When I see the graffiti-covered transit cars on the freight trains that haul live chickens packed in hundreds of small crates, stacked several high and side by side, I think of my beautiful hens napping peacefully in the shade under the trunk of the big ash tree in the backyard on a warm summer afternoon or napping in my lap as peaceful as angels. And my heart sinks to the lowest depths of despair. Because I know what rich and complex emotional lives they live, I know how fearful, hopeless and resigned those transported birds feel. I know that look of sheer desperation in their eyes speaks volumes about a life that has known nothing but emotional and physical suffering. And perhaps worst of all, I know how completely senseless and preventable this suffering is. My sadness is so acute, it feels like I am experiencing this myself, hauled off to a concentration camp where unspeakable terrors and a brutal and undignified slaughterhouse end await me.
Holocaust survivor Isaac Bashevis Singer, a prominent Jewish-American literary figure in the 80s wrote “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” And in a preface to “Food for Spirit: Vegetarianism and the World Religions,” Singer wrote: “Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God?”
Fast forward 25 years to the present. Of all the genocides against humans and non-human animals, in terms of numbers and severity, the fate of the modern chicken dwarfs all others. Consider these facts:
- In the US alone, close to nine billion chickens are bred and killed for food—every year
- Chickens represent about 90% of all animals killed for food, yet are exempt from all anti-cruelty laws.
- Chickens are the most exploited and abused species on the planet, nine times more than any other animal.
And yet in the midst of all this institutionalized suffering, chicken meat and eggs are blissfully promoted by the industry, celebrity chefs, cooking shows, food advertisers and media sources at large. The fact that chicken is promoted as a healthier, greener and even more humane meat is one of the great tragic ironies of our times. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yet the key to understanding this paradox so pervasive in our society is the willingness to challenge certain assumptions and beliefs that perpetuate the systems exploiting not only chickens but all animals, many human populations and our environment. It is important to realize that all three concerns are inextricably connected, so that one cannot be helped while the others ignored.
In the case of chickens, developing a greater concern and value for this species may very well begin by understanding what an incredible evolution the chicken has undergone—from wild jungle birds of the Asian continent to the battery cage existence of the modern factory farm. To get a real sense of what their life in this world was like, I found much to ponder from the writings and videos of Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns. In her recently recorded video, she explains how their natural world, once full of rich colors and sounds and social interaction has been replaced with no sound, no color and physical paralysis in a cage not much larger than their bodies. Housed en masse in dimly lit warehouses, this is all that these highly-sentient, intelligent birds will ever know in their lifetime. In short, we have completely robbed them of any joy and any ability to express their natural behavior.
I’m often haunted by the question of how we have allowed things to get so bad for chickens. The reasons are complex and varied. I think it has much to do with an industry that, beginning in the 1950s, saw an opportunity and skillfully marketed a “healthy” meat alternative to a consumer that was ripe for this offering. But now that we are learning so much about the true costs of eating chicken and eggs—the negative health impacts, the negative environmental impacts and the horrific animal suffering required to bring these products to market— will this finally bring us face to face with this stark reality and thereby compel us to make other choices? That is my sincere hope. In the meantime, working to make their lives less miserable through education and legislative advocacy is my way of honoring this truly magnificent bird.