United Poultry Concerns Articles of Thought
Thinking Like a Chicken:
Farm Animals And The Feminine Connection
By Karen Davis, Ph.D.
"Thinking Like a Chicken: Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection" by Karen Davis is from ANIMALS AND WOMEN: FEMINIST THEORETICAL EXPLORATIONS, ed. by Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan. Copyright 1995 by Duke University Press. It is reprinted on the website of United Poultry Concerns with the kind permission of Duke University Press. The author wishes to thank Duke University Press for the opportunity to extend our educational outreach on behalf of chickens and the ideas set forth in this essay.

Please visit the website of Duke University Press: www.duke.edu/web/dupress


In the mid 1980s I became interested in how the philosophy of deep ecology harmonized with the philosophy of animal rights. This happened during the time when my interest in animal rights was becoming increasingly centered on the plight of farm animals. Years earlier, an essay by Tolstoy that included an excruciating account of his visit to a slaughterhouse had opened my eyes to what it meant to eat meat.1 After that, except for occasional fish, I stopped eating meat and drifted away from eggs. However, I continued to consume dairy products until a description of the life and mammary diseases of dairy cows ended my consumption of those products.

I was well into my thirties and had been a semi-vegetarian for nearly a decade before I realized that a cow had to be kept pregnant in order to give milk or thought about the strangeness of continuing to nurse after infancy or of sharing a cow's udders with her offspring let alone shoving her offspring out of the way so that I could have all of her milk for myself. My growing preoccupation with the plight of farm animals did not particularly arise from the clear perception I now have of the exploitation of the reproductive system of the female farm animal epitomized by the dairy cow and the laying hen. However, two important things happened, one through reading and the other through personal experience, to clarify my thoughts and, ultimately, my career.

My reading led me to two contemporary essays in which chickens are represented as a type of animal least likely to possess or deserve rights. One was by Carl Sagan. In "The Abstractions of Beasts," Sagan argues against the view that, in the words of John Locke, "Beasts abstract not." He shows that chimpanzees, at least, have demonstrated the ability to think abstractly through a variety of behaviors including maltreating a chicken. A researcher watched two chimpanzees cooperating to lure a chicken with food while hiding a piece of wire. Like Charlie Brown to the football, the chicken reportedly kept returning, revealing that "chickens have a very low capacity for avoidance learning," whereas the chimpanzees showed "a fine combination of behavior sometimes thought to be uniquely human: cooperation, planning a future course of action, deception and cruelty" (Sagan 1977, 108). Sagan poses the question whether nonhuman species of animals with demonstrated consciousness and mental ingenuity should not be recognized as having rights. At the top of the list are chimpanzees. At the bottom somewhere are chickens.

The second essay derived from the field of environmental ethics. In "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," J. Baird Callicott draws upon "The Land Ethic" of A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold to argue that domesticated and wild animals have differing moral statuses and that, similarly, individual animals and species of animals have differing moral statuses.2 Wild animals and species of animals have characteristics entitling them to a moral considerateness that is intrinsically inapplicable to the characteristics of domesticated and individual animals. The smallest unit of ethical considerability is the biotic community of which the individual "nonhuman natural entity" is a component of value only insofar as it contributes, in Leopold's words, to the "integrity, beauty, and stability of the biotic community" (Callicott 1980, 324-325).

Regarding domesticated versus wild animals, the relevant distinctions for Leopold are between things that are "unnatural, tame, and confined" and things that are "natural, wild, and free." Domesticated animals, farm animals in particular, "have been bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency." They are "creations of man," making "the complaint of some animal liberationists that the 'natural behavior' of chickens and bobby calves is cruelly frustrated on factory farms" about as meaningful as "to speak of the natural behavior of tables and chairs. . . . Leopold to all appearances never considered the treatment of brood hens on a factory farm or steers in a feed lot to be a pressing moral issue" (Callicott 1980, 314,330).

In the midst of these reflections I moved to place where for the first two years the owner continued her practice of raising a flock of about a hundred chickens each summer for slaughter. That is how I became acquainted with Viva, the chicken hen, the first chicken I ever really knew. In the essay that I later wrote about her, I have described how one day in August, I was surprised to discover the chicken house, which I had gotten into the habit of visiting, deserted.
Then I saw her. She was stumbling around over by the feed cylinder on the far side where the low shelf piled with junk makes everything dark. A shaft of sunlight had caught her, but by the time I was able to get inside she had scrunched herself deep in the far corner underneath the shelf against the wall. She shrank as I reached in to gather her up and lift her out of there. I held her in my lap stroking her feathers and looked at her. She was small and looked as if she had never been in the sun. Her feathers and legs and beak were brownstained with dirt and feces and dust. Her eyes were as lusterless as the rest of her, and her feet and legs were deformed. I let her go and she hobbled back to the corner where she must have spent the summer, coming out only to eat and drink. She had managed to escape being trampled to death in this overcrowded confinement shed, unlike the chicken I had found some weeks earlier stretched out and pounded into the dirt (Davis 1990, 34).
I took Viva into our house where she lived with my husband and me until she died a few months later in November. She was severely crippled but resourceful, and determined to get around. To steady herself, she would spread her wings out so that the feather ends touched the ground, and standing thus she would totter from side to side in a painstaking adjustment before going ahead, a procedure that had to be repeated every other step or so. Just one unsuccessful foray off the rug onto the hardwood floor caused her to avoid bare floors thereafter. Viva was not only strong willed and alert; she was expressive and responsive. One of the most touching things about her was her voice. She would always talk to me with her frail "peep" which never got any louder and seemed to come from somewhere in the center of her body which pulsed her tail at precisely the same time. Also, rarely, she gave a little trill. Often after one of her ordeals, in which her legs would get caught in her wings causing her terrible confusion and distress, I would sit talking to her, stroking her beautiful back and her feet that were so soft between the toes and on the bottoms, and she would carry on the dialogue with me, her tail feathers twitching in a kind of unison with each of her utterances.

This kind of nature and experience did not seem to have a niche in environmental ethics, including the radical branch of deep ecology, making environmentalism seem in a certain sense to be little more than an offshoot of the prevailing scientific worldview with its hard logical categories and contempt for the weak and vulnerable. Concerning farm animals, even the animal community tended to stand clear and, as ecofeminist animal advocate Harriet Schleifer pointed out, to hedge on the issue of "food" animals and vegetarianism, making the public feel "that the use of animals for food is in some way acceptable, since even the animal welfare people say so" (Schleifer 1985, 70).

During this time a letter appeared in The Animals' Agenda from a woman requesting that more coverage be given to farm animals similar to the coverage accorded to whales. The Editor's Note that followed explained that "the plight of whales remains a high priority with both animal advocates and environmentalists." Whales are "intelligent, amazing, and benevolent creatures" whose increasing fund of world sympathy, built up by the agitation on their behalf, had yet to protect them. "Given that, if we can't protect the whales, what chance do we have of protecting the chickens of the world?" (Dahl 1987, 47). It seemed, however, fair to ask what chance there could ever be of protecting the chickens of the world if their only defenders viewed their plight as less than a "high priority".

This dilemma, crystallized for me by my recent encounters with Sagan, Callicott, and Viva, led me to compose an essay, "Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection," on the triangular affair between feminism, farm animals, and deep ecology. I argue that although nonhuman animals are oppressed by basic strategies and attitudes that are similar to those operating in the oppression of women, it is also true that men have traditionally admired and even sought to emulate certain kinds of animals, even as they set out to subjugate and destroy them, whereas they have not traditionally admired or sought to emulate women. Animals summoning forth images of things that are "natural, wild, and free" accord with the "masculine" spirit of adventure and conquest idolized by our culture. Animals summoning forth images of things that are "unnatural, tame, and confined" represent a way of life that western culture looks down upon. The contrast can be vividly seen in our literature. Whereas in Herman Melville's Moby Dick the hunters of the great white whale conceive of their prey as an awesome godlike being, in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the little boys view the nursing sow, whom they violently rape with a spear, as an object of disgust.3 The analogy between women and nonhuman animals overlooks the perhaps more crucial comparison between women and farm animals.

Not only men but women and animal protectionists exhibit a culturally-conditioned indifference toward, and prejudice against, creatures whose lives appear too slavishly, too boringly, too stupidly female, too "cowlike." Moreover, we regard conscious logical reasoning as the only valid sort of "mind." Evidence that chimpanzees possess such a mind is a primary reason why many are now insisting that they should be granted "human rights." Human rights for chimpanzees? Yes. Human rights for chickens? Meaningless.

This brings in the question of deep ecology. The philosophy of deep ecology, with its emphasis on the ecosphere as a whole, including both sentient and nonsentient beings, presents a salutary challenge to the reductionist logic and homocentric morality of western culture. As the branch of environmentalism that emphasizes the spiritual component of nature and of our relationship to the natural world, deep ecology offers deliverance from the western exfoliative global enterprise based on mechanistic models and unbridled greed of acquisition and inquiry masquerading as progress.

However, like its parent stock of environmentalism, deep ecology is infested by a macho mystique, whereby "things natural, wild, and free" continue to be celebrated and phallocized as corresponding to the "human" order of experience and idealized existence. Activities such as hunting, fishing, and meat-eating are extolled on recreational and spiritual grounds as part of the challenge posed by Leopold to "think like a mountain." Homage is paid to the "hunter-gatherer" lifestyle, with virtually all of the tribute going to the hunter and none to the gatherer. Armed with the new ethic, men essentially give to themselves a new lease to run with the predators, not the prey, and to identify with the "wild" and not the "tame." Western culture's smug identification with the "knower" at the expense of the "known" stays intact, albeit mysticized in a headdress claimed to derive from the Mythic Past.

Thus it is not surprising that many proponents of deep ecology cannot not find an ethical niche for farm animals or for the qualities of mercy and compassion and the desirability of treating others as we wish to be treated. I discussed these issues in a further essay, "Mixing Without Pain," and there things stood until my participation in the 1992 Summit for the Animals Meeting recalled them to my attention so vividly that I wrote a reply, this time from the viewpoint of a battery caged "laying" hen.

In the meantime, a year and a half before the Summit Meeting, in October 1990, I had founded United Poultry Concerns, a non-profit organization that addresses the treatment of domestic fowl in food production, science, education, entertainment, and human companionship situations and promotes the respectful and compassionate treatment of domestic fowl as fellow creatures rather than a food source or other commodity. United Poultry Concerns grew out of the above experiences, and from my volunteer internship at Farm Sanctuary (an enterprise based on the rescue of factory farm animals) where I extended my acquaintance with chickens and got to know turkeys, ducks and geese.

Back home I discovered that another lame hen had been left behind following the owner's removal of the flock to the slaughterhouse. Tulip was my beloved friend for a year until she died of the heart attack that chickens bred for rapid growth and excessive muscle tissue ("meat") are susceptible to. Since then, chickens have become the center of my personal and professional life. I had an enclosure built onto our kitchen for rescued chickens who have the run of our three-acre yard. Amid the darkness of my knowledge of the horrible experiences inscribed within billions of chickens by our species, they are the peace and the light.

The Summit Meeting had as its featured speaker environmentalist-historian Roderick Frazier Nash, who presented the attractive holistic concept of environmentalism, along with the, to me, unattractive outlook in which species and biosystems prevail over the individuals composing them--except in the case of the human species for which environmentalism in general seems to provide an exemption. Concerning hunting, the familiar justifications were given including the inquiry how and why the sacrifice of one or two deer should matter as long as the herd or species is preserved from decimation or extinction. Humans are predators by nature. In Nash's "dream of Island Civilization" essay, the ecotopian future is one in which "Humans could take their place along with the other predators . . . in an expanded ecological brotherhood" of all beings (Nash 1991/92, 2). Ideally, an intensely urban culture would flourish on the basis of a hunter-gatherer society complete with predator initiation rites. The exciting hunter part is vividly evoked; the boring gatherer part is left for the reader to infer.

As usual, farm animals are relegated to the wasteland of foregone conclusions in which they are considered to be not only ecologically out of tune but too denatured and void of autonomy for human morality to apply to them. The recognition that human beings are specifically and deliberately responsible for whatever aberrances farm animals may embody, that their discordances reflect our, not their, primary disruption of natural rhythms, and that we owe them more rather than less for having stripped them of their birthright and earthrights has not entered into the environmentalist discussions that I've encountered to date. The situation of these animals, within themselves and on the planet, does not appear to exact contrition or reparations from the perpetrators of their plight, while the victims are per se denied "rights," of which the most elemental must surely be the right of a being to be perceived before being conceptually trashed.

In an article following "Triangular Affair," J. Baird Callicott assigns farm animals a fixed degraded niche in the conceptual universe. "Barnyard animals, over hundreds of generations, have been genetically engineered (by the old- fashioned method of selective breeding) to play certain roles in the mixed community [human communities including domesticated animals]. To condemn the morality of these roles . . . is to condemn the very being of these creatures" (Callicott 1988, 167). I think to myself listening to the trumpet blasts and iron oratory of environmentalism, how could the soft voice of Viva ever hope to be heard here? In this world, the small tones of life are drowned out by the regal harmonies of the mountain and their ersatz echoes in the groves of academe. A snottish article in Buzzworm: The Environmental Journal (Knox 1991) on animal rights versus environmentalism clinched matters.

This is how I came to write "Clucking Like a Mountain," in which I examine the ethical foundations of environmentalism from the imaginary viewpoint of a factory farm battery hen via a human interpreter. Aldo Leopold's plea for humans to think ecoholistically--"like a mountain"-- has been taken by some environmentalists as a mandate to exclude from substantive and ethical consideration the individuated existences that help constitute the mountain, particularly those classified in Leopold's terms as "unnatural, tame, and confined" in contrast to those regarded as "natural, wild, and free." The ontological result is a holism devoid of contents, resembling an empty shell. The ethical result is moral abandonment of beings whose sufferings and other experiences are inconsequential compared to the "big realm." I raise questions concerning our moral obligations to genetically altered and weaker creatures, especially those debilitated by our activities, pointing out, moreover, that domesticated chickens have been shown to retain their ancestral repertoire of behaviors, which undermines the prima facie assumption that they have been rendered docile and servile through breeding for specific traits.

Clucking Like A Mountain

"Why do you keep putting off writing about me?"
It is the voice of a chicken that asks this.
Alice Walker (1988, 170)

In answering the call of ecologists to think like a mountain, I have to know whether this would conflict with my effort to think like a chicken. For I have chosen with the American writer, Alice Walker, to be a microphone held up to the mouths of chickens to enable them to step forward and expound their lives. I am glad that I have been able to see and identify with a chicken, though I grieve that my ability to communicate what I have seen and have identified with may be limited by profound but obscure obstacles which it is nevertheless my task to try and traverse. To think like a mountain implies a splendid obligation and tragic awareness. Environmentalist Aldo Leopold (1949; 1966) coined this image to contrast the abiding interests of the ecosphere with the ephemeral ones of humans, arguing that unless we can identify with the ecosphere and "think like a mountain," our species and perhaps even our planet are doomed.4

Individuals inspired by Leopold and others have poignantly expressed on occasion the yearning of many humans to break out of our isolation as persons and as a species and recover through the story that connects us with all beings our larger identity in the heartbeat of the living universe (see Seed 1988, 57). I prize these thoughts but have been saddened that Aldo Leopold may not have intended that chickens, too, should give voice in the Council of All Beings along with California Condor, Rainforest, Wombat, Wildflower and the rest of the biotic host convened in empathic rituals designed to reconstitute the experience in humans of a larger ecological Self. In the Council of All Beings, says a workshop guideline, "the beings are invited to tell how life has changed for them under the present conditions that humans have created in the world" (Seed 1988, 111).

Megaphone please.

I am a battery hen. I live in a cage so small I cannot stretch my wings. I am forced to stand night and day on a sloping wire mesh floor that painfully cuts into my feet. The cage walls tear my feathers, forming blood blisters that never heal. The air is so full of ammonia that my lungs hurt and my eyes burn and I think I am going blind. As soon as I was born, a man grabbed me and sheared off part of my beak with a hot iron, and my little brothers were thrown into trash bags as useless alive.

My mind is alert and my body is sensitive and I should have been richly feathered. In nature or even a farmyard I would have had sociable, cleansing dust baths with my flock mates, a need so strong that I perform "vacuum" dust bathing on the wire floor of my cage. Free, I would have ranged my ancestral jungles and fields with my mates devouring plants, earthworms and insects from sunrise to dusk. I would have exercised my body and expressed my nature, and I would have given, and received, pleasure as a whole being. I am only a year old, but I am already a "spent hen." Humans, I wish I were dead, and soon I will be dead. Look for pieces of my wounded flesh wherever chicken pies and soups are sold.

According to J. Baird Callicott, the treatment of hens on a factory farm has not been morally important in the development of environmental ethics. Ecologically, this hen, like other domesticated "farm" animals, is not on a moral par with the authentic and autonomous creatures of the world but with all of the intrusive human technologies, from dune buggies to hybrid corn, doing their dirty work of contributing to the despoliation of the biotic community into which they had been inserted. Moreover, it is about as absurd to complain that the natural behavior of a chicken on a factory farm is frustrated as it would be to talk about the "natural behavior" of a piece of furniture. Black slaves were "metaphysically autonomous." Wild animals are metaphysically autonomous. Even caged wild animals retain metaphysical autonomy as "captive, not indentured, beings." But cows, pigs, sheep and chickens? Veal calves and domesticated turkeys? Callicott asserts, "They have been bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency. It is literally meaningless to suggest that they be liberated" (Callicott 1980, 330).5

This lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate 6 focused my concern about the fate of domesticated animals in environmental ethics. This burgeoning branch of philosophy seems in large part to cloak the old macho mystique of unrestricted power, conquest, and disdain for the defenseless, idolized by our culture, in pseudoscientific, pseudopoetical distinctions between beings who are "natural, wild, and free" and things that are "unnatural, tame, and confined" (Leopold 1949; 1966, xix). Pity--look down on but do not sympathize or identify with--all the dodos and dunces in the history of the world too dumb to succeed in the cosmic power plays wherein the metaphysical autonomy of just one species is ensured.

This attitude contains errors of fact and logic and draws attention to certain unfavorable elements in our cultural and even species psychology. In Where the Wasteland Ends, historian Theodore Roszak says that "The experience of being a cosmic absurdity, a creature obtruded into the universe without purpose, continuity, or kinship, is the psychic price we pay for scientific 'enlightenment' and technological prowess" (Roszak 1973, 154). The fact is, we are not the only ones paying this price, nor is a psychic price the only one paid, as sixteen billion chickens worldwide can tell us now. A Nietzschean analysis might suggest that the "rational" relegation of domesticated animals to the moral wasteland in environmental ethics is yet another instance in our species' history of the "irrational" heaping onto other creatures, to be punished and banished in our stead, of things that we fear and hate in ourselves, such as the capacity for enslavement and the destructibility of our personality, identity, and will by conquerors more powerful than ourselves. We project our existential anxiety and inanity onto our victims: "I am not the creature obtruded into the universe without purpose, continuity or kinship but this genetically altered cow, this egg-laying machine of a dumb ass chicken. I created them, which gives me the right to despise and abuse them. They let me "create" them, which gives me the right to despise and abuse them." The next step is to assert that these animals wanted, even chose, to resign their metaphysical autonomy to the will of humans on the darkling plain of evolution.

Environmentalism challenges us to think about how we view and treat the weaker and more pacific beings in our midst, be they nonhuman or otherwise. It invites us to explore how we want, on principle, to regard these beings. Are we content to maintain that a genetically altered creature, or a docile and perhaps even stupid one, deserves to be morally disdained or abandoned? Do we believe that a weaker creature is less entitled to justice and compassion than more vigorous types? Do we suppose that creatures whose lives we humans have wrecked do not have paramount moral claims on us?

Environmentalism has a tendency to blame such victims. There are implications that ecological sophistication comports with turning away from them sniffily, like a bored husband, or Dr. Frankenstein, to things more "interesting" and grand, like a mountain, or, more aptly, to "thinking" like one.

Adherents of environmentalism have rapped animal rights advocates on the knuckles for caring about "little things," like individuals and beings with feelings. By contrast, environmentalists operate in the big realm:
They at least attempt to listen to the entire fugue of rocks and trees, amoebas and heavy metals, dodos and rivers and styrofoam. Animal rights, by contrast, is a one-note samba. Where environmentalists worry about salt marches and all the plants and creatures therein, animal right activists worry about the suffering of individual animals. Where environmentalists worry about the evolution of island endemics, animal right activists worry about the suffering of individual animals. Where environmentalists worry about species extinctions, animal rights activists worry about the suffering of individual animals" (Knox 1991, 31-32).7

A question for environmentalism concerns the nature of the big realm it claims to represent and worry about. If, ecologically regarded, the concrete manifestations of existence are inconsequential, what substance does this realm possess? What are its contents and where do they reside exactly? Can the ecosphere be thus hollowed out without being converted to a shell? An ecologist once said in an interview that the individual life is a mere "blip on a grid" compared to the life process (Pacelle 1987, 8).8 Yet, it may be that there is no "life process" apart from the individual forms it assumes whereby we infer it. The "process" is an inference, an abstraction, and while there is nothing wrong with generalizing and speculating on the basis of experience, to reify the unknown at the expense of the known shows a perversity of will. How is it possible, as the environmentalist asserts, to worry about "all the plants and creatures" of a system while managing to avoid caring about each and every one? Why would anyone want not to care?

I know of no composer or lover of music who disparages the individual notes of a composition the way some environmentalists scorn the individual animals of this world. Maybe this is because the musically educated person perceives in each note the universe of song that note in turn helps to create. The poet William Blake said that we must learn to see the universe in a grain of sand. We must learn with equal justice and perception to hear the music of the spheres in the cluck of a chicken, starting with the hen who, historian Page Smith says, "is rich in comfortable sounds, chirps and chirrs, and, when she is a young pullet, a kind of sweet singing that is full of contentment when she is clustered together with her sisters and brothers in an undifferentiated huddle of peace and well-being waiting for darkness to envelop them" (Smith and Daniel 1975, 334). If I think like a mountain, will I be able to hear this hen singing?

To accept the environmentalist argument that the suffering of individual animals is inconsequential compared to the ozone layer, we must be willing to admit that the sufferings of minority groups, raped women, battered wives, abused children, people sitting on death row, and our loved ones are small potatoes beneath the hole in the sky. To worry about any of them is, in effect, to miniaturize the big picture to portraits of battered puppy dogs. Or does environmentalism shift to the more convenient ground, when it comes to humans and oneself, where all species are equal but one species is more equal than others and membership has its privileges? An environmentalist writes: "We care about bears and buttercups for themselves, but also for us humans. That's the selfish, Cartesian bottom line: I think, therefore I deserve a hospitable environment" (Knox 1991, 37). 9 The reasoning may or may not be sound; the sensibility makes my hackles rise.

This sensibility has placed many environmentalists at a distance from "farm" animals and allowed them to patronize the nature of these animals without checking the facts. Environmentalism has two major moral arguments against agricultural animals. One is that agricultural animals disrupt the natural environment. Environmentalists and animal rights advocates agree that large-scale intensive animal agriculture is ecologically inefficient and unseemly, and ethically obscene. The United States poultry industry pollutes fields and streams with fourteen billion pounds of manure and twenty-eight billion gallons of waste water each year. According to a report, "Thousands of poultry farms and processing factories churn out millions of birds everyday--along with carcasses and chemicals that contaminate the land and poison the water with toxic wastes" (Giardina and Bates 1991, 8). This is detestable, but it is not the chickens' fault. It is ours.

Environmentalism's second major moral complaint against domesticated "farm" animals is that they lack the behavioral repertoire and elan vital of wild animal including their own ancestors. As a result, "farm" animals are disentitled to equal moral consideration with wild animals. If this is true the blame is not on them; it is on us. Morally, we owe them more, not less, for bungling their birthright. But how diminished is the nature of these animals genetically? Two researchers who have been studying the behavior of "laying" hens for years state:
A good place to begin thinking about what a hen needs for a decent life would be in the jungles of Southeast Asia where, with persistence, one can track the red jungle fowl ancestors of the domestic chicken. These wary birds live in small groups of between four and six, and are highly active during the day--walking, running, flying, pecking and scratching for food, and preening. At night they roost together in the trees. Domestic chickens released on the islands off Queensland, Australia, and the west coast of Scotland showed remarkably similar patterns of behavior. David Wood-Gush and Ian Duncan, of the Agricultural and Food Research Council's Edinburgh Station, observed that the Scottish birds formed small, discrete social groups which spent much of their day foraging either separately or together, then returning at dusk to roost. The hens concealed their nests and raised and defended their broods. In short, there is no evidence that genetic selection for egg laying has eliminated the birds' potential to perform a wide variety of behaviour (Nicol and Dawkins 1990, 46). 11
This snookers the industry claim, which has been bought by environmentalists, that "laying" hens have been "bred" for the battery cage and are genetically accommodated to a sterile, docile, and slavish existence that would drive humans and wild animals mad. How many environmentalists are aware that, in addition to the routine debeaking and sometimes even claw removal of these birds (to help "adaptation" along), efforts have been made to fit them with contact lenses to "calm" their "uneconomical" frenzy by destroying their vision (Davis 1992)?10 Dr. Nedim Buyukmihci, a veterinary ophthalmologist at the University of California, Davis, says of even these birds that upon release from the cage and removal of the lenses, following a period of adjustment, those hens in his care "would do all the things hens normally would do if allowed: scratch for food, dustbathe, spend time with one another or apart from one another, make attempts at flight, stretch their wings and legs simultaneously, preen, and the like. Preening, of course, was severely curtailed due to the mutilation of their beaks" (Buyukmihci 1992).

Contrary to the unexamined assumption that "laying" hens are our metaphysical slaves, Dr. Page Smith, the cultural historian of the chicken, correctly observes: "Chickens are, on the whole, very sturdy creatures or they could not have survived the experiments that have been performed on them in the last fifty or seventy-five years in the name of scientific chicken raising" (Smith and Daniel 1975, 331).

Paradoxically, like most of us, chickens are sturdy and vulnerable and, in situation that insult their nature, pitiable. Their experience of being alive in the flesh, be it one of pain, joy, or learned helplessness, is as much a part of the biosphere as the composite experience of a mountain. It feels good to think like a mountain and experience the Romantic Stone Age sensations of a predator (not prey) and a hunter (who in ecology has taken equal trouble to ramify the gratifications of being a gatherer?). It does not feel good to think like a battery hen and view oneself and one's species through her eyes, not as an autochthonous Hero in Chains but as a bewilderingly cruel creature who punishes her and has no mercy.


I submitted "Clucking Like a Mountain" to Environmental Ethics12 , "an interdisciplinary journal dedicated to the philosophical aspects of environmental problems," because it seemed to provide the best opportunity to meet the environmentalist community on its own conceptual grounds. The editor turned it down. Of the two referees, one favored and the other opposed publication. The one in favor did not "share the author's views," but considered it a "highly worthwhile essay . . . a provocative piece, challenging the views that generally dominate the pages of Environmental Ethics."

The second reader, seemingly a poultry researcher, insisted that the arguments ignored "much factual information," for instance, that "it is in the interest of those individuals that raise hens in battery cages that the welfare of those hens is not so ignored that egg production is impaired" and that "the industry has made considerable strides in determining the proper mesh size for battery cages to avoid leg entrapment." The two major problems of hens in battery cages, as in all intensive animal agriculture, are that when things go wrong they go wrong in a big way, and waste disposal. I had failed to mention the major benefit of "increased productivity through a savings in time and labor." Moreover, I had implied that hens could care about the death of other chickens and ignored the disadvantages of free-range production, making the imaginary viewpoint of a factory farm battery hen via a human interpreter read like "lopsided anthropomorphism."

In rejecting the manuscript, the editor said it ignored much material that readers of the journal are familiar with including Callicott's "'Triangular Affair,' which discusses chickens in some detail," and Birch and Cobb's The Liberation of Life, "which specifically contrasts the lives of chickens with chimpanzees" (Hargrove 1992). The editor has a policy of not publishing papers on animal welfare ethics unless they pertain specifically to environmental ethics. The point of a revised paper would have to continue to be that domestic chickens should be a concern of environmental ethicists from an environmental perspective, supporting Callicott's argument in "Back Together Again" that we need a single ethic.

I believe that we need a single ethic in which we are a voice not only for life but for lives--for all of the soft and innocent lives who are at our mercy. I share Callicott's Darwinian view that we and other animals have a common biosociality rooted in evolutionary kinship and, in the case of domesticated animals, direct interactions that often include mutual affection. However, I do not share his view in "Back Together Again" that "barnyard" and other domesticated animals have an a priori ontological status whereby their very being is synonymous with the diminished roles humans have assigned to them as food sources, plow pullers, and pets. Nor do I believe that there is a kind of evolved unspoken social contract between "man and beast" in the so-called mixed community of humans and domestic animals (Callicott 1988, 167), in which the "beasts" just happen to be our slaves and inferiors whom we treat exactly as we please, as in our manipulation of their reproductive systems for market efficiency and other purely human ends rather than species fitness or their individual and social happiness. The will of the domesticated animal is no different from that of a human slave in being at the mercy of an "owner" backed by a legal system which defines her or him as property.

The contract idea ignores these and other facts such as the innumerable diseases of domestication which, pertinently, have created a flourishing animal research, pharmaceutical, and veterinary industry. It romanticizes and exonerates our relationship to domesticated animals and teasingly suggests that species that in other environmentalist contexts are rigorously denied moral agency and autonomy, in some sort of lopsided scapegoatism, just happen to have them here. Domesticated animals were themselves once wild and free. "Egg-type" chickens released into wild habitats they personally have never known revive their suppressed behavioral repertoire. Whether farm and other domesticated animals could survive under feral conditions, it is inappropriate to refer to an "unspoken social contract" between themselves and their human "masters."

The editor of Environmental Ethics cites Birch and Cobb's contrast between the life of a chicken and the life of a chimpanzee. In Matters of Life and Death, John Cobb, a professor of Christian theology, raises contemporary issues including whether humans have the right to destroy the environment and exterminate or cause extreme suffering to other species. In the section on animal rights, he distinguishes between the life of chickens, veal calves, tuna, and sharks and the life of humans, nonhuman primates, and marine mammals, arguing that while God's perspective comprises both groups, "the right to life applies much more to gorillas and dolphins than to chickens and sharks" (Cobb 1992, 36). Understandably, chickens and sharks regard their lives as most important. However, "judgment" regards their death to preclude further experiences of much less distinctive value than does the death of a primate or sea mammal, and their contri- bution to the divine life to be much less significant. The potential experiences of veal calves, chickens, and others consigned to their class are "not remarkably distinctive." These animals' fear of death is "not an important factor in their lives," and their death "does not cause major distress to others" (Cobb 1992, 40).

In short, the editor's letter, with its suggested reading, acts out my own analysis. It seeks to shout down the voice of the individual animal and author and to delegitimize me as a speaker who knows chickens in deference to the "experts" with whom the world order and divine mind just happen to agree that animals humans like to eat, such as chickens, veal calves, and tuna, and animals who like to eat humans, such as sharks, have less valuable personal and interpersonal experiences and a lesser part in the universe. How do the experts know? They decided.

I have been impressed by the realization that a few men have virtually "decided" what experiences count and even exist in the world. The language of western science--the reigning construct of male hegemony--precludes the ability to express the experiential realities it talks about. Virtually all of the actual experiences of this world, expressed through the manifest and mysterious characteristics of all the different beings, are unrepresented in the stainless steel edicts of experts. Where is the voice of the voiceless in the scientific literature including the literature of environmental ethics? Where do the "memory of suffering and the truths of subjugated knowledge" fit into the domineering con- struct of our era (Adams and Procter-Smith 1993, 302)?

Carol J. Adams and Marjorie Procter-Smith ironically observe that "the voice of the voiceless offers a truth that the voice of the expert can never offer" (1993, 302). This voice requires a different language from the language of experts, a verbal and lyrical equivalent of the subjective and intersubjective experiences linking humans to one another and, through an epistemology rooted in our evolutionary history, to other animals and the earth. Significantly, the poultry science referee of my "Clucking" essay chides me with "too much first person singular" and snorts that "Sixteen billion chickens cannot tell me the psychic price of scientific enlightenment."

If women feel bludgeoned by this oppressive mentality, how must the animals be affected by it? Let us consider not only the pain that we impose on them, but the moral ecology within which we inflict it--the belittling, sniggering atmosphere of pompous hatred and contempt that we emanate in which countless billions of beings are forced to live. This moral ecology is as distinctive a human contribution to the range of experiences in the world as anything else that our species has conferred (see Davis)14 .

I have a photograph of a poultry researcher posing for the media in an experimental battery hen unit with a scientifically blinded and defeated hen in his arms and a smile on his face (Greene 1992, A-6. I have a letter from a poultry experimenter who writes: "I think you will agree that the human species is the only one that has any compassion for its prey. . . . I perceive in your literature the proposal that chickens be treated as pets. The child who is holding a Plymouth barred rock hen should stay near a supply of clean clothes. I have been involved with many thousands of chickens and turkeys and I don't think they are good pets, although it is evident that almost any vertebrate may be trained to come for food" (Jukes 1992).

This is the voice of the expert so insensitized that the image of a little girl tenderly holding a hen in her arms produces only thoughts of the hen's defecation--a reminder that his involvement with thousands of chickens and turkeys is such that they evacuate when he touches them. In being barred from entering the environmentalist dialogue by way of "Clucking Like a Mountain," I cannot help wondering how far the delegitimization process acts as a form of intellectual protection against the mute importunities and soft dialogues of all the Vivas in the world. There is no comfort in seeing the eyes of a hen staring out of the cage built especially for her. The supposition that she has no expression, nothing to express, is, however, a great comfort.


  1. This extended essay on "food" animal slaughter and vegetarianism was written in 1892 as a preface to the Russian edition of Howard Williams's Ethics of Diet (1883). Williams's book is a biographical history of philosophic vegetarianism from antiquity through the early 19th century.
  2. See Callicott (1980), "Triangular Affair," p. 315: Toward the "urgent concern of animal liberationists for the suffering of domestic animals . . . Leopold manifests an attitude which can only be described as indifference."
  3. In Lord of the Flies, see chapter 8, "Gift for the Darkness."
  4. Leopold says on p. 137, "Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf."
  5. See also Callicott (1988), "Farm Animal Feminism" (letter), The Animals' Agenda. Cf. Ursula K. Le Guin, "She Unnames Them," January 21, 1985: 27. "Cattle, sheep, swine, asses, mules, and goats, along with chickens, geese, and turkeys, all agreed enthusiastically to give their names back to the people to whom--as they put it--they belonged."
  6. "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." The inscription on the entrance to hell in Dante's Inferno, III, 9. See also Davis, "Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection"; "Mixing Without Pain"; and "Farm Animal Feminism" (letter).
  7. For a valuable consideration of this issue, see Michael Allen Fox, "Environmental Ethics and the Ideology of Meat Eating," in Between the Species. He says for instance on p. 122, concerning the environmentalist dismissal of dietary ethics and the suffering of individual animals, that it is "ethically myopic and no more than self-serving; it is an example of the kind of compartmentalized thinking that humans have practiced far too long and from which environmental ethicists had promised to deliver us. It is a kind of thinking that must be abandoned if human and other forms of life are to coexist and flourish on this planet."
  8. In Pacelle, "The Foreman of Radical Environmentalism," David Foreman of Earth First! says on p. 8, "I see individual lives as momentary energy blips on a grid."
  9. In "The Rights Stuff," Knox concludes on p. 37 that "Those who would fight the earth's battles can't help but make common cause with animal rights activists where their interests coincide--but carefully, lest the ever-elusive big picture doesn't get miniaturized into portraits of battered puppy dogs."
  10. See Karen Davis, "Red Contact Lenses for Chickens: A Benighted Concept," 1992. Available from United Poultry Concerns, Inc. P0 Box 59367, Potomac, MD 20859.
  11. The 1994 report on Laying Hens by the Swiss Society for the Protection of Animals uphold this claim, noting on p. 11, "Neither thousands of years of domestication nor the recent extreme selective breeding for productivity have fundamentally altered the behaviour of chickens. The frequently expressed view that the brooding instinct has been bred out of present-day hybrid birds has been proved wrong. Hens repeatedly become broody even under intensive production conditions." My personal experience with domesticated chickens over the past 10 years supports these observations.
  12. Except for some sentence tightening, the above essay, "Clucking Like A Mountain," is represented here exactly as it was submitted to the editor.
  13. See, e.g., Mary Anne Warren.
  14. On the concept of the moral ecology of pain and suffering, see Karen Davis, "What's Wrong with Pain Anyway?"


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