This paper was presented at the International Conference on The
Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History,
Yale University, New Haven, CT, May 17 - May 19, 2002.
Then they all settled down in the soft green shade of the lemon
tree, with each little chick taking its turn to fly up to the best
and softest seat on Granny Black's back. And while they waited for
the sun to go down again, she told them about the great big world
outside the chick run, or the days when she was a chick, or the
story she liked telling best of all-the Miracle story about
Eggs. How the broken fragments they had hatched from were once
smooth, complete shapes; how every chicken that ever was had
hatched out in exactly the same way; how only chooks could lay
such beauties; and how every time they did, they were so filled
with joy that they could not stay quiet, but had to burst into
song; and how their song was taken up by England the cock and
echoed by every single hen in the Run.
--Mary Gage, Praise the Egg(1981, 11).
In this paper I look at some of the ways in which chickens have
figured in Western discourse through history, with a focus on the
symbolic appearance of the chicken in the contemporary environmental
and animal advocacy movements, and in media culture, reflecting
primarily the mass production of chickens for food. The morality at
issue is the extent to which the real nature of chickens has been
accurately portrayed or distorted in the guise of the symbolic
chicken, and the political uses to which the symbolic chicken has
been put. I raise questions concerning the extent to which the real
bird is present in or absent from the symbolic bird, and the
implication of elaborating myths and images around individuals and
groups for the purpose of exploiting them. I consider the chicken in
part as a "feminine" symbol in Victorian and contemporary culture.
The Chicken is an Archetype of Mother and Child
The chicken figures as a symbol of parental and spiritual love in the
literature of the West. In Matthew 23:37, for example, Jesus invokes
the symbol of a mother hen and her chicks to express the relationship
he desires to have with the Hebrew people when he says, "O, Jerusalem
. . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as
a hen gathers her chickens under her wings." Jesus uses the hen and
her sheltering wings not only as a metaphor for his desired
relationship with Israel but as a symbol of Christian love conceived
in the image of a mother's love for her children. The hen symbolizes
ideal maternal love and Christian love: she is self-sacrificing,
nurturing, protective, and comforting. The chicks, who like human
youngsters are precious though inclined to be errant, symbolize the
Hebrew people as Jesus is portrayed as having viewed them with
respect to his mission.
Foregoing orthodoxy while maintaining a sense of the sacred in
earthly life, Page Smith and Charles Daniel evoke the hen and her
chicks in an elegiac and symbolic tribute to the chicken in The
Chicken Book, when they write: "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" (Smith and Daniel, 321).
This tribute is elegiac, because The Chicken Book is about the "rise"
and "fall"--the "tragedy"--of the chicken, as is noted in the book's
original 1975 subtitle. Historically, The Chicken Book appeared at
the beginning of the last quarter of the 20th century, by which time
the natural life of the chicken, along with symbols and images of the
chicken as a model of courage and domestic virtues, had been replaced
by the so-called industrial chicken, a lumpen product divorced from
the land and from everybody's family life, especially the bird's own,
and represented in correspondingly demeaning and industrialized
images. While it would be rash to suggest that before the 20th
century, the life of chickens was rosy, ahead lay a fate that
premonition would have tried in vain to prevent from coming to pass,
a fate embedded in attitudes and practices of the past.
Classical, Renaissance, and Victorian Regard for Chickens
In the chapter entitled "The Century of the Chicken," in The Chicken
Book, Smith and Daniel document the decisive period of the chicken's
catastrophe as having begun in the 1830s, when Eastern fowl were
imported into the West. During this time, the chicken fell under the
influence of what the authors call an "intoxication of
inquisitiveness" towards the bird, an intoxication that continues.
The appearance of the chickens from Asia--Shanghais (later called
Cochins), Brahmas, and Malays--launched an obsession with chicken
breeding whereby, in the words of Smith and Daniel, the chicken
became "as powerful a totemic figure in the barnyards of amateur
scientists as it had been for centuries in primitive tribes" (205).
The new magic that inhered in the bird was "the mundane magic" of
genetics, "scientific magic whereby a man (much less frequently a
woman) could shape and mold and modify another living creature to his
own desire and intent" (226). As with cockfighting, the
chicken-breeding mania brought men of leisure and working men
together in a frenetic competitive "democracy," in this case
consisting of breeding experiments, poultry shows, blue-ribbon
prizes, and a proliferation of new breeds, colors, conformations,
sizes, and strains of chickens.
The hen, as noted, has long been viewed as a paragon of motherhood.
The First Century A.D. Roman historian and biographer Plutarch wrote
praisingly of the hen in De amore parentis, "What of the hens whom we
observe each day at home, with what care and assiduity they govern
and guard their chicks? Some let down their wings for the chicks to
come under; others arch their backs for them to climb upon; there is
no part of their bodies with which they do not wish to cherish their
chicks if they can, nor do they do this without a joy and alacrity
which they seem to exhibit by the sound of their voices" (quoted in
Smith and Daniel, 160, and Davis 1996, 31).
The Italian Renaissance ornithologist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, wrote of
mother hens in the 16th century: "They follow their chicks with such
great love that, if they see or spy at a distance any harmful animal,
such as a kite or a weasel or someone even larger stalking their
little ones, the hens first gather them under the shadow of their
wings, and with this covering they put up such a very fierce
defense-striking fear into their opponent in the midst of a frightful
clamor, using both wings and beak-they would rather die for their
chicks than seek safety in flight. . . . Thus they present a noble
example in love of their offspring, as also when they feed them,
offering the food they have collected and neglecting their own
hunger." (quoted in Smith and Daniel, 162, and Davis 1996, 31).
The rooster has been similarly praised. Historically esteemed for his
sexual vigor and figuring in religious history as a symbol of divine
fertility and the life force, the cock, or rooster, as he became
known in the Victorian period, was extolled for his domestic virtues
as well. According to Aldrovandi, the cock is "the example of the
best and truest father of a family. For he not only presents himself
as a vigilant guardian of his little ones, and in the morning, at the
proper time, invites us to our daily labor; but he sallies forth as
the first, not only with his crowing, by which he shows what must be
done, but he sweeps everything, explores and spies out everything."
Finding food, he "calls both hens and chicks together to eat it while
he stands like a father and host at a banquet . . . inviting them to
the feast, exercised by a single care, that they should find
something nearby, and when he has found it, he calls his family again
in a loud voice. They run to the spot. He stretches himself up, looks
around for any danger that may be near, runs about the entire poultry
yard, here and there plucking up a grain or two for himself without
ceasing to invite the others to follow him." (quoted in Smith and
Daniel, 65, and Davis 1996, 33).
Likewise, a 19th-century chicken breeder wrote to a friend that his
Shanghai cock was "very attentive to his Hens, and exercises a most
fatherly care over the Chicks in his yard. . . He frequently would
allow them to perch on his back, and in this manner carry them into
the house, and then up the chicken ladder" (quoted in Smith and
Daniel, 216, and Davis 1996, 33).
The 19th-century enthusiasm for the chicken, which perhaps should
more accurately be called enthusiasm for breeding and manipulating
the chicken, though not without affection for the bird on the part of
many enthusiasts, resulted in a close scrutiny of the chicken's
behavior and in writings that recorded this scrutiny. Observers
ascribed to the cock and hen a set of Victorian virtues based on what
they saw. The relationship between the rooster and hen seemed to
reflect the ideal relationship between a Victorian husband and wife.
As Smith and Daniel write: "The attentive and courtly cock was
described as the kindly arbiter of the barnyard, the keeper of order,
the defender of the female. And she, of course, was, in her plump,
comforting shape, the epitome of the uxorious, the dutiful wife who
laid her eggs and faithfully attended to her children, never
presuming to intrude into her husband's world. The splendor of the
cock and the simple comeliness of the hen comported almost ideally
with the Victorian male's image of himself in relation to the
opposite sex, and there is no doubt that the popularity of 'domestic
fowl' with upper-class Victorians was in part a consequence of the
relative ease with which they could be transformed into symbols of
domestic felicity in human society" (Smith and Daniel, 223).
In addition, the birds seemed to symbolize the sexual underside of
Victorian domestic bliss. Just as the cock's being a dutiful husband
and father did not stop him from chasing after other hens in the
barnyard and exuding a sexual energy in excess of his spousal duties,
so the Victorian male's being a dutiful husband and father did not
prevent him from pursuing maids, prostitutes, and lower-class women
generally. It could be, as Smith and Daniel speculate, that Victorian
wives who took refuge in childbearing from the sexual demands of
their husbands learned this strategy from the hens in the poultry
yard, who, when brooding eggs and chicks, were left alone by the
roosters. At least they couldn't fail to see the analogy (Smith and
Daniel, 222-225). It could also be that these "strategies" are simply
common features in the lives of the female sex of both species.
The Family Life and Social Behavior of Wild and Feral Chickens
It is one of those moments that will be engraved on my brain
forever. For I really saw her. She was small and gray, flecked
with black; so were her chicks. She had a healthy red comb and
quick, light-brown eyes. She was that proud, chunky chicken shape
that makes one feel always that chickens, and hens especially,
have personality and will. Her steps were neat and quick and
authoritative; and though she never touched her chicks, it was
obvious she was shepherding them along. She clucked impatiently
when, our feet falling ever nearer, one of them, especially
self-absorbed and perhaps hard-headed, ceased to respond. -- Alice
Walker, "Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road?"
The descriptions of chicken behavior thus far cited, and the symbols
and analogies this behavior provided to the Victorians, belong to a
time when chickens still roamed rather freely, living in a manner not
totally dissimilar to that of their wild and feral relatives. The
chicken's family unit and social organization were still more or less
intact, and many farm birds spent most of their day foraging in the
woods and fields and drinking from brooks and springs. It is thus
useful at this point, before moving on to the modern industrial phase
of the chicken which was then in the making, to look briefly at some
of the behavior of feral chickens as described by 20th-century
ethologists. When living on their own, what do chickens do?
In a field study of feral chickens on a coral island northeast of
Queensland, Australia in the 1960s, McBride and his colleagues
recorded the birds' social and parental behavior over the course of a
year. Here, for example, is a hen and her chicks in a moment of human
When a broody hen with very young chicks is disturbed by a man,
the hen gives a full display and the alarm cackle. When pressed
closely, the hen hides her chicks in the following way: she
regularly turns and makes a short charge at her pursuer. As she
turns, she pushes one or two of her chicks into a hollow, while
giving a particularly loud squawk among the clucks. If the chick
finds the hollow, it remains still while extremely well
camouflaged. If not hidden, it gives a strong distress chirp and
the dam [hen] returns for it.
Once the chicks are all safely hidden, the hen gives an alarm call
that is "taken up by distant males who converge on the dam" (McBride
140). In the following scene, we see the rooster with his hens and
When a group moved it was the male who gathered the females
together before moving. The hens maintained contact with him while
moving, and he controlled the movement when it crossed open
ground. When disturbed he gave the alarm call and walked parallel
to the predator or potential predator while the hens quietly hid.
When the flock was disturbed, males were actually observed to
drive the females away, by rushing toward them with wings spread.
While hens fed, males spent the majority of the time on guard in
the tail-up, wing-down alert posture. . . . Males used the typical
broody hen display when charging, tail fanned, wings down and
feathers puffed. Both went to roost in the trees at night and
called the brood or flock to them. (McBride, 143)
While they were raising their chicks, the hens separated from the
roosters, rejoining them after their chicks were weaned in about six
weeks or so. Thereafter, "[t]he flocks comprised one alpha male, four
to twelve females, with up to six subordinate males roosting on the
same range. The cock was the center of his flock; closest to him were
the older dominant hens and the young subordinate pullets were at the
periphery. The subordinate cocks were also at the periphery, or
solitary as they moved between flocks" (McBride, 131).
Occasionally roosters from other territories joined the flock, but
according to the investigators, "No serious fights were observed
during any of these intrusions, though the males made several rushes
at each other" (135). Typically, the "trespassing territorial males
left after a contest involving crowing, display and territorial
tidbitting" (135), and in the non-breeding season, the areas became
"overlapping territories" in which all of the birds and their progeny
mingled (133). The only real fight the investigators ever saw among
roosters took place in a pen, and this fight, which for one bird was
fatal, they attribute to "the restriction of movements in the pen, as
well as to the inability of a defeated bird to escape by flying into
a tree" (McBride, 158).
Chickens Relegated to the Wasteland of Foregone Conclusions
They have been bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and
dependency. It is literally meaningless to suggest that they be
liberated. --J. Baird Callicott (1980, 330)
Although there are places in the world where chickens continue to
roam free, as described in the McBride study above, most chickens no
longer live outdoors. Nor do they enjoy the "pampered" life of the
domestic chickens of the Victorian period. The majority of
chickens-billions of them in the United States alone-live in barren
ammonia-filled buildings, totally out of sight. Hens used for egg
production are not only confined in buildings, but in cages in which
they have no litter, no nests, no perches, and no ability to move (de
Boer and Cornelissen 2002, 176). Like factory-farmed animals in
general, these chickens are frequently dismissed as beyond the pale
of moral concern because, it is argued, they have been bred to a
substandard state of intelligence and biological fitness, and because
they are "just food" that is "going to be killed anyway." Moreover,
the environmental havoc wrought by concentrating millions of chickens
in small areas exceeding the capacity of the land to sustain them has
led some environmentalists to blame them for the mess, as if they,
and not we, were responsible for their predicament and its unwanted
consequences. This base element in environmental ethics is epitomized
in an article that appeared a little over twenty years ago.
In 1980, an environmentalist named J. Baird Callicott published an
article in the journal Environmental Ethics, in which he sought to
distinguish between the moral status of "domestic" animals and the
moral status of "wild" animals. He based his argument on criteria
derived from The Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold, whom Callicott describes
as "universally recognized as the father or founding genius of recent
environmental ethics" (Callicott 1980, 313). In putting the terms
"domestic" and "wild" in quotation marks, I draw attention to the
presumption these terms entail concerning the actual nature of
creatures versus the categories we impose upon them to suit our own
purposes. While the Victorians regarded domestic life as having a
vital niche in the natural and social order, the environmental
movement, which began in the middle of the 20th century, challenged
this viewpoint. In particular, genetically manipulated factory-farmed
animals were condemned as virtually worthless forms of existence
instead of the just accusation that they have been deprived of a life
In "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," Callicott draws upon the
"father" of the modern environmental movement, Aldo Leopold, to argue
that 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 contributed, 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." Domestic
animals, farmed animals in particular, "have been bred to docility,
tractability, stupidity, and dependency." They are "creatures 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 meaningless as "to speak of the natural
behavior of tables and chairs." Leopold, apparently, did not consider
"the treatment of brood hens on a factory farm or steers in a feed
lot to be a pressing moral issue" (Callicott 1980, 330). Therefore,
neither the moral nor the physical ecology in which we force these
animals to live is relevant to the "philosophical aspects of
environmental problems" (Hargrove 1992).
Viva, the Chicken Hen
Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to
the howl of a wolf. --Aldo Leopold 1949 (1996, 137)
If I think like a mountain, will I be able to hear this hen
singing? --Karen Davis (1995, 203)
Not long after the Callicott article appeared, I moved to a 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 I later wrote
about her (Davis 1990), I described how one day in August, I was
surprised to discover the chicken shed, which I had gotten into the
habit of visiting, deserted, until I saw one severely crippled hen
stumbling around by herself inside . I took this hen, whom I named
Viva, into our house, where she lived with my husband and me until
she died a few months later in November.
Though Viva was crippled, she was resourceful and eager 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. She would always talk to me
with her frail "peep" that never got any louder and seemed to come
from somewhere in the center of her body that 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.
The Rhetoric of Exploitation
This kind of nature and experience did not seem to have a niche in
environmental ethics, including the radical branch of deep ecology,
in which "things natural, wild, and free" are celebrated as
corresponding to the "human" order of experience and idealized
existence while the rest of things are relegated to the wasteland of
foregone conclusions. The complacent view, upheld by the
environmentalists, that farmed animals in general, and chickens in
particular, are disentitled to moral consideration, that they are
content with, intended for, and even consensual partners in their
miserable fate, has made it easy for agribusiness to mislead the
public into believing that these animals do not suffer very much from
being treated in ways that would drive wild animals and humans-men
anyway--insane. Thus, egg producers blandly assert that hens in
battery cages are "happy," because they lay many eggs, whereas the
real reason these hens lay many eggs, often even when they are sick
and dying, is that they are subjected to artificially extended
daylight hours and other manipulations that keep their overworked
ovaries pumping out eggs (Duncan 1999). Likewise, the broiler
chicken industry will tell you that the birds' rapid weight gain and
large size are "proof" that the birds are healthy, whereas in reality
these traits signify exactly the opposite. Broiler chickens are
fragile overgrown baby birds afflicted with metabolic disorders,
painful lameness, obesity, and other systemic diseases associated
with poor health and suffering in humans (Duncan 1994; 2001).
In what I thus refer to as the rhetoric of exploitation, those who
subjugate others, for whatever reason, insist that their victims have
an a priori ontological status whereby their very being is synonymous
with the diminished roles assigned to them. The focus is shifted away
from "this is how we use them" or "this is what we do to them" to
"this is who they are" and even to "this is what they want." The
exploited ones are conveniently stripped of all autonomy save that of
masochism and their "choice" of being slaves and the deprecated
instruments of the exploiter's will. Not only are the exploiters
relieved of accountability towards their victims; they will even
cynically insist that their victims are luckier than they are. I've
heard it said in the poultry industry and the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, "these chickens live (or eat) better than we do." Yet no
one is asking to take the birds' place or reprimanding their
colleagues for "anthropomorphism."
Those who question the treatment of intensively raised chickens are
assured that the birds are not suffering and that their situation is
actually an improvement over their former way of life on range or in
the woods and fields, just as the slaveholders insisted that African
Americans were better off in being slaves than in being free, because
now they were being "taken care of" and because it was better to be a
slave in a "civilized Christian" society (to be "domesticated") than
to be at liberty in a heathen jungle (to be "wild"). Another
assertion is that we cannot know whether chickens are really
suffering, despite every indication pointing to the conclusion that
they are suffering, because chickens "can't speak," as if their body
language and tones of voice comparable to our own became
indecipherable in the field of commerce. Also, we are told that it is
"meaningless" to compare the suffering of a chicken with that of a
human being. As one chicken farmer confronted with the suffering of
his birds exploded, "How the hell can you compare the feelings of a
hen with those of a human being?" (Church cited in Davis 1996, 19). I
myself have been upbraided on talk shows by radio hosts over the past
several months with: "How do you dare to compare the suffering and
death of thirty-five million chickens with the suffering and death of
thousands of innocent people on 9/11?" (Stern).
My answer is, "easily." In addition to the much larger number of
innocent chickens who were killed, and the horrible deaths they
endured in the slaughterhouses that day, and every day, was the
misery of their lives leading up to their horrible death, including
the terror attack they endured several hours or days before they were
killed, euphemistically referred to as "chicken catching." I compare
all this to the relatively satisfying lives of the majority of human
victims of the 9/11 attack prior to the attack and add that we have a
plethora of palliatives, ranging from proclaiming ourselves heroes
and avengers to the consolation of family and friends to the relief
of painkilling drugs and alcoholic beverages, and more, including our
ability to make some sort of conspecific sense of the tragedy,
whereas the chickens have no insulation, no compensation, no
comprehension, and no relief. Biologist Marian Stamp Dawkins has
pointed out that other species including chickens may very well
suffer in states "that no human has ever dreamed of or experienced"
(Dawkins 1985, 29). The fact that intensively raised chickens are
forced to live in systems that do not reflect their psyches, but
rather ours, makes it inevitable that they are suffering in ways that
As sentient creatures, we have enough in common with chickens to make
reasonable judgments about their suffering, and we have ample
scientific evidence to support empathy for them. The idea that human
beings cannot logically recognize suffering in a chicken, or draw
meaningful conclusions about how a human being would react to the
conditions under which a caged hen lives, or about how the hen feels
behind bars, is unfounded, because there is a basis for empathy and
understanding in the fact of human evolutionary continuity with other
creatures that enables us to recognize and infer, in those creatures,
experiences similar to our own. We are told that we humans are
capable of knowing just about anything that we want to know-except,
ironically, what it feels like to be one of our victims. We are told
we are being "emotional" if we care about a chicken and grieve over a
chicken's plight. However, it is not "emotion" that is really under
attack, but the vicarious "feminine" emotions of pity, sympathy,
compassion, sorrow, and indignity on behalf of the victim, a fellow
creature-emotions that undermine business as usual. By contrast, such
"manly" emotions as patriotism, pride, conquest, and mastery are
encouraged (Davis 1996, 19-20).
The Rhetoric of Apology
It is partly under this oppressive cloud that the animal advocacy
movement has sometimes suffered anxiety about its own mission. When I
first became involved in the animal rights movement in the 1980s, I
was struck by what I subsequently termed the rhetoric of apology in
animal rights (Davis 1994), our tendency to try to win people over
and show solidarity with our species by deprecating ourselves, the
animals, and our goals when speaking before the press and the public,
as when an advocate begins a sentence with "I know I sound crazy, but
. . ." I once heard a demonstrator tell a reporter at a protest at a
chicken slaughterhouse, "I'm sure Frank Perdue thinks we're all a
bunch of kooks for caring about chickens, but . . ." I thought, does
it matter what the Frank Perdues of this world "think" about
anything? Frank Perdue is a mass murderer with the soul and criminal
record of a gangster (Ruling). Can we imagine him standing in front
of a camera, saying, "I know the animal rights advocates think I'm a
kook, but . . .?"
A further aspect of the rhetoric of apology in animal rights is the
idea of selective nonhuman animal "personhood," whereby certain
animals are being patronizingly "elevated" to the level of the least
competent members of human society-human babies and the cognitively
disabled-as a basis on which to establish a claim for their (and
perhaps eventually some other animals') legal recognition or
"rights." The proposal of the Great Ape Project to extend the moral
"community of equals to include all great apes" could very well be
the beginning of a larger break in the species barrier (Cavalieri and
Singer, 4), but the assumption that "some animals are more equal than
others" and that mentally intact, functioning adult members of other
species are comparable to human infants and the mentally challenged
is elitism (Davis 1995-1996). In this outlook, humans are still the
crown of creation, and all other mammals are inferior forms of
existence by comparison, similar to the "domestic" animals of
environmental ethics vis a vis "wild" animals. Birds aren't even in
the picture, even though in her book The Development of Brain and
Behaviour in the Chicken, avian physiologist and ethologist Lesley J.
Rogers says that "it is now clear that birds have cognitive
capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates," and "With
increased knowledge of the behaviour and cognitive abilities of the
chicken has come the realization that the chicken is not an inferior
species to be treated merely as a food source" (Rogers 1995, 213,
Chickens are Sensitive Beings with Minds of Their Own
In Minds of Their Own, Rogers raises the question whether domestic
animals have "lesser minds," and she observes that:
An ultimate aim of breeding programs for domestic animals is to
obtain animals that have 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. There is no evidence that domestic chickens, or
other domestic breeds, have been so cognitively blunted that they
need or want no more behavioural stimulation than they receive in
battery farms. In fact, if domestic breeds are reintroduced to
more natural conditions and bred there, they adapt rapidly to the
better conditions. It is possible to change some aspects of
behaviour by selective breeding but only within limits. Domestic
breeds may be more docile, or less fearful and more accepting of
the presence of humans, but these behaviours reflect temperament
and motivation, not cognitive abilities (Rogers 1997, 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, . . . [t]heir higher
cognitive abilities are ignored and definitely unwanted."
Meanwhile, Rogers says, domesticated chickens "have retained complex
cognitive abilities." The view that they are stupid "has more to do
with how we think of chickens than with the abilities of the chickens
themselves" (Rogers 1997, 184). In the new age of genetic
engineering, chickens will be treated even worse than they are now.
They will suffer in ever greater numbers from human-created
disabilities, and though these so-called designer animals will
continue to possess minds and consciousness, "they will not be
treated as such" (Rogers 1997, 185).
. . . the literal truth: they were selling and eating "poor dead
mommie and baby animals." Carol J. Adams (1990, 76)
In this paper I have considered the cultural role of the chicken as
having a feminine connection in Western society. From antiquity
through the 19th century, the hen served as a symbol of ideal
motherhood in scripture and in classical, neoclassical and Victorian
writings. The Victorians endowed both hens and roosters with the
attributes of domestic happiness as they conceived it, in which hens
were the dutiful, industrious, and prolific wives of the male bird,
and both birds served their human "master" by "giving" him eggs, and
ultimately their lives, in exchange for his patriarchal care.
In the 20th century, the chicken hen was degraded from being a mother
to being a "breeder," a "layer," and an "egg-laying machine" (Jasper,
367, quoted in Davis 1996, 30). Roosters were banished to "breeder"
houses and, in the egg industry, they were (and are) buried alive in
trash cans (Davis 1996, 49, 92, 122). Today the majority of hens and
roosters exist only as unrealized potentials in the baby chickens who
are slaughtered by the millions each day without ever having known
the comfort of a mother's wing or heard a rooster crow.
For most people in our society, chickens are nothing but meat. It is
this relegation to the obscenity of being perceived and valued only
as "meat"-faceless bodies to be fattened or lay eggs and be
eaten--which has led feminist writers, such as Carol J. Adams, to
identify a connection between meat production, meateating, and
pornography. In "meat" you have what Adams calls "masked violence and
muted voices," the literal but obliterated reality of "multiple
violations" (Adams, 63-82). In addition to murder, farmed animal
products are the result of the manipulation of animals' sex organs
and reproductive lives. The natural family life of animals is
dismembered in order to facilitate the dismemberment of their bodies.
In America's consumer culture, male and female chickens alike are
pornographically dismembered into eggs, legs, thighs and breasts.
I told him I'd heard of a pornographic chicken advertisement they
were currently running. He said, such an interpretation is
"paranoid, anxiety ridden." He said that nowhere in the ad is it
said that the chicken is female. I told him it doesn't matter
whether the chicken is literally male or female; the fact is that
animals are feminized through meat eating, male and female
alike. I pointed out that KFC had done "are you a breast man or a
thigh man." He said, "Just because another group had used that
kind of language, did that taint everything?" I said, it is part
of our cultural currency. --Carol J. Adams, conversation with
Robert Wisely of CKE Restaurants
The prurience of "poultry" is highlighted in the advertisement
referred to above, which is currently being run by an American
fast-food company, CKE Restaurants, in which five men dressed as
scientists search a live chicken for her (or his) "nuggets." The
imagery of this advertisement suggests a gang rape. After peering
under the bird's wing and other lewd behaviors, one of the men
removes his plastic glove, implying he will now do an anal search of
this bird with his bare hand. In a letter to a protester, a company
spokesman explained that the ad was designed to attract their "most
frequent customers, the young male audience" (Espinosa).
This, then, is an example of the degraded and degrading symbolism of
the chicken in contemporary society. This is what our society has
done to the lively, cheerful, and beautiful chickens, who in their
native jungle habitat spend long hours vigorously scratching under
the leaves to uncover the tiny seeds of the bamboo tree, which they
love to eat (Dawkins 1993, 153), and whose love of their children, as
has eloquently been observed, definitely resembles our own.
Adams, Carol J. 1990. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A
Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum. Reprinted
Adams, Carol J. 2002. Phone conversation with Robert Wisely, 14
Callicott, J. Baird. 1980. Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair.
Environmental Ethics 2: 311-38.
Cavalieri, Paola, and Peter Singer. 1993. The Great Ape Project:
Equality Beyond Humanity. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Church, Daniel C. A question of the chicken and the egg. The
Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA) 5 September, A1.
Davis, Karen. 1990. Viva, The Chicken Hen (June-November 1985).
Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics 5: 33-37.
Davis, Karen. 1995-1996/ Expanding the Great Ape Project.
PoultryPress 5.4: 2-3. http://www.upc-online.org/expand.html
Davis, Karen. 1994. The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights: Some
Points to Consider. Speech. National Alliance for Animals Seventh Annual
International Animal Rights Symposium, 8-10 July, Washington, DC.
Davis, Karen. 1995. Thinking Like a Chicken: Farm Animals and the
Feminine Connection. In Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical
Explorations, ed. Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan, 192-212.
Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Davis, Karen. 1996. Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look
at the Modern Poultry Industry. Summertown, TN: The Book Publishing
Dawkins, Marian Stamp. 1985. The Scientific Basis for Assessing
Suffering in Animals. In In Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer,
27-40.New York: Basil Blackwell.
Dawkins, Marian Stamp. 1993. Through Our Eyes Only? The Search for
Animal Consciousness. Oxford and New York: W.H. Freeman.
De Boer, I.J.M., and A.M.G. Cornelissen. 2002. A Method Using
Sustainability Indicators to Compare Conventional and Animal-Friendly
Egg Production Systems. Poultry Science 81: 173-181.
Duncan, Ian J.H. 1994. Practices of concern. Journal of the American
Veterinary Medical Association 204.5: 379-382.
Duncan, Ian J.H. 1999. Force-Moulting of Laying Hens. Can-Ag-Fax:
Newsletter of the Canadian Farm Animal Care Trust 6.2: 1, 5.
Duncan, Ian J.H. Welfare Problems of 'Meat-type' Chickens. 2001.
Farmed Animal Well-Being Conference (UC-Davis) 28-29 June. Summarized
in Poultry Press (quarterly Newsletter of United Poultry Concerns)
Espinosa, Peter B., Jr. 2002. (CKE Restaurants). Letter to Lauren
Sullivan, 25 January.
Gage, Mary. Praise the Egg. 1981. London: Angus & Robertson
Hargrove, Eugene C. 1992. Letter to author, 18 October.
Jasper, A, William. 1974. Marketing. In American Poultry History
1823-1973, ed. John Skinner, 306-369. Madison, WI: American Printing
Leopold, Aldo. 1966. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine
Books. Originally published 1949.
Matthew 23:37. New Testament. King James Version.
McBride, et al. 1969. The Social Organization and Behaviour of the
Feral Domestic Fowl. Animal Behaviour Monographs 2.3: 127-181.
Rogers, Lesley J. 1995. The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the
Chicken. Wallingford, Oxon, UK: Cab International.
Rogers, Lesley J. 1997. Minds of their Own: Thinking and Awareness in
Animals. Boulder: Westview Press.
Ruling the Roost: What's bigger than tobacco, more dangerous than
mining, and foul to eat? 1989. Southern Exposure: A Journal of
Politics & Culture 17.2: 11-61.
Smith, Page, and Charles Daniel. 1975. The Chicken Book: Being an
Inquiry into the Rise and Fall, Use and Abuse, Triumph and Tragedy of
Gallus Domesticus. (Boston: Little Brown. Reprinted 2000.
Stern, Howard. 2002. Interview with author. The Howard Stern Show. 10
Walker, Alice. 1988. Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road?
Living by the Word: Selected Writings 1973-1987. New York: Harcourt
Karen Davis, PhD, is the founder and President of United Poultry
Concerns. She is the editor of United Poultry Concerns' quarterly
Newsletter PoultryPress and the author of several books including
Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern
Poultry Industry; Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A
Poultryless "Poultry" Potpourri; A Home for Henny; and More Than a
Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality.
United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes the
compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. For
information write to :
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(Thinking Like a Chicken - The Dignity, Beauty, and Abuse of Chickens: As Symbols and in Reality)