Spring 2014 Poultry Press NEXT
Bookmark and Share
Chickens’ Lib: The Story of a Campaign
chickens lib

By Clare Druce
Bluemoose Books, 2013

333 pages including References & 16 pages of photographs

Review by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

“In a campaign one must aim high.” – Clare Druce, Chickens’ Lib

Clare Druce, cofounder of U.K.-based Chickens’ Lib, presents a harrowing, often grimly humorous account of her organization’s 40-year fight to expose and eliminate the industrialized farming of chickens and other birds and animals in the United Kingdom and the European Union. Following Ruth Harrison, whose 1964 book Animal Machines forced the hidden facts of 20th-century factory farming into public awareness, Clare Druce, a professional clarinetist with a husband and two children, and her mother, Violet Spalding, launched a crusade on behalf of battery-caged hens in the early 1970s.

Chickens’ Lib was the first organization in the world to specialize in exposing the suffering of egg-laying hens and baby “broiler” chickens, and to advocate for their rights. Clare’s 1989 book Chicken and Egg: Who Pays the Price? was the first book to focus specifically on the newly formed poultry and egg industries designed to produce cheap food for the masses after World War Two. Her books Chicken and Egg and Minny’s Dream, along with Chickens’ Lib’s videos Sentenced for Life, Chicken for Dinner and Hidden Suffering, and the organization’s powerful posters and steady flow of scrupulously documented fact sheets and action alerts, educated me and thousands of other people about modern poultry and egg production and the intense suffering inflicted on birds for their flesh and eggs. It was Clare who in the early 1990s made me aware of the gruesome effort to raise ostriches and emus for meat in the U.S. and the U.K. and who prompted my discovery of the horrible ostrich industry in South Africa in which ostriches were, and probably still are, plucked alive for their plumes.

plucked ostrich

Chickens’ Lib: The Story of a Campaign is about building a force of resistance against what Violet Spalding (who died in 1999) told a reporter in 1973 is a “story of calculated cruelty.” The slogan Chickens’ Lib – fighting cruelty evolved, through horrific revelations recounted in the book, to include egg-laying hens, chickens, turkeys and ducks raised for meat, the factory farming of quails, ostriches and game birds, and the sadistic business of pheasant hunting.

The calculated cruelties exposed by Chickens’ Lib are those of the British and European governments and the industries they support. The culprits include the Church of England and a group of nuns who told the press, “Our ten thousand nuns [hens] are quite happy. They sit in their cages all day long and sing.” Druce describes her visit to the nuns’ farm in 1978:

We’d not, of course, expected to find a good battery unit (for there’s no such thing) but with women in charge – nuns, even – might there perhaps be just a hint of mercy? As it turned out, no, there was not. This was a business, with hens as raw material and eggs the finished product.

These birds’ combs were exceptionally pale, even for battery hens, and we felt certain the cages were overstocked. The inevitable feeling of stress hit us, along with the appalling smell. Suddenly I was near to throwing up, and I thought afterwards how that would have served these women right. For the place was, literally, sickening.

battery cages nightmare

By contrast, a government Veterinary Officer, who visited the nuns’ farm in response to Chickens’ Lib’s call for an investigation, reportedly found “no evidence that the birds were suffering unnecessary pain or distress” to the extent that any welfare laws were being broken. This is the government response in case after case: “No evidence of unnecessary pain or unnecessary distress was found.”

The book begins with Clare and Violet demonstrating in Parliament Square on a cold rainy day in 1971. Covered in plastic are four former battery hens in a cage. Five human beings occupy another cage. The purpose of the not yet named Chickens’ Lib demonstrators is to challenge the Agriculture Minister to “end the birds’ suffering” by exposing the condition of hens whose eggs are being falsely sold as “farm fresh.” Clare and her mother stand ready with their press releases wondering whether press will show up, when out of the gloom a reporter and a cameraman from the illustrious Guardian newspaper appear and provide excellent coverage the next day.

When you launch a campaign for “food” animals and start off getting great press, you might fantasize that the abuses you’re exposing will be quickly eliminated. Such fantasies dissolve in the face of powerful vested interests, bureaucracy, and the desire of consumers for cheap products and comforting reassurances that everything is “humane.” Far from being defeated by these obstacles, Chickens’ Lib became an implacable opponent of government-protected animal cruelty and a vigorous voice for suffering birds.

Alternately patronized as “little old ladies” and “young ladies,” accused of being “undercover agents,” Clare and Violet shock the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now called the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, or DEFRA) by bringing a group of poor little ravaged hens into the Ministry’s London offices. They carry a shopping bag filled with ulcerated ammonia-burned chickens’ feet to a Ministry meeting where officials drone on: “But how can we be certain chickens suffer without further research?” “I have here official proof of the suffering of broiler chickens,” Druce tells them and opens her bag of “sad amputated bits and pieces” from which “the putrid stench of rotting flesh” wafts around the boardroom. Once, after getting the brush-off, Clare and Violet take five hens into Wakefield cathedral during a church service, only to be thrown out by the Provost. “This is most improper,” he thunders. “Battery farms are most improper too,” they yell back.

ulcerated wish you could have met boyo

Describing their campaign to educate the public about the brutal turkey industry including “sexual manipulation of sick and deformed male birds,” and the growth of Salmonella and antibiotic resistance worldwide, Druce writes: “Some might say Chickens’ Lib displayed foolish optimism, with this talk of preventing the expansion of the turkey industry. But in a campaign one must aim high.” Their aim remains high despite the disappointments they encounter, as when a veterinary surgeon employed by the RSPCA and assumed to be helpful pronounces “the most pitiful and naked” hen in a little flock of rescues to be “more than happy.” You can see this hen, Felicity, and her friends on our poster Walking to Freedom After a Year in Cages, courtesy of Chickens’ Lib.

walking to freedom

In “Factory farming’s smallest victim,” Druce describes the British government’s manufacture of a quail meat and egg industry. Already established in some other European countries and in Asia, quail factory farming was officially launched in Britain in 1985. Druce evokes the misery of these shy little birds in their filthy battery cages and poultry scientists’ depiction of how a quail’s instinct to make “a sudden and strong vertical take-off leap” of self-protection in its natural habitat causes the birds to bang and injure their heads repeatedly against the top of their cages in their frustrated effort to make that leap.

victims of sport

In her chapter “The Sporting Life,” Druce draws attention to the game bird industry. Victims of the tradition of organized bird-shooting parties, pheasants and other avian species targeted for assault are debeaked and fitted with clamps, spectacles, and other sociopathic devices that, added to the squalor in which they are raised for the massacre that awaits them, result in inflamed nostrils and beaks, septicemia, arthritis, brain disease, tumors, blindness, chronic pain, terror and other pathologies duly reported in the Veterinary Record, the weekly journal of the veterinary profession.

It isn’t just Britain, of course. As Druce writes on page 232: “Most of our knowledge about game birds has been based on practices in the UK, but while writing this chapter I’ve looked at various websites. One day I lit upon a hauntingly sad image from America. A sturdy leather harness encircles a live pheasant as she lies helpless on the grass, denied any hope of movement, let alone escape. The device comes in different sizes to suit different types of birds, including the tiny quail, and is an aid for training gun dogs.”

For me, this image epitomizes the plight of nonhuman animals with humans. What can be done?

A purpose in writing Chickens’ Lib, Druce explains, is “to highlight the lack of enforcement” of animal welfare legislation in the United Kingdom and the European Union. Chickens’ Lib has spent 40 years investigating violations of various welfare laws and presenting the evidence to inert government officials; still, she argues that an informed public must persist in challenging governments “who have issued legislation demanding comfort and well-being under systems that preclude both.”

I cannot disagree with this argument; however, short of a radical change in humanity’s eating habits, and a revolution in our attitude toward nonhuman animals, such systems will never go away unless Nature itself intervenes. Right now these systems are expanding rapidly throughout the world as the human population grows and people with money to spend consume ever more animal products. The U.K. no less than the U.S. – which doesn’t even have federal laws “protecting” farmed animals apart from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, whose methods are not humane and which is not enforced and excludes all birds and fish – is part of a global system of animal production too big to imagine. This system cannot be fixed as long as a market for animal products exists.

delicate lady “Delicate” lady with dying turkey, by Sue Coe

Proposals to restore the “traditional farm” ignore the fact that old-fashioned farming, in Britain and everywhere else, has always involved cruelty to animals including whipping pigs to soften their flesh, blinding geese to keep them immobilized, slow cooking of live birds in front of fireplaces, hanging turkeys and calves upside down to bleed them out slowly through holes cut into their throats – the list goes on. These days the back-to-the-small-farm people show scarcely, if any, more compassion for chickens and other animals bound for the table than the factory farm model they claim to reject, but in fact simply imitate. As activists, we must insist upon a totally different relationship with nonhuman animals, one that translates not just into “welfare” laws for legally enslaved property, but Rights for our fellow creatures. Near the end of Chickens’ Lib, Clare writes:

In the early days of Chickens’ Lib Violet and I were able to face the harrowing East End butchers’ shops, and later the battery sheds, because we needed first-hand knowledge – plus the hens. We tried not to dwell on their misery – constantly thinking about it could become destructive. I did develop a personal technique for bad moments, though. If I felt nervous, for example before giving a talk, I’d imagine myself inside a battery shed. That’s why I’m doing this, I’d tell myself. Think about the hens. Go for it.

But sometimes pictures come into my mind unbidden, unwanted even. A battery hen is waking up after yet another night spent crouching on the grid of the cage floor or, if in a so-called enriched cage, perched on a plastic rod. It’s about 3am in the shed, and the rows of dim, cobweb-festooned lights have just come on, to ensure that most eggs will be laid early, to fit in with the farmer’s schedule. Once again, she must face another seventeen-hour ‘day’ of boredom and frustration, pain and misery.

I find that image intolerably sad, the more so because the exclusion of the enriched cage from the 2012 barren battery cage ban illustrates the grim fact that, despite all the campaigning by activists, the EU hasn’t moved on very far at all.

This is crushing, frustrating, and infuriating, but there is only one thing for us to do in the face of such sorrow and evil. Fight on. The story of a campaign for animals is this: we have only just begun the worldwide crusade for animals and animal liberation, and we are here for good and forever. Chickens’ Lib, by whatever name, will carry on through those who follow, building our strength, leading the way. – Karen Davis

Spring 2014 Poultry Press NEXT