United Poultry Concerns  

The Experimental Use of Chickens and Other Birds in Biomedical and Agricultural Research

VII.Conclusion: Night of the Living Dead for Birds

“If you think it’s the welfare of the individual animal that really matters here . . . then it would be more humane to have these blind chickens.” — Philosophy professor and director of Purdue University’s Center for Food Animal Productivity and Well-Being, Paul Thompson, speaking at a National Academy of Sciences meeting on genetically modified animals, parts of which meeting were aired on the National Public Radio program, NPR Morning Edition, December 4, 2001.   

On December 4, 2001, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition aired some of the issues raised at a recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) meeting on genetically modified animals (Engineered Animals). The U.S. government had asked the academy to study what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) should consider in permitting genetically modified meat and fish to be sold in grocery stores. So far, the USDA says, “[i]f it looks like a cow, smells like a cow, it is a cow, and you can eat it.” In 1994, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued Points to Consider in the Food Safety Evaluation of Transgenic Animals from Transgenic Animal Research. In this document the Department reiterated its 1986 and 1991 “intention to regulate foods produced by new methods, such as recombinant DNA techniques, within the existing regulations” (p. 1). On September 26, 2002, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology cosponsored a symposium on Animal Cloning and the Production of Food Products – Perspectives from the Food Chain, in Dallas, Texas. Its purpose was to look at the safety of meat and eggs from animals developed through somatic cell cloning (Ednet).

At the NAS meeting, proponents of genetic engineering said that “genetic engineering simply does what nature does, only faster and more precisely.” However, the evidence of animals suffering from horrible birth defects and subsequent bizarre pathologies who were born as a result of genetic engineering experiments completely belies this claim (Kolata; Turner). Scientists assert that what they are doing to nonhuman animals in these experiments could never be morally justified if done to humans, the results are so atrocious. They cite the abnormal speed imposed on normal genetic processes, which in nature take days, months, or years to develop, as one of the main probable causes of “cloning calamities” in genetically modified animals (Kolata).

Thus, along with human health and environmental concerns, animal welfare concerns were noted in NPR’s report on the NAS meeting at which these concerns were raised: The question posed was that “Nobody worries about how the corn feels, but when it comes to animals, is it fair to do this to them?”

The Blind Chicken Solution

In response, agribusiness “philosopher” Paul Thompson, of Purdue University, brought up “the blind chicken problem.”4 He said that chickens blinded by “accident” have been developed into a strain of blind laboratory chickens. These chickens, he said, “don’t mind being crowded together so much as normal chickens do.” Therefore, he said, a suggestion has been made that we “ought to shift over to all blind chickens as a solution to our animal welfare problems associated with crowding in the poultry industry.” Thompson called this a “philosophical conundrum,” because while most people would think that creating blind chickens for the poultry and egg industry is “an absolutely horrendous thing to do,” if it’s “the welfare of the individual animal that really matters here, how the animals are doing, then it would be more humane to have these blind chickens.”

The Headless Chicken Solution

Another scenario is getting rid of the birds’ heads. In 1993, Robert Burruss wrote an essay in The Baltimore Sun in which he predicted that the future of chicken and egg production will include birds “beheaded and hooked up en masse to industrial-scale versions of the heart-lung machines.” Since these birds won’t move, cages will be obsolete. Nutrients, hormones and metabolic stimulants will be fed “in superabundance into mechanically oxygenated blood to crank up egg production.” Since no digestive tract will be needed, “it can go when the head goes, along with the heart and lungs and the feathers, too. The naked headless, gutless chicken will crank out eggs till its ovaries burn out. When a sensor senses that no egg has dropped within the last four or six hours, the carcass will be released onto a conveyer, chopped, sliced, steamed and made into soup, burgers and dogfood” (Burruss).

Such fantasies are not fanciful. They are a mere “apotheosis” of what is already happening, “probably already in the works,” as Burruss writes. Because of us, he says, chickens already have “bleak lives.” Because of us, they already live in “concentration camps.” Indeed, as we have seen in this paper, they are totally in the hands of Dr. Mengele.5

In her book Minds of Their Own (1997), bird specialist Lesley J. Rogers says that an ultimate aim of breeding programs for chickens and other domestic animals is to obtain minds “so blunted that they will passively accept overcrowded housing conditions and having virtually nothing to do but eat—and then to eat standard and boring food delivered automatically” (p. 185). Thus far, there is “no evidence” that chickens have become so mentally blunted that they need or want no more stimulation than they receive in battery farms, and indeed, when chickens and other farmed animals are reintroduced to more natural conditions, “they adapt rapidly to the better conditions.” It is possible to change some aspects of their behavior by selective breeding, but only within limits, Rogers says. Domestic animals may be more accepting of humans, but these behaviors “reflect temperament and motivation, not cognitive abilities” (p. 185).

However, given that in industrial farming “the identities of individual animals are completely lost” and animals are seen only as “bodies, to be fattened or to lay eggs,” their “higher cognitive abilities are ignored and definitely unwanted,” Rogers explains. Perhaps, in time, genetic engineers will “knock out” the brain genes of these animals and the genes responsible for their sense of being alive. Meanwhile, although domesticated chickens “have retained complex cognitive abilities,” we treat these birds viciously, and in the new age of genetic engineering, we will treat them even worse. They will suffer in even greater numbers from human-created disabilities, and though they will continue to possess minds and consciousness, “they will not be treated as such” (Rogers, p. 185).

It is fitting that Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS, was a chicken breeding experimenter (Patterson, p. 100). As tens of millions of birds who are being tortured in laboratories throughout the world know well, that man may be dead, but his genes have a life of their own.

<< Back to Contents | Next Section >>