1 December 2017

Disengaged Journalism & The Disparagement & Disappearance of Animals

“At least consider the sad life history of Sunday dinner before tucking in.”

Karen Davis holding and kissing a chicken.
Photo by Frank Johnston
— The Washington Post

Many people consider any media coverage of nonhuman animals to be better than none. This is debatable. A close reading of media coverage often discloses both subtle and unsubtle strategies for disengaging people from the animals and the reality of their lives and situations.

Even when horrific animal suffering is being recounted, the tone of certain “esteemed” columnists toward the animals is often disengaged, even cavalier on occasion. An attitude is wrapped around and inserted into the information that diminishes it, distancing people from the animals and encouraging public passivism and ethical inertia.

I wrote the following article for a book being published in 2018. Towards Trans-Species Social Justice, edited by Atsuko Matsuoka and John Sorenson, is a Critical Animal Studies anthology published by Rowland Littlefield International. I hope my discussion of disengaged journalism, focusing on the journalistic treatment of farmed animals, particularly birds, in both broadcast and print media, will be of interest to everyone committed to justice and respect for our fellow creatures. Our animal victims, in spite of “progress,” continue to be patronized and diminished in much media coverage, to which our own manner of advocating for animals and conversing with journalists does, on occasion, contribute. I am grateful to the editors for allowing me to publish my article in advance of its appearance in Towards Trans-Species Social Justice.
– Karen Davis



The Disengagement of Journalistic Discourse About Nonhuman Animals: An Analysis

By Karen Davis, PhD

In recent years, mainstream journalists have covered more frequently than they used to the plight of animals whose lives are largely invisible to the public eye. As a result, people are better informed about the suffering of billions of animals behind closed doors. Even so, it is difficult for most people to make a conscious and consistent connection between the products they buy and see advertised – the glittering array of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, convenience foods, and more – and the process by which these products end up in retail outlets without a hint of the suffering they contain.

It would seem that of all the products on display, the sight of meat would arouse a distressing awareness in people of the fact that a sentient being recently occupied that body of flesh before it was a corpse; yet this most visible sign of human violence toward beings who suffered in being converted from life to death is, in a sense, and paradoxically, the most invisible of all revelations, precisely because it is visible, yet unperceived. Former animal researcher for the United States Air Force, Donald Barnes, writing from personal experience as a child who grew up on a family farm in Southern California in the 1940s, called this phenomenon “conditioned ethical blindness” (1985, 160, 162), but no phrase or probe fully illuminates the places within ourselves where we “know” there is animal suffering embedded in our products, but do not care or care deeply enough.

The journalist B.R. Myers once wrote that research could prove “that cows love Jesus, and the line at the McDonald’s drive-through wouldn’t be one sagging carload shorter the next day” (2004, 115). An ethical vegetarian himself, Myers did not find this funny but invoked it as a parody of a reality that has to be reckoned with by those of us who are trying to understand the psychology of disengagement in people in order to change the way things are in “a world that often acts as if it doesn’t want to be saved,” as journalist Tom Horton wrote about the effort of my organization, United Poultry Concerns, to get people to care about chickens and turkeys and be vegan. “A long slog,” he called our effort, but not disrespectfully (2014, A04).

Journalists writing about farmed animal issues are by no means all alike. My organization United Poultry Concerns has received sympathetic and informative media coverage over the past twenty-seven years including the Ark Trust Genesis award-winning profile of me and my work in The Washington Post, “For the Birds” (Jones 1999), and the Virginia Press Association’s award for a front-page story about me and United Poultry Concerns in 2014 in The Daily Times, Eastern Shore News and USA Today, “Turkey for Thanksgiving? Bird sanctuary owner says no” (Cording 2014). I value and am permanently indebted to the many journalists who have helped get the stories I want to tell about the plight – and the delight – of domestic fowl into the public domain. And I know for a fact that many journalists I have spoken with share my feelings for animals and that some are themselves vegetarians and vegans. At the same time, if they are employed by a news organization, they have to tell the story of animals within bounds set by publishers, editors, and producers who are similarly constrained but who, like the journalists on the beat, have plenty of leeway in choosing their words and shaping the discourse sympathetically or otherwise.

Humane Euphemisms

Not only are the words journalists choose important. Here are two examples of how quotation marks may be used to influence public perception of farmed animals. On June 9, 2015, a Reuters brief appeared in the Business Day section of The New York Times. “‘Inhumane’ Conditions Found at Egg Supplier for Costco” starts out: “An undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States found unsanitary and ‘inhumane’ conditions at a Gettysburg, Pa., farm that supplies eggs to Costco, the animal welfare group said on Tuesday.” Notice the difference between the portrayal of unsanitary versus inhumane. Placing the word inhumane in quotation marks, but not the word unsanitary, suggests that while the filth documented by the investigator at this battery-caged hen facility is an indisputable fact, the suffering of the hens in the wire cages, surrounded by mummified corpses in a sea of toxic waste, is of lesser importance and is not necessarily a fact but rather a claim by an animal welfare group that is open to question. The word “unsanitary” evokes a food safety issue: are these eggs safe for people to eat? The word “inhumane” is about creatures whom most people can barely imagine and whose experience of living in hell does not rise to the level of importance in humanity’s everyday life. Putting inhumane in quotation marks facilitates the public’s perceptual distance from the birds and their ordeal.

By contrast, the mass killing of millions of chickens, turkeys and ducks by the poultry industry in response to disease outbreaks and other disasters affecting the incarcerated flocks is described by journalists in industry terms as “euthanasia” – but without the quotation marks. An article about the discovery of 50,000 caged hens abandoned by their owner in 2012 in the Turlock Journal, in California, states that “more than 20,000 were dead of starvation or drowned in the manure pits under the cages. Another 25,000 were euthanized in the days following the discovery because their bodies were already in organ failure” (Stafford 2015). These hens were put out of their misery by being gassed to death with carbon dioxide – a method of killing that is not euthanasia.

In another example, between December 2014 and June 2015 more than 33 million poultry flocks were suffocated to death with firefighting foam and carbon dioxide in the Midwestern states of Iowa, Minnesota and elsewhere in response to the avian influenza epidemic that began on poultry farms in 2014. Media accounts referred to the horrific killing of the birds as euthanasia, without quotation marks – that is, without irony. In an unpublished letter to The New York Times, I objected to the reporter’s use of the term euthanasia in “What Do You Do With 33 Million Dead Birds?” (Strom 2015, A1). Euthanasia means “a good death.” It means a death that is merciful, peaceful, kind, compassionate, and humane – the opposite of being attacked by death squads, shoved into gas-filled “kill carts,” and suffocated under rolling waves of firefighting foam.

For a newspaper like The New York Times to use the term euthanasia to describe – no, disguise – the reign of terror to which millions of birds were subjected in these mass killings suggests that journalists do not always feel obligated to adhere to standards of precise language where farmed animals are concerned. In the case of the bird flu crisis, The New York Times coverage was about farmers being “forced to euthanize their own live inventory.” It was about whether consumers had to worry that the price of mayonnaise could be affected. While a shadowland of horrible images loomed behind these topics, how those images affected the reader’s imagination of the birds is anyone’s guess:

Mounds and mounds of carcasses piled up in vast barns . . .
disposal of vast numbers of flocks . . .
workers wearing masks and protective gear . . .
burying dead birds in hurriedly dug trenches . . .
officials weighing using landfills and mobile incinerators . . .
barns housing up to half a million birds in cages stacked to the rafters.


Children’s Stories

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I thought of this adage years ago while watching the public television program for children, “Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones” (Lancit Media Productions 1987). Based on a book by Ruth Heller, it’s about the fact that other kinds of animals besides chickens lay eggs. However, chickens are the only ones in the program who are represented in barren surroundings without a parent or a blade of grass. One heartless scene shows a chick struggling out of its egg alone on a bare table, while ugly music blares, “I’m breaking out.”

Another popular public television program for children in the 1980s was the 3-2-1 Contact show “Pignews: Chickens and Pigs” (Public Broadcasting Service 1985-1986). Promoting the agribusiness theme of “changing nature to get the food we eat,” it shows hatchery footage of newborn chicks being hurled down stainless steel conveyers, tumbling in revolving sexing carousels, flung down dark holes, and brutally handled by chicken sexers who grab them, toss them, and hold them by one wing while asserting that none of this hurts them at all. These scenes alternate with rapid sequence images of mass-produced fruits and vegetables tumbling down conveyers in a similar fashion. Children are told that “farmers are changing how we grow 100 million baby chicks a week, 3 million pounds of tomatoes, 36 billion pounds of potatoes.” Chickens are described as a “monocrop” suited to the “conveyer belt and assembly line, as in a factory.”

The visual images of animal cruelty are undercut by a verbal narrative and musical accompaniment that proclaim victory. The producers in collaboration with Perdue Farms and others involved in the making of this “documentary” for children – of all ages – present the truth, not by hiding images of industrialized abuse of newborn chicks, but by exhibiting them proudly through a jubilant voice tuned to musical jingles. Yellow chicks “popping” out of their shells in a mechanical incubator are depicted as the equivalent of corn popping in an oven. A question is whether the images of animal cruelty featured in this media context “speak louder” to most children than the blaring narrative of triumph over nature.

Sabotaging the Evidence

A type of disengagement that is shown by some journalists covering disclosures of farmed animal abuse is to acknowledge, but then sabotage, the evidence by pitting the disclosure against another atrocity in a way that diminishes the significance of the one being discussed. Tom Philpott, in an article for Mother Jones in 2015, discusses an investigation by the animal rights group, Direct Action Everywhere, of a Petaluma Farms operation in California that supplies “organic” and “cage-free” eggs to Whole Foods Market and Organic Valley. In “What Does ‘Cage-Free’ Even Mean?” Philpott does not question the truth of the conditions documented by the investigators; however, he concludes with the remark that “compared to the vast Iowa facilities that triggered a half-billion-egg salmonella recall in 2010 . . . the Petaluma houses captured on tape by Direct Action Everywhere actually look pretty good.”

Just a few paragraphs earlier, Philpott had described the houses that he says comparatively speaking look pretty good: “lots of birds wallowing tightly together, often amidst what looks like significant buildup of their own waste . . . birds with blisters, missing feathers, one clearly caked with shit – along with birds that appear to be in decent shape.” I don’t know which birds in the video appear to be in what he calls “decent shape.” I can only urge people to watch the video and see if they can identify these birds and wonder why he chooses the word “wallowing,” which though technically correct suggests that the birds are more disgusting for being trapped in the muck than their abusers are for making them live in it.

Many animal advocates feel that The New York Times op-ed columnists Mark Bittman and Nicholas Kristof are doing farmed animals a favor in their coverage of exposures of farmed animal abuse. Maybe so, but I’m skeptical. This is because the attitude of both columnists toward the information they present is shallow, hedonistic, and presented in a way that undercuts the emotional impact of animal suffering, encouraging readers to focus instead on the fact that “we” love eating animals regardless of how they are treated, and that if you, dear reader, are troubled by the cruelty, try to reduce your consumption of “factory farm” products.

Bittman published a column in 2015 about the lifting of a ban enacted in 2012 on selling foie gras in California. Foie gras is an appetizer obtained from ducks and geese by shoving metal funnels down their throats for several weeks until their livers are gorged and they are slaughtered. In “Let Them Eat Foie Gras,” Bittman scolds not those who supply and demand foie gras, but those who oppose it: “To single out the tiniest fraction of meat production and label it ‘cruel’ is to miss the big picture, and the big picture is this: Almost all meat production in the United States is cruel.” As if animal rights advocates didn’t know this already and were ignoring “the big picture” by focusing on particular instances of farmed animal cruelty in a vacuum. Foie gras, Bittman says, may be “cruel” – a concession he undermines by placing the word cruel in quotation marks, adding that while the force-feeding process may be “unnatural,” it is not necessarily “torture,” because ducks and geese “will stuff themselves anyway.” This slur presumably alludes to the fact that wild waterfowl eat extra large quantities of food to prepare for their long-distance flights. They eat for the energy these flights require, not because they are gluttons.

“This is not to say a few thousand ducks and geese don’t matter,” Bittman says, though the tone of his column says he thinks otherwise. Like Philpott, he blunts the effect of the abusive situation he’s discussing by pitting it against other abuses so that by the time all the misery is massed together amid playful mini-commentaries on the prices and pleasures of specialty meats and other dainty observations, Bittman has succeeded in rendering the reader morally impotent and stupefied by the mélange. Observing that more chickens are killed in an hour in the U.S. than ducks and geese are killed for foie gras in a year, he says: “If you allow that the same is true of most animals raised in the United States . . . you are looking at an industry that produces cruelty on a scale that’s so big and overwhelming few of us can consider it rationally or regularly.”

I wonder if this is the condition Bittman wants people to be in by the time he is through. He gives no indication that he himself is doing anything in particular to help the chickens, cows and other animals whose “big picture” misery he flashes before us. He doesn’t seem to be asking the reader to either. What he says about foie gras in his final sentence may extend to the plight of all of them, that for him, it “just isn’t that important.”

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is even more damaging to farmed animals in my opinion. Like Bittman, Kristof covers exposures of farmed animal cruelty documented by investigative organizations like Mercy For Animals. But in discussing the conditions revealed, he always makes a point of denigrating the animals and boasting ad nauseam how much he enjoys eating them. Formulaically, he writes that he’s “an old farm boy,” impressing the reader with his bona fides.

In “A Farm Boy Reflects,” in 2008, Kristof wrote with his usual jokiness that maybe in a century or two our descendants “will look back on our factory farms with uncomprehending revulsion. But in the meantime, I love a good burger.” He describes growing up on the family farm, raising and slaughtering animals, terrorizing geese and doing terrible things even to the “intelligent” animals, but says, “I draw the line about animals being raised in cruel conditions” – a point he undermines a couple of lines later by saying that cruelty is “extraordinarily difficult” to define. Kristof seems positively to enjoy recounting the efforts of the family farm geese to protect themselves and their families from the slaughter apparently performed in plain sight and sound of them. Of a gander begging for his mate to be spared, Kristof recounts the scene, reducing the frantic bird to an “it,” and mocking the bird’s courage and agony as if relaying the cute antic of an infant: “It would be frightened out of its wits, but still determined to stand with and comfort its lover.”

If we wonder where the mentality and brutality of factory farming come from, we need look no further than where Kristof writes: “Our cattle, sheep, chickens and goats certainly had individual personalities, but not such interesting ones that it bothered me that they might end up in a stew. Pigs were more troubling because of their unforgettable characters and obvious intelligence. To this day, when tucking into a pork chop, I always feel as if it is my intellectual equal.”

Kristof seems especially to enjoy hurting chickens in his columns. In a 2015 piece, “To Kill a Chicken,” about a Mercy For Animals investigation documenting workers torturing chickens at a slaughter plant in North Carolina operated by Wayne Farms, he writes “I raised chickens as a farmboy. They’re not as smart as pigs or as loyal as dogs, but they make great moms, can count and have distinct personalities. They are not widgets.” An alert reader might ask why he inserts into his discussion of chickens being tortured a gratuitous slur on their comparative intelligence and “loyalty.”

In “Is an Egg for Breakfast Worth This?” published in 2012, Kristof discusses an investigation by The Humane Society of the United States of a battery-caged hen operation in Pennsylvania, Kreider Farms. In the middle of the revelations, he pauses:

Like many readers, I don’t particularly empathize with chickens. It’s their misfortune that they lack big eyes.

As a farmboy from Yamhill, Ore., I found our pigs to be razor smart, while our geese mated for life and our sheep and cattle had distinct personalities. The chickens were the least individualistic of the animals we raised. (I’ll get letters from indignant chicken-lovers, I know!)

I will go so far as to say that I believe Kristof finds pleasure in the helpless suffering of the animals he writes about as well as in taunting readers who genuinely care about these animals and grieve over their plight. I think that he uses his perch at The New York Times to twist little knives in farmed animals and their advocates, and that contrary to the notion that being a farmer puts one humanely in touch with “one’s” animals, his attitude shows the opposite. What if instead of chickens, Kristof were discussing the plight of poultry slaughterhouse workers from diverse backgrounds, and he interrupted the narrative to say: “Like most readers, I don’t particularly empathize with Latinos. It’s their misfortune that they lack blue eyes. (I’ll get letters from indignant Latino lovers, I know!)” He couldn’t get away with this writing about people, but because the victims are “just chickens,” hardly more than widgets to him, he can.

Stabbing Chickens

I turn now to a writer who told me in an e-mail that he did not regard truth and accuracy to be critically important in writing about chickens. In his 2005 book Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food, Steve Striffler, an anthropology professor at the University of Arkansas, looks at the U.S. poultry industry focusing on Mexican workers in previously all white and black regions and slaughterhouses of the American south. To observe the life of these workers firsthand, Striffler took a job for two summers at a Tyson plant where, conversing about working for Tyson, “we sat eating the chicken together” (2005, 124).

Striffler’s subject is the workers, not the chickens, and I do not fault him for focusing attention on those who are mired in a miserable occupation. Moreover, he does not ignore the chickens. In the Preface he observes, for example, that the chickens are “terrified” as the transport trucks dump them down a chute into a bin where the workers grab and hang them upside down on the conveyer belt in the “nearly pitch black.” He evokes the connection between the workers and the birds in his description of the “live hang” area of the plant, where the workers’ motions, he says, “are so rehearsed that each worker is able to grab two frantic chickens (one in each hand), hang them on the line, smoke a cigarette (without their hands), and heckle the new recruits as they watch in amazement” (108).

Striffler characterizes a Mexican worker he calls Javier. Covered “from head to toe in protective clothing that is itself coated with blood, shit, and feathers,” Javier, he says, sits for eight hours a day “on a stool, knife in hand, and stabs the few chickens that have managed to hold onto life.” As he tells it, by the time they reach Javier, the chickens “have already passed through scalding hot water and have been electrocuted, a process designed to both kill the bird and begin the cleaning” (vii).

This strange account led me to contact Striffler. Was he saying that some birds actually emerge from the scald tank alive, and that the number of these birds is so high that Tyson pays a guy to sit on a stool for eight hours stabbing the chickens to death? Instead of the scald tank (which is not electrified), was he not referring to the pre-slaughter electrified waterbath “stun” cabinet from which the conscious birds emerge paralyzed and semi-paralyzed to be met by a mechanical and/or manual neck cutter? Striffler e-mailed me back on December 6, 2005: “My understanding is that the water contains an electrical current and that some birds do manage to make it through the process alive – indeed, they looked alive and were moving, and Javier was there to finish the killing process. . . . He was stabbing the chickens. . . . He was not slicing their necks.”

Stumped by this account, I contacted former Tyson chicken slaughter plant worker Virgil Butler and animal scientist Temple Grandin. Both confirmed that it is not possible for chickens to emerge from the scald tank alive. The scald tank is the final phase of the slaughter process that begins with hanging the live birds on a conveyer belt followed by dragging them up to their shoulders, face down, through cold, salted electrified water. The electrified water is intended not to electrocute the birds, i.e., kill them, or to render them pain-free or unconscious, but to paralyze the muscles of their feather follicles so that their feathers will come out more easily after they are dead.

What does happen is that many birds are still alive following the bleedout phase after throat-cutting; Striffler suggests one out of every twenty. These birds are plunged into the scald water tanks along with the dead birds. In an affidavit signed on January 30, 2003, Virgil Butler wrote that when chickens are scalded alive, they “flop, scream, kick, and their eyeballs pop out of their heads. They often come out of the other end with broken bones and disfigured and missing body parts because they’ve struggled so much in the tank.” This is after they have been dragged through the electrified water, mechanically throat-cut, manually stabbed, and hung for ninety seconds in the “bleed-out” tunnel.

In his Preface, which Striffler defended to me as “not [intended] to educate readers about the technical details of killing a chicken” (so it’s okay to bungle the facts?), he writes: “I do not feel sorry for Javier or the chickens. I have worked in a plant before, and stabbing chickens is a relatively easy job. Many workers would be glad to trade places. And the chickens are there to die” (viii).

Granted, a job where you get to sit on a stool and stick “sitting ducks” for eight hours beats most other jobs at the plant, where the majority of workers, a third of them women, are forced to stand on their feet for eight hours performing ruinous physical labor. As for invoking the fact that the chickens are “there to die” to justify a lack of pity for them, ask yourself how this logic works for terminal cancer ward or nursing home patients: “I don’t feel sorry for these people because they are there to die.”

Responding to my inquiry, Striffler wrote back via e-mail: “What I meant by that statement was that I didn’t feel sorry for the chickens at that point. . . . Sympathy seemed a little misplaced in the sense that there was nothing I could do, their death was inevitable at that point. . . . In the larger sense, I of course feel sorry for the chickens, which is why in the final chapter I advocate more humane treatment of the birds.”

The final chapter, “Toward a Friendlier Chicken,” promotes a company called Bay Friendly Chicken, incorporated in 2004 on the Delmarva Peninsula (comprising the Eastern Shore of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) on the Chesapeake Bay. The chapter contains vague rhetoric about better living conditions for the chickens, but the focus is on worker welfare and empowerment. There is nothing in the chapter about this company’s chicken slaughter process being any different from Tyson’s. Most likely the Bay Friendly Chicken chickens would simply be trucked to the nearest Tyson or Perdue plant for slaughter. Closer to reality is Striffler’s account in an earlier chapter of a failed attempt by some chicken farmers, known as “growers,” to convert a few empty chicken houses to a “free-range friendly” environment for Kentucky-based Wilson Fields Farms. The farmers were happy until the company stopped feeding the chickens, who were left to starve. Striffler quotes a farmer who explains that they could not afford to feed 25,000 chickens who couldn’t be sold, and besides, “chickens aren’t pets.” The farmer said he could not understand why not feeding the chickens was considered cruel by animal rights activists: “We’re raising them to be processed into nuggets so these people can eat them [sic] and they say we are being cruel” (88).

Striffler’s account of Wilson Fields Farms gives a more accurate picture of chicken production than any rhetoric about “humane treatment.” Striffler writes that under the current system, the workers are “oddly incidental” to the food they produce (71). Whether their fate ever changes, this will never happen for the chickens who, until people stop eating them, are fated to be the food itself.

Conquering Chickens

On September 30, 2013 I received an e-mail from a freelance journalist named Andrew Lawler who explained that he was writing a book about the history and archaeology of the chicken and wanted his book to cover “the current state of the chicken” including the growth of the chicken industry in China and “controversies surrounding their care.” He requested any advice or contacts I might have and asked how he could visit a poultry plant, imagining that “the industry is fearful of opening their doors to journalists.”

Lawler’s e-mail included a link to an article he coauthored with Jerry Adler in the June 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine called “How the Chicken Conquered the World.” Having read it, I knew instantly what kind of a journalist for chickens he was. “How the Chicken Conquered the World” celebrates global chicken production and consumption and features cartoons of the “Chicken Conqueror” dressed as Napoleon, Einstein, and other historical figures. From any standpoint of moral feeling or empathy, the article is blatant propaganda for the chicken industry and a gut-punch to the chickens.

Recalling our initial encounter in Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, published in 2014, Lawler says he was apprehensive about meeting me at our headquarters and chicken sanctuary in Machipongo, Virginia in October 2013. The reason was that my response to his e-mail about the Smithsonian article was that it was “despicable” and that he needed “a whole different perspective, spirit, and attitude toward chickens” (225). He said he was surprised when, instead of being greeted with a lecture, he was invited outdoors to meet our chickens, of whom he writes that “After the numbing uniformity inside the Delaware broiler shed, the individuality of each of Davis’s birds is startling and unnerving” (226).

Lawler states inaccurately that I agreed with him that my stance on behalf of chickens is “impractical,” my actions “ineffectual,” and my views “wildly anthropomorphic” (228). The latter claim is especially absurd given that his own writing shows that the various uses of the chickens he describes are all about “the human,” not chickens, who are simply extensions of their owners’ anthropomorphic desires, virtually all of them violent. And what could be more anthropomorphic than calling chickens our “companion” in the story of our triumph and their defeat? Those of us who want chickens to live sanely as chickens, instead of as what Lawler calls a sanctuary’s “fowl flotsam” and “misfit poultry” – we are not the anthropomorphic ones. The abusers and their allies are.

Lawler does represent me accurately, where I am quoted:

I think chickens are in hell and they are not going to get out. They already are in hell and there are just going to be more of them. As long as people want billions of eggs and millions of pounds of flesh, how can all these animal products be delivered to the millions? There will be crowding and cruelty – it is just built into the situation. You can’t get away from it. And we are ingesting their misery. (227-228)

Yes, I said that, but pessimism about the outcome of an atrocity is not the same as feeling, or being, “ineffectual” in one’s commitment to alleviating the atrocity, nor is it an assessment or an equivalent of one’s (or one’s organization’s) ability or accomplishment confronting the atrocity. The fact that a situation may be beyond one’s control does not make one’s opposition to it, per se, “ineffectual.” I believe Lawler’s book, and maybe his conscience, benefited from his visit to our sanctuary in Virginia as well as from my book, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry (Davis 2009). He told me during our interview that, until he encountered the idea in Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs, that by eating chickens we are eating their misery, it had never occurred to him.

Despite this and other admissions, such as noting the cognitive science showing that chickens have “a deep intelligence” and “see the world in far greater depth and detail than we do” (241), Lawler does not appear to be morally or personally engaged with these birds. As an exemplar of disengaged attitudes toward animal victims, he bonds with readers by observing that he eats animals no matter what, and he dismisses the wealth of animal-free foods that are increasingly available as mostly unworthy items that merely “mimic the bland taste of industrial chicken.” Instead, he floats the fantasy that “More humane genetics, treatment, and living conditions could roll back the worst abuses against our companion species without unduly interfering with the flow of cheap animal protein to our cities” (258-259).

That statement exemplifies how irresponsible, careless and downright silly a journalist writing about farmed animals can get away with being. It reminded me of a New York Times editorial in 2010, “A Humane Egg,” in which the editors praise some possible welfare reforms on industrial farms in California and Ohio. Observing that chickens and other farmed animals with more living space are “healthier” and “no less productive,” they state that, in fact, “there is no justification, economic or otherwise, for the abusive practice of confining animals in spaces barely larger than the volume of their bodies.” The editorial concludes that industrial confinement is “cruel and senseless and will turn out to be, we hope, a relatively short-lived anomaly in modern farming.”

Such sentiments show no recognition of the fact that industrial animal farming is part of a global assembly-line system of mass producing unlimited supplies of cheap products for mass consumption. Industrial animal farming is cruel, but it is no more “senseless” than sweatshops or any other mass-production system for producing toys, drugs, smartphones and you name it for the global marketplace. Given that the human population is predicted to increase from 7.4 billion in 2016 to 9 billion people by 2050, and that the number of land animals raised for food to expected to double by then to meet a desire for cheap animal products, ask yourself how, short of a mass consumer migration from animal products to animal-free foods, industrial farming could possibly turn out to be “a relatively short-lived anomaly.”

Lawler calls the modern, “engineered” pure white debilitated chicken “a poster child for all that is sad and nightmarish about our industrial agriculture.” He quotes the writer J.M. Coetzee’s declaration that “we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them” (qtd. in Lawler, 228).

Paraphrasing Coetzee’s opinion that miserable and tortured animals “will not in the long run make for a happier humanity and a better world,” Lawler speculates that humanity may someday be as appalled by how we treat chickens in our own century as we are to learn about various ancient atrocities toward pigs and other farmed animals, presumably no longer practiced. Without question, what is done to chickens and other animals in the name of food in our era rivals – and in terms of the number of animals surpasses – the horrors of the past, in which today’s atrocities are rooted.

Lawler concludes his saga by recounting his travels to the tropical forests and mountain tops of Southeast Asia, where the families of red jungle fowl – the ancestors and contemporary relatives of domesticated chickens – live shy of humans, but from whose predations and depredations they cannot escape. These hardy birds and their forest habitat are being destroyed by human activity: the locals catch them and use them as bait to lure their companions into captivity for food, cockfighting, breeding laboratories, zoos and whatever else humans have a mind to do with them; meanwhile, the destruction of global rainforests by agribusiness is exemplified in the fact that in 2004-2005 alone more than 2.9 million acres of Amazon rainforest were destroyed “primarily to grow crops for chickens used by Kentucky Fried Chicken” (Oppenlander 2011, 22-23).

A village farmhand explains that the “smart and secretive [jungle fowl] can swiftly die if caged by rushing the bars and breaking its neck” (262-263). No matter. Lawler enthuses over the infliction of trauma on these birds, including noosing them, which he describes without any show of sorrow or pity. Separating mates from one another, dismembering the families and societies of these vibrant, unoffending forest dwellers – I don’t think the effect of the experience on the birds even occurs to him, or if it does, he doesn’t care. His account is all about the exciting human adventure of capturing wild chickens and breeding them in laboratories supposedly to restore them to their native forests that are being eroded. Restocking the remnant forests with genetically preserved jungle fowl would, he says paraphrasing a proponent, “pay homage to an animal that has proven itself as our most steadfast and versatile companion.” Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? concludes with a sentimental portrait of a retired employee in a nuclear weapons laboratory who is working to save the bird’s “pure stuff.” The project is this man’s way of telling the wild jungle fowl, Lawler writes without irony, “thank you” (264).

Pardoning Turkeys

“Once again, President Obama has pardoned two turkeys using ‘executive action’ (ha-ha) on Thanksgiving eve, ensuring that neither will be the centerpiece on anyone’s holiday table. The White House asked Twitter followers to vote on which of the turkeys with incredibly cute names (Mac and Cheese) should get the title of officially pardoned bird.” – Carla Hall, Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2015.

The Presidential Turkey Pardoning ceremony is an annual event that is held in the White House Rose Garden during the week of Thanksgiving. Made “official” in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush after decades of turkey presentations to U.S. presidents since the 1940s, it consists of a turkey breeding company presenting the President of the United States with a live turkey to be “pardoned” from slaughter amid presidential jokes and a mocking chorus of Press Corp journalists. For the journalists the occasion provides an opportunity to poke fun at the “turkeys” – the politicians – in Washington. Following the ceremony, the turkey and his back-up are sent to a petting farm to die soon after of heart attacks resulting from genetically-induced stress and the entire ordeal to which these fragile, overweight birds are subjected. Reports on the death or “disappearance” of the turkey and his back-up round out this media event designed by the turkey industry and the government to reduce turkeys to ignominious figures of fun and the focal point of Thanksgiving dinner.

As the holiday’s designated blood sacrifice, the Thanksgiving turkey functions to unify the nation. Philosopher Brian Luke explains, “It is the community all partaking in the flesh that unites everyone, from the indigent to the institutionalized.” By selecting a turkey to be “pardoned,” the president displays his power over life and death, adding sinister levity to the solemnity that citizens are supposed to feel about the country and its founding. “By pardoning one turkey it becomes obvious that all those other millions of turkeys Americans are eating were not pardoned,” Luke explains (qtd. in Davis 2001, 120). According to Julie DeYoung, a former spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation, the purpose of the presidential pardoning ceremony is “to celebrate the holiday and heighten the visibility of the industry to the American public. It gives the White House an opportunity to give a positive message to the public. It’s a nice photo opportunity” (qtd. in Davis 2001, 113).

The presidential turkey pardoning ceremony inspired me to write my book More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, published in 2001. The holiday portrayal of the turkey as an object of ridicule captured, I believed, something of the spirit and values of a country that ritually constitutes itself by consuming an animal it despises and mocks in a celebration proclaiming the wholesome virtues of American family life and the triumph of the nation. The ritual taunting of the turkey at Thanksgiving is exemplified by a November 1990 Washington Post Magazine article joking about the fate of one of the “pardoned” turkeys following the White House ceremony: “Bob Johnson, owner of Pet Farm Park in Vienna [Virginia], vaguely remembers taking in R.J. (short for Robust Juicy) after his 1984 White House visit. ‘He was robust all right. He was so fat that he couldn’t even walk. He died before Christmas. I mean, he was really a chunko!’” (Yorke 1990, 13).

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his classic study, Rabelais and His World, describes a human behavior pattern that is relevant to our understanding of the role of the turkey at Thanksgiving (1967). It consists of an interplay between piety on the one hand and impiety on the other – solemn sentiments about the Founding Fathers and Plymouth Rock versus a carnivalesque orgy of scorn heaped on a scapegoat. The Thanksgiving turkey is the bearer of impious sentiments deflected from their true causes, such as the obligation to be thankful, whether one has reason to be thankful or not. Opposite the sanctimony, the carnivalesque spirit emphasizes sarcasm, revelry, the banquet, and a grotesque concept of the body. “The theme of mockery and abuse,” Bakhtin writes, “is almost entirely bodily and grotesque” (319).

Though they may seem to be in conflict, the spirit of carnival and the spirit of piety that play off against each other at Thanksgiving are more of a chiaroscuro display of humanity’s need to feel powerful and to show its power by choosing a victim to pick on. Tormenting and ridiculing others are age-old ways of gratifying the will to power and desire to dominate while subduing one’s visceral fear of vulnerability to the hazards of fate and the sinister power of humanity. Analyzing the carnivalesque tradition of the Harvest Festival forerunner of the modern Thanksgiving, Bakhtin offers a perspective on the cravings that are ritualistically gratified in a context of socially permissible outlets for cruelty and violence: “The victorious body receives the defeated world and is renewed by the very taste of the defeated world. Man triumphs over the world, devours it without being devoured himself” (285).

The turkey in the role of carnivalesque victim symbolizes the “devoured and defeated world.” So does Andrew Lawler’s Chicken Conqueror of the World dressed as Napoleon. Nicholas Kristof’s joke about viewing his pork chop as his “intellectual equal” strikes a similar note of carnivalesque humor through a journalistic tradition that satirizes the established order by participating in it and upholding it. This type of journalism was displayed by The Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley, whose curmudgeonly “Gobble Squabble” blamed the “interminable festive season” of Thanksgiving ironically on the turkey who, he said, has “neither feelings nor taste” (1995, D2).

As I noted at the beginning of this chapter, not all journalists are alike. In “Why I Hate Christmas,” published in The New Republic in 1990, James S. Henry described his feelings of sadness about the suffering of turkeys slaughtered for the holidays: “To anyone who has ever been to a turkey farm, Christmas and Thanksgiving take on a new and somewhat less cheerful meaning,” he wrote (21-24). On November 27, 1997, The Washington Times published a sympathetic cover article about United Poultry Concerns (my organization) in its Weekend edition. “Living at Thanksgiving” features a full-page color photograph of our friend’s adopted turkey, Abigail, standing sweetly in our kitchen doorway. Journalist Bradley Marshall writes favorably about our All-Vegetarian Gourmet Potluck Feast and quotes my observation that “Chickens and turkeys are earthy, enchanting creatures, interested in everything they’re doing. To me, they are the epitome of the vulnerable life that we all share.”

A surprisingly happy turn took place when Ira Glass, the creator and popular host of the National Public Radio show, This American Life, which in the 1990s featured a “Poultry Slam” between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, visited our chicken sanctuary at my request and ended up telling millions of viewers on Late Night With David Letterman in 2007 that meeting our chickens caused him to become a vegetarian. The audience was confounded since no one expected Ira Glass to confess in a comic routine that our sanctuary chickens moved him so much that he quit eating animals.

Dominance Through Mentioning

This being said, I think that what I wrote in More Than a Meal in 2001 remains fairly true although the media’s coverage of farmed animal issues may be slightly better overall; it’s hard to say. Regardless, the vegetarian animal rights message is still part of a process that has been aptly described as “dominance through mentioning.” In dominance through mentioning, disturbing truths and iconoclastic viewpoints are “mentioned” so that the opinion makers cannot be accused of omitting them, and to spice up otherwise dull fare – what The Washington Post journalist Tamara Jones called putting “a beak in the monotony” in her article, “The Stuffing of Scandal In Which We Find Juicy Tidbits About the National Turkey” (1996, B1-B2, B17).

More than anything else, as sociologist James Loewen writes in Lies My Teacher Told Me, it is the attitude toward the information presented that constitutes the “dominance” (1995), 85-86). For example, he says that his students seldom or never recall the European plague that destroyed the Wampanoag town of Patuxet that enabled the Pilgrims to take over this Native American town and rename it Plymouth (Massachusetts). He attributes their ignorance to the fact that American textbook writers have traditionally ignored the plague or buried it in a few bland phrases surrounded by glorification of the Pilgrims.

The strategy of dominance by mentioning is evident in the Canadian filmmaker John Kastner’s documentary Chickens are People Too, which aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s weekly television show Witness on November 14, 2000. Kastner and his crew spent three days filming at our chicken sanctuary, in Virginia, for the purpose of creating a “dialogue” between our perspective and sanctuary setting versus the point of view and violence of the poultry and egg industries. Hatchery operators, chicken farmers and chicken catchers freely acknowledge their lack of compassion for the birds. A Mennonite farmer tells Kastner that “God Gave Man Mastery Over the Animals,” a view that is illustrated in the footage of chicken catching at his farm in Ontario.

Despite showing scenes of horrific cruelty to the chickens along with images of the chickens at our sanctuary, Kastner manipulates the “dialogue” by gorging on chicken and eggs in practically every scene he appears in, and the documentary ends with him sitting in a tree with a bucket of fried chicken, listening in his head to our slogan, “Don’t just switch from beef to chicken – get the slaughterhouse out of your kitchen.” The shape of the show is a journey that circles back to the beginning without any change of heart or behavior in the investigator, whose mockery dominates the “mentioning” of the chickens and compassion for them. In his review, television critic Tony Atherton mimics the narrative arc and mocking tone of this “self-styled black comedy about the chicken industry.” Kastner, he concludes, “forces inveterate chicken eaters, like himself, to at least consider the sad life history of Sunday dinner before tucking in” (Atherton 2000, D11).

A typical example of dominance through mentioning appears in a sympathetic opinion-piece published in the Los Angeles Times on November 26, 2015. “Obama’s pardoned turkeys aren’t the only ones deserving of a more humane Thanksgiving” ridicules not the “pardoned” turkey but the pardoning ceremony, while condemning factory farming. The article is accompanied by a beautiful photograph of vegan animal rights advocate Karen Dawn holding a rescued turkey in her Pacific Palisades home, but concludes conventionally that while “[m]ost of us won’t go as far as Dawn does,” people could eat less meat, and just because an animal “is destined to be food on your plate does not excuse torturing the animal before it gets to your plate” (Hall).

Agreed, but how does this destination get disentangled from torturing the animal? A sharper look at the link between “your plate” and the animals who end up on it is provided by Abigail Geer in an article on Care2 on the Internet. In “32 Million Birds Killed, Yet Thanksgiving Dinner is the Media’s Biggest Concern,” Geer decries the fact that most people are so desensitized to the suffering of “food” animals that the widely-reported extermination of millions of turkeys and chickens by the U.S. poultry industry in 2015 to combat bird flu doesn’t seem to bother anyone. She blames the news media for facilitating the public’s indifference: “Mainstream coverage of the bird flu outbreak is not centered around the horrific and terrifying ordeal which the birds are now having to endure, but instead concentrates on the price increases which egg consumers face, and the potential meat shortage which could come in the months to follow.” The Guardian, she points out, chose to lead with a story about “how consumers need not worry, there would be no shortage of turkeys for Thanksgiving” (Geer 2015).

Even the esteemed late journalist, Christopher Hitchens, fell short when it came to animals and vegetarianism. In an essay on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Hitchens mentions the part where Franklin (1706-1790) talks about the event that he says caused him to stop being a vegetarian: “Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I considered . . . the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter.” As Hitchens tells it, seeing the larger fish being gutted and revealing smaller fish inside them resulted in “Franklin’s disavowal of the vegetarian idea” (2011, 23).

However, Franklin doesn’t say that he disavowed the vegetarian idea. Rather, he says that on that occasion, the smell of frying fish was so powerful that it caused him to surrender “principle” to “inclination.” He says that he used the sight of bigger fish filled with smaller fish to rationalize the desire of his senses to eat the fish: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do” (Franklin 1982, 32).

The End of Chicken

Franklin’s account of his surrender to temptation is as relevant today as ever. But times have changed since the eighteenth century. Industrial-scale animal farming is under attack for its massive contribution to global warming, environmental depletion, human and nonhuman animal diseases, and animal cruelty. While mainstream journalists have been slow to make the connections, an undercurrent of Internet coverage has started to surface and spread. Unlike in Franklin’s time, not only is the entire planet in trouble in our era, but an industry based on the development and successful marketing of vegan food products is gaining traction and financial support. Mainstream journalists acknowledge that factory farming is cruel and unsustainable, but along with the growth of vegetarianism and veganism, a movement inspired by Michael Pollan and other “locavores” has created a following for Do It Yourself killing and “humane” animal slaughter in which food is fetishized, veganism is satirized, and animals are treated unkindly. Pollan acknowledges his lack of empathy for animals and how killing and watching them die doesn’t affect him. He seems pretty proud of his lack of affect and of the many opportunities he has in which to share his attitude (Reichl 2013, 11).

Since every day brings media stories replete with reasons for hope and despair, I will end this discussion on the note of cautious optimism expressed by Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, and Jamie Berger, media campaigns coordinator for Mercy For Animals. In “The End of Chicken,” published in 2015 in Aljazeera America, they describe the planetary devastation, animal misery, economic havoc, and food system vulnerability to avian influenza and bacterial diseases that animal agriculture and particularly industrial poultry farms are causing. Yet for these very reasons, Simon and Berger point to the growing enthusiasm of investors and consumers for plant foods “that mimic the taste, texture and cooking properties of eggs and chicken.” On the basis of the encouraging evidence, they predict the possibility of “an animal-free future” for food.

Dare we anticipate with these writers that “breeding animals for food on a massive scale will soon be obsolete,” and that already taking its place are “smarter, cleaner and more economical approaches to food production” that are truly animal-free? If so, then we may look forward with tentative hopefulness to a more compassionately engaged media on behalf of the chickens and other animals journalists write about. Perhaps the day will finally come when no journalist will ever again write unfazed about a fire in which 50,000 chickens burned and suffocated to death and quote the farmer, without question or irony, that it was “devastating to lose the birds, but we are grateful no one was hurt” (Moore and Heath 2015).


Works Cited

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KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Elected to the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry and other groundbreaking books, book chapters and articles examining these issues.