The following is an interview with Lori Barrett about her harrowing experience witnessing and documenting chickens used as kaporos in her New York City neighborhood. In the process, she managed to rescue and rehome one lucky baby chicken named Isa. This is her true story. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Lori Barrett and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributed to her employer.
What is kaporos?
According to the book Zeh Kaporosi, by Rabbi Avrohom Reit, kaporos is a Jewish custom in which a practitioner waves a chicken in circles around his or her head nine times while reciting verses from a prayer book and removing his or her sins to the chicken. After the waving, the practitioner slaughters or causes someone else to slaughter the chicken, while thinking, “This is what should have happened to me,” and realizing the extent of the practitioner’s sins. Then the chickens are supposed to be fed to the poor. Zeh Kaporosi says that in addition to chickens, historically calves, sheep, and plants were used, and now money may be used. Thus one has the choice to practice the custom of kaporos without the use of animals. Many people who engage in this custom have made that compassionate choice.
How did you first learn about the use of chickens as kaporos?
I learned about the use of chickens as kaporos in fall 2012, a few months after moving to the Crown Heights North Historic District in Brooklyn, NYC. My apartment is about three blocks away from one of the two major sites where chickens used as kaporos are slaughtered on Eastern Parkway and five blocks from the second major slaughter site on President Street at Kingston Avenue. There are many posters on lampposts in my neighborhood advertising the sale of chickens, and one of the sites is near a subway station, so it is hard to miss. In September 2012, I went to a protest organized by the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos. When I arrived at the protest, I was completely astounded by the scale of the operation. I had expected to see a few chickens, but there were thousands of chickens being killed. The odor of feces from so many birds was overwhelming and sickening — it’s such a memorable smell that I can imagine it as I type this.
What did you see?
The scene was unforgettable. There were thousands of chickens stacked in bright plastic crates, 10 to 12 chickens per crate, on the Eastern Parkway Pedestrian Mall sidewalk, about 150 feet from the entrance to the Kingston Avenue subway station. The chickens had almost no space to move in the crates, and there is good cause to believe they were not given food or water for at least 24 hours before their deaths. In newspaper reports, the chicken sellers claim that chickens are provided food and water. But these claims are dubious. Zeh Kaporosi explains that feeding the chickens before their throats are slit raises concerns of “mess, stench, and sanitation” and that food in the esophagus of a chicken can dull the blade of the slaughterer’s knife and even render the ritual invalid if the knife strikes stiff or hard food. And although the slaughter sites reek of feces, the quantity of feces is only a small fraction of what chickens would excrete if they were properly fed.
How are individual chickens treated?
In my neighborhood, practitioners hold the chickens by their wings while they are purchasing them, while they are waving them over their heads, and while they are waiting in line to have them slaughtered. Many of the chickens cry out from being held in this painful position for several minutes to an hour. Some struggle, but others are too weak to move. Makeshift slaughterhouses are set up on the public sidewalk, in the street, and in the front yard of a private building that houses the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education on Eastern Parkway. In the makeshift slaughterhouses, butchers quickly slit the throats of the chickens and then hang them upside down in traffic cones aligned on top of metal barricades bearing the NYPD logo. After the chickens are bled, they are tossed into black garbage bags. Thousands of chickens are executed this way for hours or days, depending on the site in Crown Heights.
Did you see anything particularly shocking?
Around 6:30 a.m. on Yom Kippur, when there were no protesters around, I went out for a jog to see if there were any discarded chickens I could save. What I stumbled upon was so brutal that it made me shake: a butcher was standing about a foot away from the narrow end of a large dumpster on President Street—a residential street—in Crown Heights. Men were handing him chickens and he was slitting their throats and throwing them into the dumpster while they were still alive. I ran home and returned with a camera. I took a few photographs, but stopped because I felt threatened by those men.
Tell me about your experience in 2013 trying to witness and document the use of chickens as kaporos.
In 2013, I was better prepared because I had researched what laws were being broken, and I knew what was essential to record. I photographed and video-taped at the Eastern Parkway location for about an hour, and then a youngster who was employed by the chicken sellers asked the police to stop me from filming. A police officer told me that he would arrest me if I continued to film near the activity. I stopped, even though I knew that it was within my First Amendment right to film on public property, because I would have been useless if I were in jail. A day or two later, I went to the site on President Street in a conservative dress and was granted permission to film from someone who claimed to be in charge. I filmed chickens being killed and tossed into plastic bags piled up on the sidewalk. The bags sat there for a long time. I do not think that all those chickens on the sidewalk were being used to feed the poor, as the practitioners are led to believe.
In 2012, you said that you were shocked most by what you saw on the morning of Yom Kippur. What did you see in 2013?
On the morning of Yom Kippur, I saw chickens thrown onto the street after their necks had been slit. They were still alive and writhing in their own blood. I captured someone’s voice taunting the dying chickens, saying, “Run away! Run away!”
On Eastern Parkway, I filmed a dumpster parked on the street without a cover, with hundreds of dead chickens inside. I posted videos of this on YouTube.
I understand you went back to slaughter sites again this year. How did your experience compare with last year’s?
I think that people have seen the video that I posted on YouTube, and there were some changes as a result, some good and some bad. In 2014, I did not see a makeshift slaughterhouse on the Eastern Parkway Pedestrian Mall, but pedestrians still had to pass within inches of thousands of chickens and walk through their waste on the way to the subway. There was a dumpster on Eastern Parkway, and I could see some dead chickens inside, but most of the contents were in garbage bags. One of the workers dropped one such bag while I was watching, and the innards of chickens spilled onto the sidewalk. The worker told me that the innards are discarded and the chickens are eaten. This is significant because state law prescribes certain sanitary standards for slaughter of animals for food that are not being met here.
On President Street, there was more care taken to conceal the cruelty this year. I saw men handing chickens to a butcher who was standing beside a garbage can with his back to me so that I could not film what was happening. I believe the butcher was slitting the throats of the chickens and putting them directly into the garbage can because when he turned around, there was nothing in his hands. This year, I was able to film pedestrians walking through the activity to better document the public health threat.
Tell us about the bird you rescued named Isa?
The day after Yom Kippur, I rescued a chicken who was in the fenced-in front yard of a residence just a few buildings down from where the slaughter took place. It was pouring rain, and I persuaded the police to help me. At first, we were unsuccessful because the fence was locked, but I returned later and someone from the house scaled the fence and lifted the chicken to me. I named the chicken Isa, after Isaac Bashevis Singer, a fellow bird lover and the author of one of my favorite short stories, “Pigeons.” Singer once said, “I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens.” I thought Isa was a girl (hence his feminine name), but the experts say he is a baby rooster. Through the whole experience of documenting the horror of baby birds being yanked and waved and violently killed, I did not cry. After I dried Isa off, he fell asleep in my lap. Then I cried. Isa was so affectionate and trusting, despite watching his brothers and sisters get killed; despite being manhandled by his delicate baby wings; despite being left out in the cold rain like an unwanted toy. Knowing that this was the first time he experienced love from a human being broke my heart. So for the week he stayed with me, I spoiled him with cut grapes, squash, and sweet potato and let him sit on my lap as much as he wanted to. I know this does not erase the violence he experienced, but it’s all I had the power to do. He loved being held and talked to, and he followed me everywhere. He even sat outside of the bathtub when I took my shower every morning.
Where did Isa go?
After a week in my apartment, two animal rights activists took Isa to And-Hof Animals – Sanctuary for Farm Animals in the Catskills. He lives with about two dozen chickens rescued from Brooklyn who are about his age. At And-Hof, he enjoys foraging outside and socializing with other chickens –the joyful life that all chickens deserve.
After this traumatizing experience, did you seek to expose what you were able to document on camera? If so, how?
In New York City, I speak about birds and the law regularly as part of my volunteer work for the New York City Bar’s Animal Law Committee. So with attorneys Elizabeth Stein (from the Non-Human Rights Project) and Naomi Werne, I co-organized a panel at the New York City Bar Association that explored the custom of using chickens as kaporos from legal, religious, and ethical perspectives. I showed my pictures and video and spoke about local and state law that prohibits this activity. Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns; Richard Schwartz, President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America; and Professor Gary Francione also spoke. In addition, Rabbi Eliyahu Soifer described his decision to stop using chickens as kaporos and how it ultimately led him to veganism. The audio of this program is available here.
What laws are being broken?
The chickens are not fed or watered for days, and that, even aside from the painful way of holding them by their wings, is a violation of NY Agriculture & Markets Law section 353 (New York’s animal cruelty law, which is a criminal statute). But it’s a mistake to focus on section 353 because the public has no private right to enforce it. As a practical matter, the police must make arrests to enforce section 353. A more simple way to attack the practice legally is to approach it from a public health angle. State law prohibits new slaughterhouses from being erected within 1,500 feet of a residence. N.Y.C. Health Code section 153.09 prohibits people from putting animal blood and feces on public streets. There are laws requiring event permits and street closing permits for public safety reasons. It’s easy to prove with photographs, videos, and testimony, that these laws have been violated by the kaporos slaughter activity.
Isn’t religious activity protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution?
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” The Supreme Court has held that laws of general applicability are not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and are applicable to religious activity. See, e.g., Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 531 (1993); Cent. Rabbinical Cong. v. New York City Dep’t of Health, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4293 (S.D.N.Y Jan. 10, 2013); People v. Pierson, 176 N.Y. 201, 210-12 (1903). The health laws that I mentioned above are laws of general applicability because they apply to everyone equally, not merely religions. Just as Tyson and Perdue are not allowed to set up a chicken slaughter plant across from an entrance from a subway station in Crown Heights, exposing the public to a health risk, a religious group is not allowed to either.
How does the use of chickens as kaporos connect to the bigger picture of animal suffering for you?
I think the suffering of animals is the same whether an animal is killed by Perdue or meets her death in a makeshift slaughterhouse in my neighborhood. The context makes little or no difference to the horror and injustice the animal experiences. Karen Davis frequently connects her message about using chickens as kaporos to veganism. Just as religious practitioners have the choice to use money or a chicken as kaporos, people have the choice to eat animal products or spare them from slaughter and other violence by being vegan. Although the suffering of animals is the same, the legal and social differences are very significant. What Perdue does in its ordinary operations may not be illegal per se. So activists use social tactics to change public behavior and legal tactics to change the law. Changing the law is a tremendously slow and difficult process.
But the activity in Crown Heights is illegal, so activists have an advantage in this case. There are no laws that need to be changed. Sometimes activists are criticized for focusing on this activity, which involves the death of only a few thousand chickens. But that criticism is misplaced because this is something that is within our power to stop in the near future—and that means thousands fewer chickens bred into lives of misery to meet human demand. Although activists have a leg up legally, social tactics to change public opinion about the use of kaporos are more difficult to employ here than in other campaigns because the use of chickens is promoted by highly respected religious leaders in this community as a way to be closer to God.
The activists who come to this community to encourage compassion toward animals are for the most part strangers to the practitioners, so they are at a huge disadvantage. And many who are opposed to using chickens as kaporos are unfairly accused of being anti-Semitic, even though many of the activists care as much about issues of discrimination and social justice as they do about animal rights. Fortunately, rabbis from around the world are speaking out against using chickens as kaporos and perhaps their compassion will affect the religious community in my neighborhood soon. The religious community in my neighborhood is known for its charity, so I have hope that they will extend their compassion to animals.