It seems more people than ever are talking about chickens, and I love it. From California's Proposition 2 -- which will, among other things, ban the use of battery cages for egg production in the state -- to undercover investigations inside factory farms, there's never been a larger spotlight focused on the US poultry industry. And trust me, they hate it.
Much of the credit for this, I think, goes to Karen Davis, who founded an advocacy group for chickens and turkeys, United Poultry Concerns (UPC), in 1990. Few people have done as much as Karen to raise awareness about the plight of birds people want to eat. She is one of those tireless activists many of us wish we could be like: a consistent, well-informed, dedicated voice who never seems to miss an opportunity to speak up for animals. Take International Respect for Chickens Day, for example. Karen launched this annual event four years ago to celebrate chickens throughout the world and protest the bleakness of their lives in farming operations. (Click here for details about the next International Respect for Chickens Day, coming up on May 4.)
A considerable amount of her activist time is engaged in writing, and Karen's latest effort is a complete revision of her book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs (Book Publishing Co.), first published 13 years ago. This is without a doubt one of the most important books an animal advocate can read. Not only is it critical for activists to be up to date on issues involving animal cruelty, but chickens are by far the most abused beings in animal agribusiness -- indeed, Karen describes them as "creatures of the earth who no longer live on the land" -- making it even more essential that we're able to speak from a place of knowledge in order to defend them.
The statistics regarding humanity's abuse of chickens are staggering, as Karen observes in the book's preface:
"While much has happened since Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs first appeared in 1996, little has changed for the chickens themselves, except that their lives have become, as a global phenomenon, even more miserable. Instead of 7.5 billion chickens being slaughtered in the mid-1990s in the United States, nearly 10 billion chickens are now being slaughtered, with parallel rises in other countries reflecting the expansion of chicken consumption and industrialized production into Latin America, China, India, Africa, Russia, Mexico, and elsewhere. Throughout the world, over 40 billion chickens are now being slaughtered for meat each year, and over 5 billion hens are in battery cages, many of them in egg-production complexes holding up to a million or more birds."
Covering the history, lives, and deaths of chickens, Karen explains how poultry farming grew from a relatively small endeavor (in 1830, the average US farm had only 23 chickens) into a global, mass-production enterprise that has invented such miseries as "debeaking" (cutting two-thirds of the beak from an egg-laying hen's face without pain relief); cramming hens into battery cages so they can barely move; bleeding out birds who are still conscious; forced molting, during which a hen is starved for up to two weeks; a host of infectious diseases, routinely combated with heavy doses of antibiotics; transporting birds, many of them now missing wings or legs, long distances without food or water; and the callous extermination of hundreds of millions of male chicks in the egg industry each year, to name but a few.
This is a well-documented indictment of the poultry industry and what can only be called its contempt for the very birds it relies on to make a profit. I don't know what other word to use to describe a business that would let a laying hen whose egg production has declined starve in the last days of her life just to save the farmer a few pennies in feed. That's some thanks to a sentient animal who has endured 17 to 24 months crammed into a battery cage and denied nearly every natural instinct. As Karen notes, factory farmers have become adept at defending themselves, even to the point of being ridiculous. "The egg industry thinks nothing of claiming that a mutilated hen in a cage is 'happy,' 'content,' and 'singing,'" she writes, "yet will turn around and try to intimidate you with accusations of 'anthropomorphism' if you logically insist that the hen is miserable."
One of the characteristics of Karen's books I've always appreciated is her considerable talent as a writer. It can be challenging to transform a vast amount of research and information into a readable narrative, and Karen does it with such style that her books never read like dull, academic texts. Moreover, it is clear that she regards fowl as very special creatures. Karen has devoted her life to them, and, in addition to her outreach efforts, she provides a home to many chickens, turkeys, and other birds rescued from avian concentration camps. This book is obviously a labor of love.
Chickens have been labeled cowardly and "bird-brained," but Karen debunks these myths with examples demonstrating their courage and intelligence. For instance, she writes that "Far from being 'chicken,' roosters and hens are legendary for bravery.... Our tiny Bantam rooster, Bantu, would flash out of the bushes and repeatedly attack our legs, his body tense, his eyes riveted on our shins, lest we should threaten his beloved hens."
Though Karen encourages readers to visit factory farms and see what goes on behind closed doors, the reality is few of us will ever have the opportunity to venture inside the houses of horror in which "broiler" chickens are raised for meat or hens are confined to produce eggs. Fortunately, she is able to guide us through these animal factories, explaining in great detail precisely what goes on inside, and that knowledge not only solidifies our commitment to protecting animals, but it aids our ability to effectively communicate, making our activism much more powerful.
With the world alert to the threat of a pandemic flu virus, as well as concerns about food safety, global warming, genetic engineering, and the growing taste for "healthier" animal flesh, there's never been a better time to pick up a copy of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs.
06/19/09: More 5-Star Amazon Reviews of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs, 2009 Edition