Why the Lives of the Chickens at Urban Adamah Matter as Much as the Lives of Chickens in Any Animal Agribusiness
There were fifteen beautiful hens living in Berkeley, California at Urban Adamah, a Jewish community center and farm. The hens had been “giving” their eggs to the community for three years but in recent months, their egg production had begun to decline. Instead of retiring the hens, the community center condemned them to be ritually killed. Urban Adamah offered a workshop on how to butcher your own chickens. The fifteen hens, after years of providing eggs, were disposed of as victims of kosher slaughter.
Animal advocates were horrified and before the slaughter, an outcry of love and support for the hens began to grow. There were offers to transport the hens to idyllic sanctuaries where they could live out their lives in peace. In a temporary victory for the hens, Urban Adamah canceled the class, but unfortunately, they did not have a change of heart; they just postponed their plans. Their statement made it clear that they were only concerned for their public image. “The noise and disruption expected from the protesters would very likely have caused undue stress to the chickens and the program participants.” Really? They were concerned that a peaceful protest would cause the chickens stress, but cutting their throats would not? The hens were then secretly slaughtered under the radar of the activists.
Killing is Killing, No Matter the Scale
A common criticism I have heard repeatedly during this campaign is that Urban Adamah has treated the hens well, so we should not be bothering them. Some have argued that they are the good guys promoting sustainable farming while educating the community on gardening. Critics say we should focus instead on the big animal abusers — the worst of the worst. This argument fails to acknowledge that animal advocates are certainly concerned about the millions of chickens who are suffering and dying in large-scale farming. The organization I represent, United Poultry Concerns, focuses much-needed attention on industrial animal agribusiness. In fact, the majority of our work focuses on the plight of birds in the poultry and egg industry who are helpless cogs in a gigantic, brutal machine that separates families, mutilates bodies and viciously kills by the billions.
But to give Urban Adamah a pass just because they are a small farm who treated their hens well is missing several important ethical points. The first and most basic is that each animal is an individual who deserves to live. Killing is killing. It doesn’t matter the setting, it doesn’t matter the scale. Taking a life is the worst form of violence that one being can perpetrate upon another. The chickens at Urban Adamah didn’t want to die. Their lives were just as important as any bird in large-scale meat and egg production. These chickens were our neighbors. We had a duty to speak up for them and try to save them.
Urban Adamah did not have the right to kill the hens just because they were treated well. By the argument that one should focus only on the worst cases of animal abuse, one might also, by that same logic, posit that society should prosecute only serial killers, and not murderers who have only killed one person. By this distorted logic, a man who treated his wife well before he killed her should then be able to get away with it. Only someone who beat or tortured his wife before he killed her should be held accountable. There is no ethical reason that we should focus only on the most egregious acts of violence and ignore lesser acts of killing. All acts of violence must be targeted with equal fervor, because to the victim, each case is of utmost importance. Albert Einstein once said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” We should not turn our backs on even the smallest injustice, and we should provide assistance to anyone we have the ability to help.
The Birthright to Live Free of Human Imposed Value
Another comment of contention regarding the fifteen hens was that they lived a good life, so a swift end wouldn’t be so bad. Well, I have had a good life and have lived much longer then those three-year-old chickens, so how about a quick death for me? Of course, this makes no sense. A defense attorney would not dare make such an argument in a murder trial, and the argument is equally absurd in its trans-species application. Even though my life is much more detrimental to the earth than a chicken’s life is, we value human life and would find it unacceptable to kill me just because my usefulness, like the chicken’s egg production, is waning.
No being’s worth should be reduced merely to his or her value to others. Life is valuable for its own intrinsic sake, not just for the sake of others. A hen’s life should not be valued solely for her ability to lay eggs any more than women should be valued based only on their usefulness to men, or the poor should be valued by how much they produce for the elite. Urban Adamah, like all farming operations of any scale, viewed the hens as useless as soon as they were not laying as many eggs, so what else can they “give”? Their only worth now is dead as meat. To be truly progressive, we must stop treating animals as property whose only purpose is to provide us food, clothing, and commodities. Like classes of human victims of oppression and violence, non-human animals are individuals with lives and purposes of their own that must be respected. To live a full life is every sentient being’s birthright. Those fifteen community center souls were just as important as the souls of birds who endure wretched conditions on a larger farm.
The Language of Death
Yet another disturbing feature regarding the slaughter of the hens at Urban Adamah, and the broader community of small-scale, do-it-yourself slaughter, is the euphemistic language used to veil the horror of killing sentient beings. Urban Adamah representatives said of the slaughter, “it was a beautiful ceremony…a peaceful process.” How can taking the life of a being who is young and does not want to die ever be “beautiful” or “peaceful?” This language is beyond misleading–it is used to deceive people so they will condone a horrific act of violence, whether those that are saying it realize it or not. Representatives of Urban Adamah use this kind of euphemistic language not only to rationalize an act of violence that is anything but “beautiful” and “peaceful,” but also to con the community into believing that this vicious act of betrayal is somehow an expression of ethics and ideals. This type of deceptive double-speak is the epitome of political language that is designed to transform the horrific into the acceptable on the part of perpetrators who have committed acts of bloodshed throughout history. These animals have been betrayed by the very people who have cared for them for most or all of their lives, and have gained from their exploitation. A betrayal of such brutality should never be characterized as “beautiful,” “peaceful,” “compassionate” or “humane.” No act of needless killing can be reconciled with our higher altruistic ideals of “peace” and “beauty” despite efforts to label them as such.
Unfortunately, this type of valorization of the act of killing is becoming the norm, rather than the exception, in small-scale and backyard slaughter. There is a woman in my neighborhood who teaches workshops on how to slaughter chickens. In a recent article, she admitted that killing her hens was extremely difficult saying, “It was one of the hardest things I ever did, to take out that first batch of girls. I had no idea how affectionate chickens can be. I made the mistake of naming them, I don’t think I ever cried so hard.” But then she went on to assure readers that, “it does get easier” suggesting that the desensitization of our compassionate nature toward other beings is somehow a goal worthy of our aspiration. She spoke of the act of killing in pseudo-spiritual terms saying how she, “can feel the spirit passing.” This again is a ruse. She used feel-good language to circumvent the sad, horrible truth of the situation.
Do we really want to desensitize ourselves to violence and our distaste for killing? Is this what we want to teach our children? Don’t worry kids, the more violence you commit, the more you kill, the easier it gets. Instead of seeking to anesthetize ourselves to violence and using language that normalize cruel acts, the cultivation of our compassionate character will produce humanity’s best. Only through compassion can real peace and beauty be created.
“Humane Slaughter” is an Oxymoron
Let’s be clear about the oxymoronic idea of “humane slaughter.” Cutting the throat is not a quick and painless way to kill. No one wants to die that way, with good reason. The throat is full of pain receptors and nerve endings. Veterinary associations have stated that throat cutting is a painful and inhumane way to kill. Throat-cutting is not “euthanasia,” a word that means “merciful death.” But apart from this, there can be no such thing as humane slaughter. Killing an animal who does not want to die is a brutal act that can never be “compassionate” or “respectful” no matter how much we euphemize it.
Animals want to live and will fight death to the end. Just because we can does not give us the right to overpower and kill them, especially when it is completely unnecessary. We can live healthier and longer on a diet free of animal products. With diabetes, heart disease and childhood obesity epidemics on the rise, all educational farms should be teaching their communities the benefits of a healthy, violence-free, vegan diet.
Local is the New Black
Another campaign, with similar lines of contention, is just down the street from my home in Petaluma, California. Thistle Meat is a new, locally-owned, specialty meat shop that touts “ethically-raised” meat and the supposed virtues of using the whole animal, featuring a daily bone broth. During our ongoing educational campaign, the general reaction from people is that they have sympathy for the meat store because it is local–a “mom and pop” shop. “Why don’t you go to Costco or some corporation!” is the common theme from the public.
Much of the argumentation against Urban Adamah also applies to the reasons local activists are targeting Thistle Meats — every animal has the right to live — but there is an added element of concern that draws me to this campaign. I had a conversation with a customer who confirmed my apprehension about this new tread of local meats. She had not been buying much meat lately because of the treatment of the animals and the impact on the environment, but now she was happy that Thistle opened, because now she had an “ethical” option. She could have her meat and eat it too! Why would we protest that?
People who have grown uncomfortable with meat at the “regular” store are thrilled to see what they believe to be a humane and environmentally friendly option. But is there really any difference? Sadly, in most instances of small-scale production, families are still forced apart and stress and sadness still dominate the short life of the animal. Mothers are separated from their young, painful mutilations such as debeaking, branding and castration, are still the norm, and the lives of these animals last only for a few weeks, months or a few years at most before they are condemned to a brutal slaughter just like all animals used commercially — a frightening, traumatic end to a devastatingly short life. Imagine experiencing the joy of summer just one time when you could have many more, or worse yet — never experiencing summer at all.
This new trend of local animal products is not the eco-conscious option many want to believe it is. Regardless of how they are raised, farmed animals are much more resource intensive than plants. Excessive amounts of water and crops that could go directly to humans are wasted in animal agriculture. In addition, farmed animals release methane and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere — biological activity doesn’t stop just because the animal lives in the same county as the consumer. My book The Ultimate Betrayal: Is There Happy Meat? further explains this concern. “Shifting to a diet with local animal products has the potential to increase the damage to biodiversity, as more communities’ open spaces would be required for free-ranging animals to meet our society’s demand for local animal-derived foods, destroying wetlands, forests and other wildlife habitat.”
Justice for All
Urban Adamah’s website states that they value “compassion, love and justice.” The fact that they would make this claim and yet host a slaughter of the hens in their care is a reflection of just how speciesist and human-centered our society is. They hold the values of compassion, love and justice, but only for fellow humans. We implore Urban Adamah to widen their circle of compassion to include nonhuman animals. Those fifteen hens deserved not only the caring hand of compassion and the kindness of love, but also the right to live free of human-imposed commodification and killing.
Just as in the recent past, if someone was not the same color, religion, gender or sexual orientation than the dominant faction, humans committed — and in many places continue to commit — terrible acts of discrimination, repression and violence against these “others”. Our perception of who deserves justice must widen again, as it has throughout modern history. We call for justice for all. Not just for some groups, classifications, genders or species, but for all sentient beings. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”