UPC Condemns 8th Grade Chicken Slaughter at Idaho School
Letter to The Community School Urges Compassionate Teaching
On November 2, thirty-one eighth-grade students at The Community School, a private school in Sun Valley, Idaho, slaughtered sixteen seven-week old chickens they had raised and cared for from September 17. They then served the chickens at a “good foods” banquet. According to the Idaho Mountain Express (Nov. 11), “After raising the chickens, many students had qualms about actually killing the birds, but they carried out the deed anyway. . . . The chickens were placed in student-built, cone-shaped metal devices that allowed a chicken’s head to protrude from the bottom. Then their throats were cut with a knife.”
UPC President Karen Davis wrote the following letter to Community School Head, Andrew Jones-Wilkins, on December 4, 2009:
Mr. Andrew Jones-Wilkins, Head of School
Via Email: Awilkins@communityschool.org
The Community School
PO Box 2118
Sun Valley, Idaho 83353
Dear Mr. Jones-Wilkins:
I am writing to you about the chicken slaughter project that was conducted by eighth-grade students and their teachers at The Community School in November. I understand this was the first time that your school conducted this project. I hope it will be the last.
To begin with, chickens have complex nervous systems and cognition. Avian specialist Dr. Lesley Rogers summarizes in The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken (1995), “With increased knowledge of the behaviour and cognitive abilities of the chicken has come the realization that the chicken is not an inferior species to be treated merely as a food source.”
The neurophysiology of chickens is the same, in all relevant respects, as that of mammals, including humans, and neck-cutting is an excruciatingly painful experience, even when performed by so-called experts. Dr. Mohan Raj of the University of Bristol, a well-known scientist in the field, states that neck cutting for birds is “painful and distressing.” He observes in his writings such things as that, for example, “a ventral cut, which severs both carotid arteries, is more effective at inducing a rapid death than a neck cut that severs only one carotid artery.”
Throat cutting is a precision, trained skill (which I do not recommend). Poor neck cutting extends the time that it takes a bird to die. Worst is the severance of only one jugular vein, which can result in a bird’s retaining consciousness, in severe pain, for as long as eight minutes. If both jugular veins are cut, brain failure occurs in approximately six minutes, and the bird is in danger of regaining consciousness, especially if breathing resumes. If both carotid arteries are severed, the blood supply to the brain is disrupted, resulting in brain failure in approximately four minutes. The carotid arteries - which carry oxygenated blood to the brain, maintaining consciousness - are deeply embedded in a chicken’s neck muscles. The carotid arteries are very hard to reach even by those who know what they’re doing, unlike your eighth-grade butchers.
Being restrained in a killing cone added greatly to the suffering the chickens endured at the hands of your students and teachers. Being physically restrained in the cones, the chickens could not thrash as they otherwise would have done in their agony and pain. The killing cones (handmade by the students) may have given the students and their teachers the impression that the chickens were not suffering very much, since their bodies were deliberately hidden from view. In fact, the birds suffered more, rather than less, trapped in the brutal devices.
Since the term “comfort zone” was employed by your school personnel in the newspaper, I ask you and Ms. Goldberg to step outside of your own comfort zones and try to imagine being sealed in a container while your throat is being cut and you’re choking and dying, fully conscious, in your blood. And if you are unable to have compassion for a chicken or any birds, then maybe you have a dog or a cat you care for, to give you an idea of the suffering.
In an email to me, Ms. Goldberg wrote, “Your organization and our classroom are not so different in terms of what we are trying to do.” In this respect, Ms. Goldberg and I are completely different. No one representing United Poultry Concerns would hurt and kill an animal in order to teach what hurting and killing an animal and eating a dead animal entails. No one I know and respect would do such a thing or seek to justify it.
Students do not need to kill animals in order to learn where meat comes from. The Internet has many videos of the slaughter and death of animals and their suffering. My own awakening came in reading Leo Tolstoy’s description, in his essay “The First Step,” of his visit to a Moscow slaughterhouse. Most classroom teaching is based on the use of imaginative forms and teaching materials. Geography, history and anthropology could not be part of a curriculum if literalism were required to impart knowledge of these subjects.
As for lessons in death and destruction: teachers do not stage student mini-wars in their classrooms to teach students about war. They do not literally despoil the environment, stage rapes and induce drug addiction to teach by example. They do not stage drunk-driving accidents so students can really learn what drunk driving can do. What the chicken killing project represents is “we can get away with this” because the victims are defenseless and conventionally disregarded, because “meat” mattered more to those involved than the birds and their feelings, and because society is a Comfort Zone where this kind of social conditioning can be done with impunity and euphemized as a “positive” learning experience in a privileged environment.
What the students and their teachers did to the chickens they betrayed and killed was not an alternative to industrial farming. It was an expression and extension of the behavior and attitudes on which factory farming is based and from which it derives. The very birds the students raised and slaughtered - Cornish Crosses, i.e., broiler chickens - came straight out of the “heinous conditions” Ms. Goldberg professes to oppose. If the newspaper photo was indicative, the students didn’t even know how to hold a chicken supportively or kindly. Ms. Goldberg’s letter to me illustrates the dogma that was drummed into students: “No amount of proselytizing is going to change the minds of staunch meat-eaters who are operating from thousands of years of human history.” This isn’t teaching. It is dead-end theorizing.
The same type of argument was used in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. Everyone from my parents to the chaplain at Westminster College said, in effect: “No amount of proselytizing is going to change the minds of staunch racists who are operating from thousands of years of human history.” If such attitudes had prevailed, we’d still have Jim Crow. Not even Jim Crow. We’d still be a slave-owning nation.
The focus of this letter is on the eighth-grade chicken killing project. It was wrong, it was brutal, it was totally unnecessary, and it should not be repeated. The project should also be viewed in the larger context of what is happening in the world. The scale of animal production is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a major contributor to global warming. See for example, “Livestock and Climate Change,” World Watch November-December, 2009.
Michael Pollan and his followers can say what they will, but the fact is that billions of people on the planet - with a projected three billion more by 2050 - cannot consume tons of animal products without industrialized animal production. Suburbanites slaughtering chickens on their patios will not resolve the problem.
As individuals, we can choose to be vegan. We can choose to be vegan in the same way that individuals decided in this former slaveholding, slave-trading society that they would no longer own slaves and would even go so far as to liberate slaves, purchase their freedom, and fight for a just society. Society now agrees with the radicals who were considered crackpots and na´ve idealists in their time. While a vegan diet is still a novel and even scary idea to many people, in this respect it is no different from any other new and scary advance that people ultimately come to embrace, usually with little or no idea of how what they now take for granted and enjoy came about.
A wholesome vegan diet is regarded by the American Dietetic Association and other reputable sources as a healthy diet for human beings - every bit as healthful and nutritious as, even more so than, an animal-based diet. Vegan foods can no longer be knowledgeably dismissed as mere “tofu and sprouts,” although sprouts are nutritious and tofu is a high protein, versatile food that can be deliciously and easily prepared to taste and chew like meat.
The Community School’s Food Unit should include delicious vegan meal preparation, drawing upon the many amazing vegan recipes, cookbooks, chefs and instructors now available. The Internet has thousands of vegan recipes online. The Community School should also purchase a subscription to VegNews magazine - a gorgeous, glossy, glamorous publication with wonderful recipes (www.vegnews.com). If vegan cuisine is presented negatively by teachers who have not made a sincere effort to get to know vegan food, this attitude will be communicated to the students, and it is this attitude more than anything else that will influence students’ food choices and attitudes. This will be a disservice to the students and a lost opportunity for everyone.
Instead of this negativity, why not invite a vibrant vegan chef to visit your students as part of your Food Unit? They include such people as celebrity chef Tal Ronnen (The Conscious Cook, 2009), Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (The Joy of Vegan Baking; The Vegan Table), Isa Chandra Moskowitz (Vegan Vengeance: Over 150 Delicious, Cheap, Animal-Free Recipes That Rock), Robin Robertson (366 Healthful Ways to Cook Tofu and Other Meat Alternatives; 1,000 Vegan Recipes), Bryant Terry (Vegan Soul Food), and Matthew Kenny (Entertaining in the Raw).
At the very least you can buy the cookbooks (as well as my own Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless “Poultry” Potpourri), add them to your library, incorporate them into your Food Unit, and maybe have students in your Food Unit investigate why successful sports figures like Prince Fielder and Mac Danzig and many other people have switched from eating animals and animal products to a vegetarian or vegan diet. I hope you will do this. I urge you to choose, and to teach, compassion over killing. There is no nutritional or culinary reason to stage slaughter projects and arm your students with knives against birds sealed helplessly in killing devices. There is every reason to teach, and exemplify, kindness and compassion.
I’ll be happy to talk with you or Ms. Goldberg at any time and provide more information including making a presentation about chickens and vegetarianism to your students. In addition to having maintained a sanctuary for chickens since 1987, I am the author of numerous books and articles about chickens, the poultry industry and related issues (www.upc-online.org/karenbio.htm). The 2009 updated edition of my 1996 book, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, was recommended for academic librarians, faculty, and key decision makers by the American Library Association’s Choice Magazine as “riveting, the writing is brilliant, and the research for the book is noteworthy for its breadth and depth.”
Thank you for your attention to this matter. I look forward to your response.
Karen Davis, PhD, President
United Poultry Concerns
Phone: 757-678-7875. Fax: 757-678-5070
Chicken Care: www.upc-online.org/chickens/
Life Can Be Beautiful - Go Vegan: www.upc-online.org/whatsnew/upcgoveg.pdf
Hard to Swallow (from The Atlantic): www.upc-online.org/diet/
Viva, The Chicken Hen: www.upc-online.org/viva.html
Thinking Like a Chicken & The Social Life of Chickens: www.upc-online.org/thinking/
Copy to: Naomi Goldberg, The Community School. Naomi_goldberg@hotmail.com
Posted to Andrew Jones-Wilkins, Head of The Community School, December 4, 2009
United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. www.upc-online.org