Understanding The Chicken-Human Relationship

In my quest for understanding the fate of the modern chicken and how it has become perhaps the most undervalued and highly commoditized animal on the planet, I was led to the writings of poultry welfare expert, Karen Davis PhD. Davis is the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization which addresses the treatment of domestic fowl in food production, science, education, entertainment and human companionship situations.

Davis’ recent work, Chicken-Human Relationships: From Procrustean Genocide to Empathic Anthropomorphism, traces the evolution of the modern chicken as a species shaped largely today by the industrialized food system. She uses the metaphor of Procrustes, an infamous bandit in ancient Greek mythology who forced his victims to fit in an iron bed by essentially disfiguring or dismembering them, to explain the origins of what has become today a rationalization for exploiting and brutalizing billions of birds on factory farms.

Contrary to what most people think, the farm is not the chicken’s natural habitat, explains Davis. The domestication of chickens has placed them essentially in an estranged environment far from their true nature. “Farmed animals are imprisoned in alien, dysfunctional, and disease-prone bodies genetically manipulated for food traits alone, bodies that in many cases have been surgically altered, creating a disfigured appearance. Animals are debeaked, de-toed, dehorned, ear-cropped, tail-docked, castrated, and (in the case of piglets), dentally mutilated—and always without painkillers,” writes Davis.

Yet, she points out, to the “Procrustean” mindset of agribusiness today driven by the goal of getting more productivity and profits out of animals, these practices are perceived as sensible and sound. Davis’ paper delves very deep into the psychology of how agribusiness justifies the development of enormous animal factories, championing such technologies as genetic modification and “spinning” them to the public as major advancements for the welfare of humans and chickens alike.

“Factory-farmed animals are imprisoned and bound in a belittling image that has little to do with who they really are. Disfigured and lumped in a sepia-colored, excremental universe, huddled together awaiting their slaughter in a foreseeable future of featherless bodies and mutilated faces already come to pass, these brilliant, resplendent miracles of nature are almost literally cookie-cut to fit the human created conception of mere raw material to be processed into human geometric food products and animal byproducts,” writes Davis.

Karen Davis PhD

The most unsettling insight Davis reveals here is how the theory and practice of genocide remains a pervasive force through human history, genocide against our own kind as well as wildlife and domesticated animals, in this case, the billions of chickens raised for food each year. She has a very keen ability to identify patterns in human nature, culture and psychology and to demonstrate how they function in today’s highly industrialized world of animal agriculture.

Davis takes the notion of genocide beyond the commonly understood meaning: the total physical destruction of a race or species. Her broader view consists not only of “the deliberate annihilation of a group by direct killing, but also to the destruction of the identity of the targeted group by physically and rhetorically subverting and disfiguring the group and its members to reflect the abuser’s goals and ‘identity.’”

The cruel twist of fate for the chicken is the fact that through mass breeding, its plight as a species has been made eternal. As Davis puts it, “We have become accustomed, through the environmental movement, to think of species extinction as the worst fate that can befall a sentient organism. But the chicken’s doom is not to become extinct.”

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