Book Review

The Chicken Book

By Page Smith and Charles Daniel
The University of Georgia Press, 2000
Softcover, 380 pages.
ISBN: 0-8203-2213-X
Price: $18.95
For more information: David DesJardins 706-369-6141

Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD

When I started United Poultry Concerns a decade ago, one of our first members, Ruth Dahl of Minneapolis, Minnesota, sent me her well-thumbed copy of The Chicken Book, first published in 1975. Like me Ruth engaged in an impassioned dialogue with the book, underlining passages and writing in the margins. The Chicken Book invites a passionate response. Anyone who is interested in chickens and in the human relationship with the chicken, worldwide and historically, should buy and read this book.

The Chicken Book is not a happy book, but it is a fascinating one. It presents a jumble of messages including chicken and egg recipes. The two chapters devoted to cockfighting tell you a great deal about this activity, but if you expect Smith and Daniel, who oppose chicken factory farming, to oppose cockfighting, be warned. They show the cruelty, but their main criticism is directed at the "prigs" and "prudes" who historically have opposed cockfighting and sought to outlaw it. Of the British Parliament's decision to ban cockfighting in 1834, they claim, "No one was harmed by cockfighting except the reckless in their pocketbooks."

Cockfighting was, to be sure, a brutal sport, but this is a rather brutal world and it perhaps is not too much to suggest that the passion to reform it might have been directed at worthier targets. (p. 96)

The authors state, and they show, that "There is an abundance of evidence that Western man's rages and lusts, however sublimated their forms, are fully as cruel as those to be found in other cultures" (p. 124). For some people, including the authors, humanity's cruel rages are defensible if they take a classical populist ceremonial form. But when the human rage for cruelty takes a modern industrial form their hackles rise. Smith and Daniel deserve credit for being among the first informative critics of chicken factory farming. They focus particularly on the battery-cage system of egg production. Compared to old- fashioned chicken-keeping, which was being converted to industrial production in the 1950s, "The rows upon rows of neat, clean birds, with their mutilated beaks, in the small cages, were like a glimpse into an Inferno as terrible in its own way as any of the circles of Dante's hell" (p. 287). Here Ruth Dahl cried out with her ballpoint pen, "And No One Cares and Helps Them!"

The Chicken Book describes the poultry genetics mania that began in the 1930s when the biologist John Kimber started Kimber Farms in Fremont, California. "It was his inspiration to apply the most modern discoveries in the rapidly expanding field of genetics to the breeding of chickens for specific purposes--meat or eggs" (pp. 270-271). Noting that the term "Farms" was a concession to popular sentiment, the book observes that the "efficient, white-gowned workers in the antiseptic laboratories of Kimber Farms had little time for sentiment. To them the baby chickens (half of whom were killed at birth and incinerated or fed to the hogs) hatched by the millions in their enormous incubators had to be seen primarily as items on an assembly line. The fact that they were alive was, it seems fair to suggest, incidental" (p. 272).

The Chicken Book has interesting chapters on the chicken in folklore and in "medicine"; the ancients used the testicles of cocks (the authors tell us the term "rooster" was coined by the prudish Victorians) to "treat" impotence and epilepsy, and "Pliny wrote that when a man suffered from chronic headaches a cock should be shut up and forced to abstain from food and water for several days, then its feathers should be plucked from its neck and bound around the patient's head along with the cock's comb" (p. 126).

The Chicken Book contains some of the best writing about chickens anywhere, including passages from Plutarch and the Italian Renaissance writer Ulisse Aldrovandi. Here, for example, is the authors' description of the birth of a chicken:

As each chick emerges from its shell in the dark cave of feathers underneath its mother, it lies for a time like any newborn creature, exhausted, naked, and extremely vulnerable. And as the mother may be taken as the epitome of motherhood, so the newborn chick may be taken as an archetypal representative of babies of all species, human and animal alike, just brought into the world. (p. 317)

The Chicken Book is an important part of the chicken's history. Though for some reason the photos of "a modern incubator" and "a modern chicken factory" are missing in the reprint, society's industrial curse on chickens is etched in words:

Chickens confined, and especially chickens confined in large numbers, like people confined in large numbers, are at their least appealing. In such circumstances, chickens, like people, give off offensive odors; disposing of their cumulative wastes becomes a major problem; they behave badly to each other, bedeviling and pecking each other in boredom and frustration; they become neurotic and susceptible to various diseases of the body and the spirit. This is what happened to chickens. (p. 272)