Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, Revised Edition.
By Karen Davis. (Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company, 2009. 209+xiv pp. Paperback. $14.95. ISBN: 978-1-57067-229-3.)
Reviewed by Les Mitchell
Hunterstoun Centre, University of Fort Hare, South Africa
This is a book for anyone who needs a detailed overview of the farmed chicken industry and who seeks to understand the philosophy that guides its
practices. Karen Davis writes as an activist for chickens and other birds used in farming and is the director and founder of United Poultry
Concerns. She dedicates her writing to “the chicken” but especially to Viva, a “crippled and abandoned ‘broiler’
hen” who, she tells us, deflected her from making a lifelong career as an English teacher to becoming an activist and writer (p. xiii). The
first edition, she explains, was written to bring to light a story that has been told largely through the channels of the poultry industry, and this is
the story of the transformation of the chicken from an active outdoor bird, “scouring the woods and fields to a sedentary indoor
meat-and-egg ‘machine,’ filled with suffering, diseases and antibiotics” (p. v).
For the most part she tells the story of the life and death of chickens used in farming by using industry references and direct quotes from
industry publications, which she contrasts with the words of activists. The author’s own voice seldom intrudes, but when it does, it is to make a
reasoned comment or pose a pertinent question.
The early part of the book sets out to tell us about who chickens are. Not surprisingly, I found there was a lot I did not know, and I learned much
about their natural history, personalities, behavior in their natural state, reproduction, family life, and special abilities. This was an
enjoyable section to read, although it was also sobering and rather depressing to find out that chicken farming is not new and that as long as
4,000 years ago, Egyptians were using chickens in farming on a large scale and even building fire-heated incubators that could hatch 10,000 birds
at a time.
But the section on who chickens are is not just a pleasant segment in a dark book; it is critically important to everything that follows. Here we
fleetingly rediscover the free bird of the ancient forests, a sentient, complex, social being rather than the object of cartoon fun, a fast-food item,
or a living commodity. It is with this conception of chickens as sentient beings who have “interests in life” (Regan, 1988) in mind
that we are invited to evaluate what follows. The remainder of the book deals with chickens through the eyes of an industry where the chicken is
socially constructed as machine and commodity, where chickens are crammed together, starved, gathered up, minced, gassed, debeaked, clipped, and
whatever else might lead to the maximum profit in the minimum time.
Davis documents industry practices with clear, concise, scientific language, well supported by references, and provides the economic
justifications and descriptions used by the industry. We learn about such things as transportation; housing; trade-offs between
death rates, disease, and profit; calculations of pounds of flesh per square foot; ammonia concentrations; a whole range of farmed chicken
disorders; stunning; slaughter; and the disposal of corpses. Descriptions are meticulous; for example, the section on killing explores the advantages
and disadvantages of neck cutting (various types), the vacuum chamber, and gassing with carbon dioxide or argon or nitrogen; discusses the
problems of using carbon monoxide; and also mentions suffocation and chopping by high-speed blades.
The book is a chilling journey into an often surreal and at times frankly bizarre world. The landscape of Marek’s disease, ammonia blisters,
Gumboro, swollen head syndrome, animals grown too heavy for their skeletons, chicken rage, live hang rooms, the gigantic mechanized bird harvester, the
national Chicken of Tomorrow program, and the Nozbonz1 is brought vividly to life. This world, we are also reminded, is populated not only by
profit-driven multinational agro corporations but also by pharmaceutical companies, government departments, research institutes, and
The text tells us a great deal about the chicken industry, and what we read is deeply disturbing and a moral challenge that is sufficient enough
in itself. However, we may also reflect on what it tells us about our own species and will find here abundant and depressing evidence of our
human ability to objectify living others and of our capacity to be held utterly in the thrall of a particular ideology. It is a frightening
demonstration of complete moral disengagement and objectification (Bandura, 1999).
Toward the end of the book, we look to the future with the hope that apparently more enlightened practices in the industry, such as free-range
farming, might offer some respite. Sadly, these often turn out to be false dawns, and research now is moving toward altering the bird to fit the
industry rather than the other way around. Experiments with red contact lenses, blind chickens, birds without feathers, and chicks with wings clipped
off confirm that it is, for the most part, business as usual.
A question that might be asked is, does the position of the author as an activist make the book any less valid than a so-called academic text on
the subject? My answer to that would be no. The book is well referenced using industry and other journals, and there is never any pretence by
Davis that she is other than an activist. Universities, research institutes, and government departments have their own agendas, as do the
individuals who work for them, and to pretend otherwise would be simplistic. At least in this text the agenda is stated openly.
This is a “one stop” book on the chicken farming industry, detailed enough for most of us and with good leads for those brave individuals
who wish to delve further. A great strength of the book is its accessibility; it is clear, well written, and often broken into relatively
small blocks. It is also a rich source of texts for those interested in analyzing linguistic constructions and discourses related to nonhuman
farming, mass violence, and capitalism.
1. A piece of plastic pushed through the nasal septum of male birds to prevent them from eating the food of female breeding hens.
Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 3(3), 193.
Regan, T. (1988). The case for animal rights (2nd ed.). London, England: Routledge.