, and Animal Liberation ran with it. Everyone concerned with the ethics of animal-based food production and consumption and the morality of animal experimentation has been directly or indirectly affected by Animal Liberation.

In “An Animal’s Place” published in The New York Times on November 10, 2002, food writer Michael Pollan described the influence:

Even in 1975, when “Animal Liberation” was first published, Singer . . . was confident that he had the wind of history at his back. The recent civil rights past was prologue, as one liberation movement followed on the heels of another. . . . That animal liberation is the logical next step in the forward march of moral progress is no longer the fringe idea it was back in 1975. A growing and increasingly influential movement of philosophers, ethicists, law professors and activists are convinced that the great moral struggle of our time will be for the rights of animals.

It is fair to say that the attention that is now being paid to animals raised for food, especially, is largely attributable to Animal Liberation and to the fact that Peter Singer continued after the book’s publication in 1975 to write, lecture, and court publicity.[4] In addition, his friendship with New York City “street activist” Henry Spira, who joined the animal rights movement in the 1970s after reading Singer’s “Animal Liberation” article in the New York Review of Books, April 5, 1973 – apparently the first time the term “animal liberation” appeared in print – facilitated Animal Liberation’s influence on the movement and helped keep Singer in the public eye, and vice versa.

At the same time, however, while many people say that they want to see animals treated better, the truth, as Michael Pollan wrote in “An Animal’s Place,” is that “we are inflicting more suffering on more animals than at any time in history.” It is Descartes, he says, not Singer, whose view of animals prevails in the corporations that own them, and the public’s overall concern for animals is not yet deep or influential enough. Singer himself said, in a 1994 interview, that when he was writing Animal Liberation in the early 1970s, he expected to win “mass support for goals such as getting rid of factory farming. . . . But that hasn’t happened” (Stallwood).[5]

Under what circumstances did you first meet Peter Singer?

“May 19th, 1991. Dear Karen, I look forward to your participation at our ‘Opportunities, Priorities and Strategies for the 90’s’ round table discussion on Saturday, June 1, 1991 at the NY Academy of Sciences, 2 East 63 Street, in New York City from 9am to 5pm. Peter Singer will be the luncheon speaker. There are several reasons why a meeting along these lines could be productive at this time, among these, indications that there will be an expansion in the movement’s agenda for the 90’s. . . . It is now inevitable that the movement will expand into the arena of factory farming which accounts for 95% of all animal suffering – an arena with correspondingly far greater challenges.” – Henry Spira, Animal Rights International.

Photo: Courtesy of United Poultry Concerns Henry Spira's Roundtable
We met at Henry Spira's Round Table meeting on factory farming and animal experimentation held at the New York Academy of Sciences, in New York City, June 1, 1991. Left to right: Karen Davis, Bernie Unti, Linda Parascandola, Peter Singer, Unidentified Person, and Mark Parascandola

I first met Peter Singer at Henry Spira’s Round Table discussion on factory farming and animal experimentation in New York City on June 1, 1991. There, Peter argued that of all the abuses suffered by factory-farmed animals, battery-caged hens suffer the most due to the large number of hens involved and the length of time they are forced to live crammed in tiny wire cages; accordingly, eliminating battery cages for egg-laying hens should be the number one animal liberation priority, he said. This was a significant challenge, since at the time U.S. activists were focused almost exclusively on eliminating veal calf crates, in which the unwanted calves of the dairy industry are immobilized for three or four months until slaughter. Eliminating veal crates was considered most “winnable,” since fewer Americans ate veal than eggs or other kinds of meat. However, Peter insisted that the battery-hen issue “dwarfed” the veal calf issue, important as this was and is. Prophetically, in the 1990s, the U.S. animal protection movement’s primary factory-farm campaign effort became the elimination of battery cages for laying hens.

Is there any part of trying to make this world a better place for animals that you think Animal Liberation does not successfully/sufficiently deal with? If so, what?

In the late 1990s, my enthusiasm for Peter Singer began to wane, and I no longer regard him as a vigorous advocate for animals and animal liberation. Already in the first edition of Animal Liberation (for example on pages 21 and 22), and increasingly thereafter, Singer weakened his argument with reassurances that animal liberation did not diminish the uniquely superior status of human beings, to whom he increasingly paid homage at the expense of other animals and the goals of animal liberation. The trajectory of his thinking about animals and animal liberation has come rather ironically to resemble his description of animals’ status in Western society on page 212 of the 1990 edition of Animal Liberation, where he writes: “If animals are no longer quite outside the moral sphere, they are still in a special section near the outer rim. Their interests are allowed to count only when they do not clash with human interests.” This “special section” has become Singer’s own place for them.

As previously noted, the way in which most human interests are preserved at the expense of other animals’ interests is by constructing a privileged identity for humans that other species cannot share in the constructed outlook. In Singer’s utilitarian worldview, animals’ lives and feelings are simple and slight compared with humanity’s.[6] His insistence on human superiority and its prerogatives – his preoccupation with human “planning” as a preemptory value despite the devastations and miseries the execution of our “plans” has wrought in the past and present and bodes for the future on earth – is set forth in his discussion in Writings on an Ethical Life, on page 96, of damming a river that will adversely affect the nonhuman animals in the area:

Neither drowning nor starvation is an easy way to die, and the suffering involved in those deaths should . . . be given no less weight than we would give to an equivalent amount of suffering experienced by human beings. . . . But the argument presented above does not require us to regard the death of a nonhuman animal as morally equivalent to the death of a human being, since humans are capable of foresight and forward planning in ways that nonhuman animals are not. This is surely relevant to the seriousness of death, which, in the case of a human being capable of planning for the future, will thwart these plans, and which thus causes a loss that is different in kind from the loss that death causes to beings incapable even of understanding that they exist over time and have a future. It is also entirely legitimate to take into account the greater sense of loss that humans feel when people close to them die; whether nonhuman animals will feel a sense of loss at the death of another animal will depend on the social habits of the species, but in most cases it is unlikely to be as prolonged, and perhaps not as deep, as the grief that humans feel.

Not only is human supremacy and the “rights” this supremacy confers protected, but evidence of complex cognition and emotion in other animal species is largely ignored except as a patronizing concession. Nonhuman animals are conceived almost entirely as vessels of suffering and simple pleasures, whereas adult human beings are regarded as so cognitively superior to all other forms of life that, for this reason, humans have not only “interests,” which they share with other animals, but also inherent “value.” Thus he writes on page xvii of his Introduction to Writings on an Ethical Life: “I do not think that the fact that the human is a member of the species Homo sapiens is in itself a reason for regarding his or her life as being of greater value than that of a member of a different species. But, as I argue in more detail, in the extracts from Practical Ethics and Rethinking Life and Death, human beings typically, though not invariably, do have desires about going on living that nonhuman animals are not capable of having, and that does make a difference. Thus, I have no doubt that the events that we read about all too often in our newspapers, when someone gets a gun and starts randomly killing people in a school, church, or supermarket, are more tragic than the shooting of a number of animals in a field would be.”

This leaves other species in a realm that, to quote Singer against himself, bodes bleakly for animal liberation: “Given what we know about human nature, as long as we continue to think of animals in this way we will not succeed in changing the attitudes that, when put into practice by ordinary human beings, lead to disrespect – and hence mistreatment – for the animals” (Animal Liberation, 1990, p. 229).

Where do chickens fit into Peter Singer’s animal liberation outlook?

chicken_family_everglades (71K)
Photo Davida G. Breier

“Suppose I grant that pigs and dogs are self-aware to some degree, and do have thoughts about things in the future. That would provide some reason for thinking it intrinsically wrong to kill them – not absolutely wrong, but perhaps quite a serious wrong. Still, there are other animals – chickens maybe, or fish – who can feel pain but don’t have any self-awareness or capacity for thinking about the future. For those animals, you haven’t given me any reason why painless killing would be wrong, if other animals take their place and lead an equally good life.” – Peter Singer, “Reflections,” The Lives of Animals, by J.M. Coetzee, pp. 89-90

Photo: David Harp      
Chickens_Day47_064 (22K) Based on the evidence, it can reasonably be said that the chicken is a doomed species whose doom consists not of extinction but of something worse: an ever-expanding increase in the number of individuals living in hell or its moral equivalent. Among land animals, chickens constitute the largest, most expanding universe of pain and suffering on the planet. To add an ounce of insult to these birds instead of using precious opportunities to bolster their image in the public mind is terrible. There is enough scientific and anecdotal documentation for anyone wishing to be just and helpful to chickens to do so without making false or sentimentalized claims about them. – Karen Davis, “An Open Letter to Vegan Voice Re: Singer’s Disparagement of Chickens”

Despite his indictment of battery cages for egg-laying hens and call for their elimination, and despite his powerful discussion of chickens raised for meat and their “joyless existence” on factory farms in Animal Liberation and on pages 24-27 of The Way We Eat in “ENTER THE CHICKEN SHED,” following the first edition of Animal Liberation, Singer began to single out chickens for disparagement. I remember how surprised I was reading an article of his in New Scientist in the early 1990s, in which he repeatedly referred to battery-caged hens as “its.” This was all the more surprising given that in his Preface to the first edition of Animal Liberation, page xv, he writes: “I have tried to avoid language which tends to degrade animals or disguise the nature of the food we eat.”

In 2004, Singer told the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who gave him a prize for advancing rational atheism (not animal liberation), that unlike some animal advocates, he did not regard chickens as “sacred” – a characterization he rejects for humans as well, but a word that among members of this group would be particularly likely to encourage negative attitudes toward chickens and animal rights by hearing them fused with theology. Why would he choose chickens to make this point or even make the point at all?[7]

That same year Singer coauthored an op-ed in Newsday, “When Slaughter Makes Sense,” in which he supported the mass extermination of millions of chickens in Asia– which included burying them alive tied in plastic bags, burning, gassing and beating them to death – in order to protect humans from bird flu, even though virulent epidemics of avian influenza have been shown to be one of the many consequences of humanity’s relentlessly selfish, heedless and destructive activities resulting, in the case of bird flu, in periodic rampages of wholesale torture and slaughter of hundreds of millions of wild and domesticated birds and other animal species. Singer called distress over the bird flu killings “misplaced,” and invoked his authority as one who is “actively involved with the animal-rights movement” to justify the killings and convince people of their “valid purpose.” So insignificant to Singer in this write-up are the birds themselves, that the “waste” of their lives in being massacred is compared with the “waste” of people’s time in having to go through scanners and body searches at the airport – annoying but “necessary waste.”[8] For more on this op-ed, see my discussion: “When Murdering Animals Makes Sense.”

Photo By: AP

In Indonesia, chickens are burned alive to destroy avian influenza

Singer has repeatedly denigrated chickens and invoked them to exemplify his idea of inferior, inconsequential existence. Chickens cannot defend themselves against his condescension and ill-will toward them. Here, for instance, is his distinction between a “person” and a “nonperson” on page 323 of Writings on an Ethical Life:

As I said earlier, I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future. If that person is killed against his or her will, these desires are cut off, thwarted. For this reason, among others, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill a person than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. And that, I think, is one reason why it’s normally worse to kill a human being than to kill a chicken. But newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby – whether able-bodied or not – is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.[9]

Elsewhere we read: “You could say it’s wrong to kill a being whenever a being is sentient or conscious. Then you would have to say it’s just as wrong to kill a chicken or mouse as it is to kill you or me. I can’t accept that idea. It may be just as wrong, but millions of chickens are killed every day. I can’t think of that as a tragedy on the same scale as millions of humans being killed” (Rudavsky).

When “More” Adds Up to “Less”

That Singer regards the death of even a few thousand human beings (probably even just one normal adult human being) as vastly more important than the death of many millions of chickens every single day, in order to satisfy what he originally condemned as people’s trivial desire for their flesh, was confirmed following the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, of which he wrote in Vegan Voice in 2002: “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.” I responded to this in “An Open Letter to Vegan Voice Re: Singer’s Disparagement of Chickens” which can be read at www.upc-online.org/011226vegan_voice_singer.html. I think it is shallow and utterly speciesist to contend that because millions of chickens suffer and die every day just so people can eat them, therefore their suffering and its moral significance are diminished. One might as well argue that since millions of human beings have historically been victims of humanity’s genocidal impulses, therefore their deaths are less tragic than the deaths on 9/11.[10] (Chapter 7 of my book The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale addresses this issue more fully.)

Photo by: Mercy for Animals, Weaver Brothers Egg Farm in Versailles, Ohio

Pitting humanity’s infliction of suffering and death on millions of chickens against the terrible but relatively sudden and brief 9/11 attack on three thousand people is speciesism. An impartial and objective perspective approximating the utilitarian “point of view of the universe” invoked by Singer in chapter one of Animal Liberation and elaborated in Writings on an Ethical Life on pages 267-272 – whereby “we are able to distance ourselves from our own point of view and take on, instead, a wider perspective” – would be much more likely to conclude that the death of several thousand human beings, whose trivial consumer interests included the imposition of fundamental misery and death on many millions of chickens, reduced the sum total of pain and suffering in the world and was therefore the lesser of two evils.

A few years ago, animal rights activist Mary Finelli, puzzled and annoyed by Peter’s repetitive putdown of chickens, said: “I don’t know why he keeps using chickens as an example of a less-than-worthy species. It’s perhaps the worst example he could use.” My response is something like this. I don’t think Peter Singer really likes animals very much, and he displays a particular animosity toward chickens. He even told me once he believes that chickens don’t mind watching other chickens be killed in front of each other because a farmer told him they don’t, and he accepted this claim from a person who would do such a thing without skepticism or further inquiry.[11] I’ve sent him information about chicken intelligence including scientific information, but he ignores it – almost as if a chicken advocate like me must be too sentimental about chickens to be trustworthy. I think Peter regards his own kind of “mental properties,” as he calls them, as such a pinnacle of existence that, for him, chickens have more in common with “little old ladies in tennis shoes” than they have with individuals he deems worthy of respect.[12]

Even so, he should give chickens and all animals, and especially the most widely denigrated and abused ones, the benefit of the doubt, in keeping with his declaration in Animal Liberation that the more powerless an animal is, the more that animal will be oppressed and in need of vigorous advocacy (Preface, 1975, p. xiii), and with his saying on page 7 that “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same purpose?” His slighting of chickens is all the more damaging coming as it does from the so-called father of animal liberation, reinforcing and upholding the very disrespect and mistreatment that animal liberation was supposed to deliver animals from.

Chickens “Upgraded” in Practical Ethics?

hen_with_chicks (32K)
Photo: Davida G. Breier

The 2011 edition of Practical Ethics offers a less overtly dismissive, if lifeless and stilted, view of chickens than before. In a discussion of personhood that is rather less stingy toward certain other animal species than in his previous writings, including fish, who are described in the journal Fish and Fisheries which he quotes from as being “steeped in social intelligence,” Singer sets forth this mechanistic portrait of chickens on page 102:

Additionally, because at least some birds appear to be persons, we should be cautious about excluding chickens, too. In flocks of up to ninety birds, chickens appear to recognize one another as individuals, always knowing whether another bird is above or below them in the pecking order. They also have the capacity for self-control and to envision at least the near future. In one experiment, chickens were taught that pecking one key would, after two seconds, bring them access to food for three seconds; whereas pecking a different key would, after six seconds, bring them access to food for twenty-two seconds. The hens preferred to wait for the opportunity to feed longer. At a more anecdotal level, many people who keep free range hens and lock them up at night describe them as eager to get outside in the mornings – an attitude that suggests anticipating the future.[13]

“Peter Singer Explains the Advantage of Wingless Chickens”

In an interview in Slate on May 8, 2006, Singer forsook animal liberation altogether when he said that he thinks the circle of compassionate treatment of nonhuman animals “gets gray when you get beyond mammals,” and that he would support genetically eliminating chickens’ wings, brains and “various other chicken instincts,” if by doing so their “suffering” in farming operations would be reduced.

Not only does this show a superficial understanding of suffering and of chickens, and a complete lack of respect for chickens; it accords with the agribusiness view of farmed animals as mere biological raw material to be manipulated by people in order to “adapt” them to the harsh realities of industrial farming and the desires of consumers.

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 very mentality and abuse that produced and produces such suffering in the first place. Seeing these sentiments complacently expressed by the “father of animal liberation,” I wondered if Peter Singer had ever considered how a wingless, “de-winged” bird might feel or sought to learn what effect such an injury might have on the “welfare” of factory-farmed chickens. Former poultry science professor, Eldon Kienholz, has described how chickens and turkeys with their wings cut off fell over, spun around on the floor, and could not get back up without their wings. De-winging was one of the things Eldon did to birds as an agribusiness researcher at Colorado State University that pricked his conscience and caused him to resign his tenure prematurely. (See p. 175 in the 2009 edition of my book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs, and pages 88-89 in the 1996 edition of the book).[14]

I wondered as I read the Slate interview if being so proud of his human status and his standing as a public intellectual, Peter Singer had become detached to the point where he could calmly regard the wings, brains and “various other chicken instincts” as mere bits and pieces of stuff for people to play with, delete, and manipulate at will, while calling this assault “animal welfare” or even “animal liberation.” If support for redesigning helpless animals, for degrading and impairing them surgically and genetically so that human beings can eat them and the products of their bodies isn’t speciesism, then what is?[15]

To conclude, I think that Peter Singer’s own words in Animal Liberation offer one way of understanding the course his career has taken since the book first appeared in the 1970s. Regarding the failure of earlier animal welfare societies to uphold their original commitment to animals, he writes: “Gradually, however, as these organizations grew in wealth, membership, and respectability, they lost their radical commitment and became part of the ‘establishment.’ They built up close contacts with members of the government, and with businessmen and scientists. They tried to use these contacts to improve the conditions of animals, and some minor improvements resulted; but at the same time contacts with those whose basic interests are in the use of animals for food or research purposes blunted the radical criticism of the exploitation of animals that had inspired the founders” (1990, p. 218).

Something similar may now be said of Peter Singer. He still writes and speaks about animals. He condemns the cruelty and environmental havoc of factory farming and observes that “ultimately, we should be aiming to eat vegetarian diets,” which is all well and good, but he is no longer an inspiration for animal liberation.


[1] The other galvanizing new book of moral theory about animals that I recall most vividly back then was philosopher Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, published in 1983. Though more abstract and academic than Animal Liberation, it sets forth the fundamental argument for Animal Rights that is central to the modern animal rights movement. Like us, nonhuman animals are conscious, sentient individuals who have a value independent of their usefulness to others, and like us, they have a basic moral right to be treated in ways that show respect for their independent value as experiencing beings.

[2] Animal Liberation does not, however, eschew emotional response. The attitudes and behavior of animal abusers and “how animals suffer from the tyranny of human beings” should arouse “emotions of anger and outrage, coupled with a determination to do something about the practices described,” Singer writes on p. xi of the Preface.

[3] The 1975 edition of Animal Liberation unfortunately opens the door to “free-range” eggs and dairy and the idea of ethical alternatives to industrial animal production that in recent years has become a new excuse for eating animals and animal products, even winning back some vegans to the slaughter. Regarding factory-farmed animals Singer writes on p. 165 that the question is not “is it ever right to eat meat? but: is it right to eat this meat?” Ethical objections to free-range eggs are said on p. 180 to be “relatively minor,” even though hens are killed when they no longer lay enough eggs to be considered worth keeping alive, and the 1990 edition, pp. 175-176, adds that the killing of male chicks is a standard egg-production practice, free-range or otherwise. Dairy cows are described in the 1975 edition as “considerably better off than most other domestic animals,” but investigations of commercial dairy operations since the 1970s have shown dairy cows being treated horribly. Singer did say in a 2008 Newsweek article, “The Rights of Animals,” that “Milk and cheese are no easier than meat to reconcile.”

It is often the case in anti-factory farming discussions that the carefully detailed descriptions of standard industrial farming practices are not matched by an equally scrupulous description of so-called alternative production practices – practices and conditions that undercover investigations have often found to be as callous and cruel as the “factory-farming” of which they are, in fact, extensions. For example, many smaller farms such as Polyface in Virginia purchase birds for slaughter and eggs with the same manufactured genetic characteristics as those used in factory farming, and they typically buy them from industrial hatcheries like Murray McMurray in Iowa. Hens bought by smaller farms for egg-laying purposes are often debeaked at the hatchery as a routine procedure before being shipped to buyers. “Egg-type” rooster chicks are so discounted by hatcheries that in addition to being trashed at birth, they are often used as packing material in shipments of female chicks to buyers.

Despite what many would like to believe, there is no “humane past” to reclaim from factory farming. The modern animal advocacy movement is rooted in descriptions of appalling cruelty to animals, long before and leading up to the establishment of factory farming in the 20th century. Books like Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World, Richard Ryder’s Animal Revolution and Henry Salt’s Animals’ Rights provide detailed accounts of animal misery and abuse at the hands of humans through history and in the modern world. Restoring the past with a fresh coat of false gloss will not resolve the atrocities of the present and future.

[4] Through the years Singer has maintained a consistent stand against animal factories and in favor of “equal consideration of interests,” in theory at least, and he has enlarged the scope of his discourse to address more fully the human hunger and environmental issues introduced in the first edition of Animal Liberation. But part of his media draw is also due to stances and attitudes less principled and socially responsible. He proposed for example in a 2001 article called “Heavy Petting” that humans having sex with captive animals isn’t necessarily wrong, and he has argued that killing human infants isn’t necessarily wrong either, because babies, even healthy babies, are not ‘persons,” since (presumably) they can’t reason, anticipate the future, or sense their own existence over time (Writings, p. 323). I believe Singer later recanted the opinions he aired in “Heavy Petting,” in which he does condemn the cruelty of men forcing sex on chickens, which in some cases includes decapitating them for sadistic pleasure. He then goes on to ask whether this experience is any worse for the hen than “what egg producers do to their hens all the time.”

[5] Since the late 1990s, something like mass support for eliminating factory farming has been happening, as revelations of industrial animal production practices and conditions have attracted media coverage, and Internet photographs and videotapes document how animals in agribusiness are actually living and dying. Animal Liberation facilitated the trend toward the undercover investigations that have contributed substantially to what Singer described in a September 14, 2009 article in Spiked as “a growing acceptance that factory farming of animals is indefensible.”

But while Singer says in that article that “we have to move towards vegetarian and even vegan diets,” the prevailing attitude at present is that while industrial animal farming is bad, people can continue to eat animal products that somehow avoid the taint of “factory farming,” arriving in supermarkets and restaurants from pastoral settings where animals are “happy,” receive a “respectful death,” and contribute to the health of the planet by being farmed – a daydream popularized by food writers Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and others. Thus The New York Times editorialized in “A Humane Egg” on July 11, 2010 that “In fact, there is no justification, economic or otherwise, for the abusive practice of confining animals in spaces barely larger than the volume of their bodies. Animals with more space are healthier, and they are no less productive. Industrial confinement is cruel and senseless and will turn out to be, we hope, a relatively short-lived anomaly in modern farming.”

While this may sound promising to some, it doesn’t fit the reality that we know. Currently there are nearly 7 billion human beings on the planet, and around 50 billion land animals are reportedly being raised each year worldwide for human consumption. The United States Census Bureau expects the human population to reach 7.5 to 10.5 billion by 2050, and an article in World Watch by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, in 2009, predicted that the number of animals raised globally for human consumption will double between 2006 and 2050. The number of sea animals killed for Americans alone in the year 2009 was 51 billion (Mohr); and Feedstuffs cites a U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization prediction that “global meat consumption will rise from 233 million tons to 300 million tons by 2020” (Geis).

One must ask how these numbers comport with the idea of non-industrialized animal production – at low prices, no less! – keeping in mind that nearly everything people buy in stores is mass-produced in industrial factories. Do we really believe that contrary to virtually every other product on the market, the majority of animal products can somehow reach billions of tables from tens of billions of animals custom-raised on land, in fresh air, with room to roam or even take a few steps? How much land would be needed to sustain this gargantuan population of “non-factory farmed” animals? How much land would people willingly set aside to support them?

The reality is that the cruelest, most brutal and atrocious industrial farming conditions and practices have become the standard by which “better treatment” of farmed animals and satisfaction of their “basic behavioral needs” are now being measured. Thus for example, a state law proposed in 2011 seeks to give an adult hen weighing 3.5 pounds, with a wing span of approximately 200 square inches, 1.5 square feet of “individually usable floor space,” enough room for “fully extending and flapping her wings” and for “turning around freely.” Such measures, while an “improvement” over total constriction but in no way humane for a hen or a flock of hens, become linked in the public mind with “eggs from hens kept in humane and healthy ways” (Oregonian Editorial Board).

[6] Regarding all other species including the great apes as far below humans in cognitive capability, Singer subscribes reflexively to the notion of a cerebral hierarchy among the world’s animal inhabitants. Thus he writes on p. 119 of the 1990 edition of Animal Liberation that of all the animals currently eaten in the Western world, “the pig is without doubt the most intelligent.” The natural intelligence of a pig, he says, “is comparable and perhaps even superior to that of a dog.” But what do we really know about the total mental capabilities of any animal that is so conclusive as to allow us to assert that a particular type of animal is “without doubt the most intelligent” (or least intelligent)?

Until quite recently it was generally agreed “without doubt” that birds were mentally inferior to mammals, a prejudice discredited by modern science, as outlined, for example, by The Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium in Nature Neuroscience Reviews. It was also considered a truism that the ground-nesting birds known as galliforms (“cock-shaped”) – chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quails, peafowl, guinea fowl, and others – were “unquestionably low in the scale of avian evolution” (quoted in Davis, More Than a Meal, p. 128). But as bird specialist Lesley Rogers shows in her book The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken (1995), the idea that birds are cognitively inferior to mammals or that chickens are inferior to other kinds of birds is a prejudice contradicted by the mass of evidence to the contrary.

In Minds of Their Own: Thinking and Awareness in Animals (1997), Rogers says that by privileging the great apes above all other forms of terrestrial nonhuman life, we are still saying that “some animals are more equal than others.” She asks whether, guided by this cognitive-scale-of-being way of thinking, we are going to grant rights to “only our closest genetic relatives?” She exposes the fallacy – and the danger – of ranking animals according to their alleged intelligence or awareness, both of which attributes she says “are impossible to assess on any single criterion” (p. 194). She argues on p. 57 of Minds of Their Own that instead of ranking animals according to a simplistic IQ system, we would be more accurate and just in our assessments if we would recognize that “there are many different ‘intelligences’, rather than ranking all species on the same scale of intelligence.”

Even for humans, Rogers says there is no evidence to support applying the single term “intelligence” to a diverse set of activities; likewise, there is no evidence that different species use the same cognitive processes to carry out similar types of behavior. In short, there are no grounds for asserting without doubt that one group of animals is smarter than another. An article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell about “ranking” makes this pertinent observation: “Rankings are not benign. . . . Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking.”

It is deeply disturbing to me that a person with influence on society’s perception of animals, a person claiming to be against and above prejudice and an exemplar of evidence-based values of fair and impartial consideration of others, adopts the course of ranking animals by some purported measure of intelligence. Meanwhile, avian science has advanced to where researchers now declare they have “proof”! that chickens possess empathy, based on studies showing that mother hens develop behavioral and physiological signs of vicarious stress upon seeing their chicks exposed to stressful situations. See Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today blog, “Empathic chickens and cooperative elephants,” at www.upc-online.org/thinking/110310psychology_today.html.

As for other evidence of avian empathy, of which there is plenty (indeed, how could social animals be “social” if they didn’t have empathy?), I note on p. 150 of More Than a Meal that an emotional behavior that one writer on turkeys said defies “logical explanation” is “the great wake” wild turkeys will hold over a fallen companion in the woods. Similarly, domesticated turkeys on factory farms have been reported by observers to die in vicarious response to a flock mate undergoing convulsive heart failure in the immediate vicinity. A poultry researcher calls the sudden death of turkeys, occasioned by their witnessing the suffering and death of a companion in their midst, “hysteria.”

[7] Ironically, the three most outspoken critics urging Singer to stop disparaging chickens have been Patty Mark, president of Animal Liberation Victoria in Australia, Joan Dunayer, author of Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, and me. The fact that none of us uses religious language as part of our advocacy makes Singer’s dissociation of himself from advocates who would call chickens “sacred” all the more gratuitous.

[8] It isn’t only chickens who may be sacrificed for the “greater human good.” In 2006 Singer said during a BBC2 broadcast “Monkeys, Rats and Me,” which aired on November 27th that year, that inflicting Parkinson’s disease on monkeys was “justifiable” if there was “no other way of discovering this knowledge” (Walsh). Noting later in “Is Peter Singer backing animal testing?” that neither in his 1975 book Animal Liberation nor anywhere else had he ever said that “no experiments on animals could ever be justifiable,” he put the question of using animals in abusive laboratory experiments in terms of a comparable abuse of “human beings at a similar mental level – say, those born with irreversible brain damage.” Once again, Singer represents cognitively normal, fully capable nonhuman animals as comparable to cognitively impaired, even “brain damaged” humans.

As for "no other way of discovering this knowledge," human volunteers could and should be used in pursuit of knowledge and products that are claimed by experimenters to have likely benefits for humans. Using human volunteers instead of unconsenting animals to obtain benefits we desire for ourselves is not only the ethical thing to do; it would winnow out a ton of useless and redundant research, since the potential research subjects would have a voice in experimental enterprises involving the intentional infliction of injury, pain and death in pursuit of human health and wellbeing. Forcing other animal species to suffer and die in our place for the benefit of ourselves is the opposite of Animal Liberation.

[9] The hurtful effect of Singer’s doctrine of cognitive inferiority in chickens and other animals is illustrated by an email I received on January 7, 2011 from attorney Steven Farbman, a 7th grade Hebrew School teacher of The Holocaust and Kindness to Animals, who wrote to me from Northern Virginia: “Last week the mother of one of my daughter’s friends asked me about the book I was reading, The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale. When I explained the point of your book, she said there was a difference between animals and humans. When I asked her whether animals felt pain and fear like humans, she responded by stating she had heard on the radio that the difference is that only humans know they will die at some point; animals do not. This reasoning would make it acceptable to kill human infants because they do not know they will die. Moreover, how do we know that animals don’t understand death?” The answer is: we don’t. It’s a speciesist assumption. Notice how, armed with the notion that nonhuman animals don’t know they are going to die, the woman bypasses the whole question of animal suffering to focus on a supposed proof of human “superiority.”

[10] But it isn’t about numbers for Singer; it’s about species. In the Parkinson’s disease debate cited in Note 7 above, he said that inflicting Parkinson’s “on a small number of monkeys” was justifiable if the experiments “yielded major benefits for tens of thousands of people.” The “small number” of monkeys used in the experiments in question was said by the researcher to be “only 100,” and the number of people supposedly “made better” as a result of the experiments was said to be 40,000. Singer’s response to criticism of his position was dismissive: “Whether the facts are as Professor Aziz claims I shall leave to others to debate.” If instead of monkeys, the research victims had been people like himself, would he have brushed off the question of the facts of the experiments versus the claims of the experimenter (to whom he deferred on the air by saying, “I take it you are the expert in this, not me”) so easily?

[11] Lest anyone think chickens don’t mind seeing and hearing other chickens die violently in front of them, nothing could be further from the truth. As a longtime chicken sanctuary director, I’ve witnessed the effect on chickens of a hawk or a fox and the terror these predators inspire in the birds including the aftermath of trauma. I learned the hard way back in the early days of keeping a few rescued chickens in an unfenced yard. (Those naïve days are long gone.) For example, one of my chickens, Ethel Murmur, a beloved broiler hen, was out in the yard one Saturday afternoon, next to the kitchen steps with her friend Bertha, when a fox stole Bertha and left her dead in the woods. Before this episode, Ethel Murmur was a vigorous hen, full of personality, whom we’d affectionately named after the famous Broadway singer Ethel Merman, on account of her imposing personality, ample physique and big voice. Afterward, Ethel Murmur was never the same. She stopped making a joyful noise, she could hardly walk anymore, her whole body shriveled, and she died a few weeks later. Even though she herself had not been attacked, she had watched the attack on her friend, and could not recover from it.

As for chickens not minding watching members of their flock be killed by a farmer, a man once described to me how a small flock of chickens he and some others were keeping on a commune he belonged to at the time were slaughtered in front of each other by a member of their group. Three hens and a rooster fled the scene. They disappeared for more than two weeks, before reappearing, timidly, and never again trustingly. Their behavior following the slaughter was totally altered, the man said.

[12] When his book The Way We Eat, coauthored by Jim Mason, was in draft, Peter asked me on January 5, 2005 if I would read and offer suggestions on the chicken and egg chapters, which I did with improved results. But while the book conveys much of the cruelty of industrialized chicken and egg production, the authors empathize poorly with the birds and do things like crudely referring to female turkeys’ genitals as their “assholes,” and demeaning hens’ need to dustbathe by implying that dustbathing is some sort of poorly understood female type of behavior, when in fact, dustbathing is well known by scientists and others, including the authors – I gave Peter the information, which he ignored – to be chickens’ and turkeys’ way of maintaining healthy skin and plumage, while giving them blissful pleasure as a sensuous and social activity. So genetically essential is dustbathing for chickens that battery-caged hens try pitifully to “vacuum dustbathe” on the wire floor of their cages. The first thing that hens released from a cage onto the ground do is to dustbathe.

[13] Singer’s reference to “many people” who describe their chickens as eager to get outside in the mornings, showing they are aware of the past and the future, is an unacknowledged allusion to my 2001 “Open Letter” to him in which I wrote that “The fact that every morning the chickens at our sanctuary yell and otherwise beg and demand to be let out of their enclosures into the yard shows that they ‘anticipate the future’ satisfactions that await them in the yard – satisfactions they remember having enjoyed there and fervently desire to enjoy again. I cite this as one of many examples of chickens’ memory-and-anticipation cognitive behavior.” I subsequently developed this observation along with many others in my essay, “The Social Life of Chickens,” which can be read at www.upc-online.org/thinking/social_life_of_chickens.html.

[14] I discuss the issue of genetically and surgically mutilating chickens as a “welfare” measure on pp. 270-274 of my essay “Chicken-Human Relationships,” in the Spring 2010 Spring Journal, edited by G.A. Bradshaw; and on pp. 49-53 of my chapter “Procrustean Solutions to Animal Identity and Welfare Problems,” in Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, edited by John Sanbonmatsu.

[15] The Slate interview was also egregious in that on January 6, 2005, I had an email exchange with Peter in which I provided him with ADDITIONAL material showing that the use of electricity to “stun” or electrocute birds constitutes torture and cannot be regulated regardless. Despite the facts, Singer casually told Slate that “spent” hens can be killed “humanely.” He said, without the slightest hint of what poultry killing crews are actually like and how ruthlessly they treat the birds they’re paid to destroy by the thousands as quickly as possible: “You can truck them [the hens] to a place where there is stunning, or better still, you can bring stunning equipment to the farm, and you can make sure that every hen is individually stunned with an electric shock and then killed by having its throat cut.” Once again, the hen, tortured and stripped of everything, is an “it” in Peter Singer’s outlook, and the circle of animal de-liberation is complete.


Karen Davis

Karen Davis, “From Hunting Grounds to Chicken Rights: My Story in an Eggshell,” Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice, ed. Lisa A. Kemmerer, Forward by Carol J. Adams, Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

_____. “Procrustean Solutions to Animal Identity and Welfare Problems,” Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, ed. John Sanbonmatsu, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

_____. “Chicken-Human Relationships: From Procrustean Genocide to Empathic Anthropomorphism,” Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, Vol. 83, Minding the Animal Psyche, ed. G.A. Bradshaw and Nancy Cater, 253-278, New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal, Inc., 2010. www.upc-online.org/thinking/chicken_human_relationships.pdf.

_____. Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company, 1996. Updated 2009.

_____. “The Social Life of Chickens,” 2009. www.upc-online.org/thinking/social_life_of_chickens.html.

_____. “Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) – What You Need to Know: A Report by United Poultry Concerns,” 2007. www.upc-online.org/poultry_diseases/birdflu.html.

_____. “Review of The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason,” Poultry Press, United Poultry Concerns, Winter 2006. www.upc-online.org/winter06/bookreview.html.

_____. “Food Matters” emails with Peter Singer, Aug. 23-24, 2005.

_____. The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities, New York: Lantern Books, 2005, chapter 7, “The 9/11 Controversy.”

_____. “When Murdering Animals Makes Sense,” United Poultry Concerns, Feb. 13, 2004. www.upc-online.org/avma/21304cuttler.htm.

_____. “Farm Animal Well-Being Task Group Chucked by U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Poultry Press, United Poultry Concerns, Fall 2002. www.upc-online.org/fall2002/fawbtgbye.html.

_____. More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, New York: Lantern Books, 2001.

_____. “An Open Letter to Vegan Voice Re: Singer’s Disparagement of Chickens,” United Poultry Concerns, December 26, 2001. www.upc-online.org/011226vegan_voice_singer.html. Published in Vegan Voice (NSW, Australia) No. 9, March-May 2002, p. 17.

_____. “A Loving Tribute to Henry Spira,” Poultry Press, United Poultry Concerns, Fall/Winter 1998. www.upc-online.org/fall98/spira_tribute.html.

_____. “Expanding The Great Ape Project,” Poultry Press, United Poultry Concerns, Fall/Winter 1995/1996. www.upc-online.org/expand.html.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer. Practical Ethics, 3rd ed. NY: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

_____. “It’s time to stop exploiting animals for food,” Spiked, Sept.14, 2009.

_____. “The Rights Of Animals,” Newsweek, November 20, 2008.

_____. “Is Peter Singer backing animal testing?” and Tom Regan, “Animal Rights and Animal Testing,” Nov. 30, 2006. www.animalfreedom.org/english/column/peter_singer.html.

_____, and Jim Mason, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Rodale, 2006.

_____. “Query for Karen [Davis]” email exchange, Jan. 5-6, 2005.

_____. “Peter Singer ‘Tells It Like It Is,’” Freethought Today, Freedom From Religion Foundation, May 2005, pp. 8-10.

_____, and Karen Dawn, “When Slaughter Makes Sense,” Newsday, February 8, 2004.

_____. “Book Review: Animal Equality: Language and Liberty by Joan Dunayer,” Vegan Voice (NSW, Australia) No. 8, Dec.-Feb., 2002, p. 36.

_____. “Heavy Petting, Nerve, 2001. www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/2001----.htm.

_____. Writings on an Ethical Life, New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

_____. “Reflections,” in J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

_____. Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, New Revised Edition, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

_____. Animal Liberation, New Revised Edition, New York: Avon Books, 1990.

_____. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics For Our Treatment of Animals, New York: Avon Books, 1975.

_____. “Animal Liberation,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 50, No. 8, April 5, 1973.

Other Citations

[The] Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium. “Avian Brains and a New Understanding of Vertebrate Brain Evolution,” Nature Neuroscience Reviews Vol. 6: 151-159, 2005. www.avianbrain.org.

Bekoff, Marc. “Empathic chickens and cooperative elephants: Emotional intelligence expands its range again,” Psychology Today, March 9, 2011. www.upc-online.org/thinking/110310psychology_today.html.

Bentham, Jeremy. Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789. chapter 17. For a summary of this work: www.angelfire.com/md2/timewarp/bentham.html.

Bite Back. “Statistics: Global Farmed Animal Slaughter,” Sept. 16, 2004. www.biteback.be/news/detail.php?news_id=404.

Bjorkdahl, Kristian. Email to Karen Davis, Feb. 15, 2010.

Broudy, Oliver. “The Practical Ethicist,” Slate, May 8, 2006. www.salon.com/books/int/2006/05/08/singer/print.html.

Brown, Chip. “She’s a Portrait of Zealotry in Plastic Shoes,” The Washington Post, Nov.13, 1983, B1.

D’Silva, Joyce. “Interview with Peter Singer,” Farm Animal Voice, Compassion In World Farming, Summer 2004.

Dunayer, Joan. Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, Derwood, MD: Ryce Publishing, 2001.

Farbman, Steven. Email to Karen Davis, Jan. 7, 2011.

Finelli, Mary. Email to Karen Davis, March 11, 2009.

Geis, Jake. “Hormone concerns unwarranted,” Feedstuffs FoodLink, March 28, 2011, p. 16.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Order of Things,” The New Yorker, Feb. 14 & 21, 2011, pp. 68-75.

Goodland, Robert, and Jeff Anhang. “Livestock and Climate Change,” World Watch, Nov.-Dec., 2009.

Harrison, Ruth. Animal Machines, UK: Stuart, 1964.

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karen 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. She’s the founding editor of UPC’s quarterly magazine Poultry Press and the author of several books including Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. Karen maintains a sanctuary for chickens, turkeys and ducks on the Eastern Shore of Virginia To learn more, visit www.upc-online.org and www.upc-online.org/karenbio.htm.

karen PETER SINGER is currently Ira W. DeCamp Professor at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. The author and editor of many books, most famously Animal Liberation, he specializes in applied ethics and approaches ethical issues from a secular utilitarian perspective. To learn more, visit www.princeton.edu/~psinger/ and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer.

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