The Ottawa Citizen
November 13, 2000 Monday

The defenders and the terminators of chickens

Tony Atherton
The Ottawa Citizen

ARTS, Pg. D11 Television

'I feel guilty, ashamed -- and hungry."

This admission by filmmaker John Kastner about halfway through his hour-long documentary, Chickens are People, Too (tomorrow on CBC's Witness at 9 p.m.), sums up the ambivalence and gently mocking tone of this self-styled black comedy about the chicken industry.

By the end of the program, viewers will be left with two firm impressions: That chickens are brutally, even sickeningly, mistreated in modern-day poultry factories, to a degree that no right-thinking person would tolerate; and that animal rights activists are wacko for thinking we should put an end to it.

There is no middle ground in the film, unless you count a message appended to the end of the film. It states that the fast-food chain, McDonald's has, after much lobbying from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, agreed to buy its chickens only from farmers using oversized cages. However, you get a sense that this is not so much an armistice in the war between the vegans and the carnivores, as a brief diversionary tactic.

That is because there is so vast a gulf between the goals of the two sides. The carnivores (that is, most of us) are mostly concerned with consuming as much chicken and as many eggs as we can before being killed by deep fat and cholesterol, while the vegans, who harbour the strange notion that humans can use their brains to control their stomachs, want us to switch entirely to tofu and birdseed.

Kastner's way of illustrating this great divide is to switch back and forth between two protagonists: Karen Davis, a respected animal rights activist who loves chickens to distraction; and "Bruce," a mass-production chicken farmer who refuses to reveal his last name for fear of retaliation from animal rights groups.

Davis is a bona fide flake who has more in common with chickens than people, and Bruce is a solid, four-square Mennonite trying to do the best by his family. But Davis undoubtedly holds the higher ground here.

Chicken farms generally won't let film crews near their operations, and some employ heavy security to keep activists at bay, the film notes. But the footage Kastner does obtain, of a chicken roundup in Nova Scotia and of Bruce's farm in Ontario, makes it clear that chickens are treated with about as much care as the inanimate raw material in any processing operation. The handling and sorting of baby chicks, in which the males are separated and put on conveyor belts bound for slaughter, is particularly disturbing. They are cute and fluffy, after all.

Davis's legitimate concerns about chicken processing might be better appreciated, however, if they weren't so dramatically inflated.

"I think chicken catchers are like the Gestapo," she says in the film, "in the sense that they are coming into a place of tranquility, often during the night when the creatures are sleeping, and they are rounding them up and terrorizing them and subjecting their bodies to extreme violence and pain."

Despite such theatrical flourishes, Davis's arguments and Kastner's own investigations do affect the filmmaker. As an avowed chicken lover (and here we mean the kind of love that dare not speak its name among vegans), Kastner plays out his own crisis of conscience on screen. We see him consuming chicken with relish, even as he interviews his subjects about the ill-treatment of the birds.

While Davis does make some headway with Kastner, the logic of her arguments begins to fray as she explains how she, as a vegan, deals with the steady supply of eggs produced by her bird "companions." She won't eat them, and can't raise them, so she cracks them open and lets the chickens have their fill.. At this point in the film, the background music makes one think of the climactic scene from Suddenly Last Summer.

"I consider it a kind of Marxist-style opportunity to allow them to benefit from the product of their own labour," explains Davis.

Given comments like this, Kastner could have made Chickens are People, Too into a straightforward wry commentary on the misplaced priorities of animal lovers. Instead, by documenting the validity of some of the activists' concerns, he forces inveterate chicken eaters, like himself, to at least consider the sad life history of Sunday dinner before tucking in.

GRAPHIC: Black & White Photo: Animal rights activist Karen Davis, lives with chickens as companions. They run freely through her, house.