United Poultry Concerns
||Articles of Thought
Thinking Like a Chicken:
Farm Animals And The Feminine Connection
By Karen Davis, Ph.D.
"Thinking Like a Chicken: Farm Animals and the Feminine
Connection" by Karen Davis is from ANIMALS AND WOMEN: FEMINIST
THEORETICAL EXPLORATIONS, ed. by Carol J. Adams and Josephine
Donovan. Copyright 1995 by Duke University Press. It is reprinted
on the website of United Poultry Concerns with the kind
permission of Duke University Press. The author wishes to thank
Duke University Press for the opportunity to extend our
educational outreach on behalf of chickens and the ideas set
forth in this essay.
Please visit the website of Duke University Press:
In the mid 1980s I became interested in how the philosophy
of deep ecology harmonized with the philosophy of animal rights.
This happened during the time when my interest in animal rights
was becoming increasingly centered on the plight of farm animals.
Years earlier, an essay by Tolstoy that included an excruciating
account of his visit to a slaughterhouse had opened my eyes to
what it meant to eat meat.1 After that, except for occasional
fish, I stopped eating meat and drifted away from eggs. However,
I continued to consume dairy products until a description of the
life and mammary diseases of dairy cows ended my consumption of
I was well into my thirties and had been a semi-vegetarian
for nearly a decade before I realized that a cow had to be kept
pregnant in order to give milk or thought about the strangeness
of continuing to nurse after infancy or of sharing a cow's udders
with her offspring let alone shoving her offspring out of the way
so that I could have all of her milk for myself. My growing
preoccupation with the plight of farm animals did not
particularly arise from the clear perception I now have of the
exploitation of the reproductive system of the female farm animal
epitomized by the dairy cow and the laying hen. However, two
important things happened, one through reading and the other
through personal experience, to clarify my thoughts and,
ultimately, my career.
My reading led me to two contemporary essays in which
chickens are represented as a type of animal least likely to
possess or deserve rights. One was by Carl Sagan. In "The
Abstractions of Beasts," Sagan argues against the view that, in
the words of John Locke, "Beasts abstract not." He shows that
chimpanzees, at least, have demonstrated the ability to think
abstractly through a variety of behaviors including maltreating a
chicken. A researcher watched two chimpanzees cooperating to
lure a chicken with food while hiding a piece of wire. Like
Charlie Brown to the football, the chicken reportedly kept
returning, revealing that "chickens have a very low capacity for
avoidance learning," whereas the chimpanzees showed "a fine
combination of behavior sometimes thought to be uniquely human:
cooperation, planning a future course of action, deception and
cruelty" (Sagan 1977, 108). Sagan poses the question whether
nonhuman species of animals with demonstrated consciousness and
mental ingenuity should not be recognized as having rights. At
the top of the list are chimpanzees. At the bottom somewhere are
The second essay derived from the field of environmental
ethics. In "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," J. Baird
Callicott draws upon "The Land Ethic" of A Sand County Almanac by
Aldo Leopold to argue that domesticated and wild animals have
differing moral statuses and that, similarly, individual animals
and species of animals have differing moral statuses.2 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 contributes,
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." Domesticated animals, farm animals in particular, "have
been bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency."
They are "creations 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
meaningful as "to speak of the natural behavior of tables and
chairs. . . . Leopold to all appearances never considered the
treatment of brood hens on a factory farm or steers in a feed lot
to be a pressing moral issue" (Callicott 1980, 314,330).
In the midst of these reflections I moved to 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 that I later wrote
about her, I have described how one day in August, I was
surprised to discover the chicken house, which I had gotten into
the habit of visiting, deserted.
Then I saw her. She was stumbling around over by the feed
cylinder on the far side where the low shelf piled with junk
makes everything dark. A shaft of sunlight had caught her,
but by the time I was able to get inside she had scrunched
herself deep in the far corner underneath the shelf against
the wall. She shrank as I reached in to gather her up and
lift her out of there. I held her in my lap stroking her
feathers and looked at her. She was small and looked as if
she had never been in the sun. Her feathers and legs and
beak were brownstained with dirt and feces and dust. Her
eyes were as lusterless as the rest of her, and her feet and
legs were deformed. I let her go and she hobbled back to
the corner where she must have spent the summer, coming out
only to eat and drink. She had managed to escape being
trampled to death in this overcrowded confinement shed,
unlike the chicken I had found some weeks earlier stretched
out and pounded into the dirt (Davis 1990, 34).
I took Viva into our house where she lived with my husband
and me until she died a few months later in November. She was
severely crippled but resourceful, and determined 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.
One of the most touching things about her was her voice. She
would always talk to me with her frail "peep" which never got any
louder and seemed to come from somewhere in the center of her
body which 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.
This kind of nature and experience did not seem to have a
niche in environmental ethics, including the radical branch of
deep ecology, making environmentalism seem in a certain sense to
be little more than an offshoot of the prevailing scientific
worldview with its hard logical categories and contempt for the
weak and vulnerable. Concerning farm animals, even the animal
community tended to stand clear and, as ecofeminist animal
advocate Harriet Schleifer pointed out, to hedge on the issue of
"food" animals and vegetarianism, making the public feel "that
the use of animals for food is in some way acceptable, since even
the animal welfare people say so" (Schleifer 1985, 70).
During this time a letter appeared in The Animals' Agenda
from a woman requesting that more coverage be given to farm
animals similar to the coverage accorded to whales. The Editor's
Note that followed explained that "the plight of whales remains a
high priority with both animal advocates and environmentalists."
Whales are "intelligent, amazing, and benevolent creatures" whose
increasing fund of world sympathy, built up by the agitation on
their behalf, had yet to protect them. "Given that, if we can't
protect the whales, what chance do we have of protecting the
chickens of the world?" (Dahl 1987, 47). It seemed, however, fair
to ask what chance there could ever be of protecting the chickens
of the world if their only defenders viewed their plight as less
than a "high priority".
This dilemma, crystallized for me by my recent encounters
with Sagan, Callicott, and Viva, led me to compose an essay,
"Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection," on the triangular
affair between feminism, farm animals, and deep ecology. I argue
that although nonhuman animals are oppressed by basic strategies
and attitudes that are similar to those operating in the
oppression of women, it is also true that men have traditionally
admired and even sought to emulate certain kinds of animals, even
as they set out to subjugate and destroy them, whereas they have
not traditionally admired or sought to emulate women. Animals
summoning forth images of things that are "natural, wild, and
free" accord with the "masculine" spirit of adventure and
conquest idolized by our culture. Animals summoning forth images
of things that are "unnatural, tame, and confined" represent a
way of life that western culture looks down upon. The contrast
can be vividly seen in our literature. Whereas in Herman
Melville's Moby Dick the hunters of the great white whale
conceive of their prey as an awesome godlike being, in William
Golding's Lord of the Flies, the little boys view the nursing
sow, whom they violently rape with a spear, as an object of
disgust.3 The analogy between women and nonhuman animals
overlooks the perhaps more crucial comparison between women and
Not only men but women and animal protectionists exhibit a
culturally-conditioned indifference toward, and prejudice
against, creatures whose lives appear too slavishly, too
boringly, too stupidly female, too "cowlike." Moreover, we regard
conscious logical reasoning as the only valid sort of "mind."
Evidence that chimpanzees possess such a mind is a primary reason
why many are now insisting that they should be granted "human
rights." Human rights for chimpanzees? Yes. Human rights for
This brings in the question of deep ecology. The philosophy
of deep ecology, with its emphasis on the ecosphere as a whole,
including both sentient and nonsentient beings, presents a
salutary challenge to the reductionist logic and homocentric
morality of western culture. As the branch of environmentalism
that emphasizes the spiritual component of nature and of our
relationship to the natural world, deep ecology offers
deliverance from the western exfoliative global enterprise based
on mechanistic models and unbridled greed of acquisition and
inquiry masquerading as progress.
However, like its parent stock of environmentalism, deep
ecology is infested by a macho mystique, whereby "things natural,
wild, and free" continue to be celebrated and phallocized as
corresponding to the "human" order of experience and idealized
existence. Activities such as hunting, fishing, and meat-eating
are extolled on recreational and spiritual grounds as part of the
challenge posed by Leopold to "think like a mountain." Homage is
paid to the "hunter-gatherer" lifestyle, with virtually all of
the tribute going to the hunter and none to the gatherer. Armed
with the new ethic, men essentially give to themselves a new
lease to run with the predators, not the prey, and to identify
with the "wild" and not the "tame." Western culture's smug
identification with the "knower" at the expense of the "known"
stays intact, albeit mysticized in a headdress claimed to derive
from the Mythic Past.
Thus it is not surprising that many proponents of deep
ecology cannot not find an ethical niche for farm animals or for
the qualities of mercy and compassion and the desirability of
treating others as we wish to be treated. I discussed these
issues in a further essay, "Mixing Without Pain," and there
things stood until my participation in the 1992 Summit for the
Animals Meeting recalled them to my attention so vividly that I
wrote a reply, this time from the viewpoint of a battery caged
In the meantime, a year and a half before the Summit
Meeting, in October 1990, I had founded United Poultry Concerns,
a non-profit organization that addresses the treatment of
domestic fowl in food production, science, education,
entertainment, and human companionship situations and promotes
the respectful and compassionate treatment of domestic fowl as
fellow creatures rather than a food source or other commodity.
United Poultry Concerns grew out of the above experiences, and
from my volunteer internship at Farm Sanctuary (an enterprise
based on the rescue of factory farm animals) where I extended my
acquaintance with chickens and got to know turkeys, ducks and
Back home I discovered that another lame hen had been left
behind following the owner's removal of the flock to the
slaughterhouse. Tulip was my beloved friend for a year until she
died of the heart attack that chickens bred for rapid growth and
excessive muscle tissue ("meat") are susceptible to. Since then,
chickens have become the center of my personal and professional
life. I had an enclosure built onto our kitchen for rescued
chickens who have the run of our three-acre yard. Amid the
darkness of my knowledge of the horrible experiences inscribed
within billions of chickens by our species, they are the peace
and the light.
The Summit Meeting had as its featured speaker
environmentalist-historian Roderick Frazier Nash, who presented
the attractive holistic concept of environmentalism, along with
the, to me, unattractive outlook in which species and biosystems
prevail over the individuals composing them--except in the case
of the human species for which environmentalism in general seems
to provide an exemption. Concerning hunting, the familiar
justifications were given including the inquiry how and why the
sacrifice of one or two deer should matter as long as the herd or
species is preserved from decimation or extinction. Humans are
predators by nature. In Nash's "dream of Island Civilization"
essay, the ecotopian future is one in which "Humans could take
their place along with the other predators . . . in an expanded
ecological brotherhood" of all beings (Nash 1991/92, 2).
Ideally, an intensely urban culture would flourish on the basis
of a hunter-gatherer society complete with predator initiation
rites. The exciting hunter part is vividly evoked; the boring
gatherer part is left for the reader to infer.
As usual, farm animals are relegated to the wasteland of
foregone conclusions in which they are considered to be not only
ecologically out of tune but too denatured and void of autonomy
for human morality to apply to them. The recognition that human
beings are specifically and deliberately responsible for whatever
aberrances farm animals may embody, that their discordances
reflect our, not their, primary disruption of natural rhythms,
and that we owe them more rather than less for having stripped
them of their birthright and earthrights has not entered into the
environmentalist discussions that I've encountered to date. The
situation of these animals, within themselves and on the planet,
does not appear to exact contrition or reparations from the
perpetrators of their plight, while the victims are per se denied
"rights," of which the most elemental must surely be the right of
a being to be perceived before being conceptually trashed.
In an article following "Triangular Affair," J. Baird
Callicott assigns farm animals a fixed degraded niche in the
conceptual universe. "Barnyard animals, over hundreds of
generations, have been genetically engineered (by the old-
fashioned method of selective breeding) to play certain roles in
the mixed community [human communities including domesticated
animals]. To condemn the morality of these roles . . . is to
condemn the very being of these creatures" (Callicott 1988, 167).
I think to myself listening to the trumpet blasts and iron
oratory of environmentalism, how could the soft voice of Viva
ever hope to be heard here? In this world, the small tones of
life are drowned out by the regal harmonies of the mountain and
their ersatz echoes in the groves of academe. A snottish article
in Buzzworm: The Environmental Journal (Knox 1991) on animal
rights versus environmentalism clinched matters.
This is how I came to write "Clucking Like a Mountain," in
which I examine the ethical foundations of environmentalism from
the imaginary viewpoint of a factory farm battery hen via a human
interpreter. Aldo Leopold's plea for humans to think
ecoholistically--"like a mountain"-- has been taken by some
environmentalists as a mandate to exclude from substantive and
ethical consideration the individuated existences that help
constitute the mountain, particularly those classified in
Leopold's terms as "unnatural, tame, and confined" in contrast to
those regarded as "natural, wild, and free." The ontological
result is a holism devoid of contents, resembling an empty shell.
The ethical result is moral abandonment of beings whose
sufferings and other experiences are inconsequential compared to
the "big realm." I raise questions concerning our moral
obligations to genetically altered and weaker creatures,
especially those debilitated by our activities, pointing out,
moreover, that domesticated chickens have been shown to retain
their ancestral repertoire of behaviors, which undermines the
prima facie assumption that they have been rendered docile and
servile through breeding for specific traits.
Clucking Like A Mountain
"Why do you keep putting off writing about me?"
It is the
voice of a chicken that asks this.
Alice Walker (1988, 170)
In answering the call of ecologists to think like a
mountain, I have to know whether this would conflict with my
effort to think like a chicken. For I have chosen with the
American writer, Alice Walker, to be a microphone held up to the
mouths of chickens to enable them to step forward and expound
their lives. I am glad that I have been able to see and identify
with a chicken, though I grieve that my ability to communicate
what I have seen and have identified with may be limited by
profound but obscure obstacles which it is nevertheless my task
to try and traverse. To think like a mountain implies a splendid
obligation and tragic awareness. Environmentalist Aldo Leopold
(1949; 1966) coined this image to contrast the abiding interests
of the ecosphere with the ephemeral ones of humans, arguing that
unless we can identify with the ecosphere and "think like a
mountain," our species and perhaps even our planet are doomed.4
Individuals inspired by Leopold and others have poignantly
expressed on occasion the yearning of many humans to break out of
our isolation as persons and as a species and recover through the
story that connects us with all beings our larger identity in the
heartbeat of the living universe (see Seed 1988, 57). I prize
these thoughts but have been saddened that Aldo Leopold may not
have intended that chickens, too, should give voice in the
Council of All Beings along with California Condor, Rainforest,
Wombat, Wildflower and the rest of the biotic host convened in
empathic rituals designed to reconstitute the experience in
humans of a larger ecological Self. In the Council of All Beings,
says a workshop guideline, "the beings are invited to tell how
life has changed for them under the present conditions that
humans have created in the world" (Seed 1988, 111).
I am a battery hen. I live in a cage so small I cannot
stretch my wings. I am forced to stand night and day on a
sloping wire mesh floor that painfully cuts into my feet.
The cage walls tear my feathers, forming blood blisters that
never heal. The air is so full of ammonia that my lungs
hurt and my eyes burn and I think I am going blind. As soon
as I was born, a man grabbed me and sheared off part of my
beak with a hot iron, and my little brothers were thrown
into trash bags as useless alive.
My mind is alert and my body is sensitive and I should
have been richly feathered. In nature or even a farmyard I
would have had sociable, cleansing dust baths with my flock
mates, a need so strong that I perform "vacuum" dust bathing
on the wire floor of my cage. Free, I would have ranged my
ancestral jungles and fields with my mates devouring plants,
earthworms and insects from sunrise to dusk. I would have
exercised my body and expressed my nature, and I would have
given, and received, pleasure as a whole being. I am only a
year old, but I am already a "spent hen." Humans, I wish I
were dead, and soon I will be dead. Look for pieces of my
wounded flesh wherever chicken pies and soups are sold.
According to J. Baird Callicott, the treatment of hens on a
factory farm has not been morally important in the development of
environmental ethics. Ecologically, this hen, like other
domesticated "farm" animals, is not on a moral par with the
authentic and autonomous creatures of the world but with all of
the intrusive human technologies, from dune buggies to hybrid
corn, doing their dirty work of contributing to the despoliation
of the biotic community into which they had been inserted.
Moreover, it is about as absurd to complain that the natural
behavior of a chicken on a factory farm is frustrated as it would
be to talk about the "natural behavior" of a piece of furniture.
Black slaves were "metaphysically autonomous." Wild animals are
metaphysically autonomous. Even caged wild animals retain
metaphysical autonomy as "captive, not indentured, beings." But
cows, pigs, sheep and chickens? Veal calves and domesticated
turkeys? Callicott asserts, "They have been bred to docility,
tractability, stupidity, and dependency. It is literally
meaningless to suggest that they be liberated" (Callicott 1980,
This lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate 6 focused my
concern about the fate of domesticated animals in environmental
ethics. This burgeoning branch of philosophy seems in large part
to cloak the old macho mystique of unrestricted power, conquest,
and disdain for the defenseless, idolized by our culture, in
pseudoscientific, pseudopoetical distinctions between beings who
are "natural, wild, and free" and things that are "unnatural,
tame, and confined" (Leopold 1949; 1966, xix). Pity--look down on
but do not sympathize or identify with--all the dodos and dunces
in the history of the world too dumb to succeed in the cosmic
power plays wherein the metaphysical autonomy of just one species
This attitude contains errors of fact and logic and draws
attention to certain unfavorable elements in our cultural and
even species psychology. In Where the Wasteland Ends, historian
Theodore Roszak says that "The experience of being a cosmic
absurdity, a creature obtruded into the universe without purpose,
continuity, or kinship, is the psychic price we pay for
scientific 'enlightenment' and technological prowess" (Roszak
1973, 154). The fact is, we are not the only ones paying this
price, nor is a psychic price the only one paid, as sixteen
billion chickens worldwide can tell us now. A Nietzschean
analysis might suggest that the "rational" relegation of
domesticated animals to the moral wasteland in environmental
ethics is yet another instance in our species' history of the
"irrational" heaping onto other creatures, to be punished and
banished in our stead, of things that we fear and hate in
ourselves, such as the capacity for enslavement and the
destructibility of our personality, identity, and will by
conquerors more powerful than ourselves. We project our
existential anxiety and inanity onto our victims: "I am not the
creature obtruded into the universe without purpose, continuity
or kinship but this genetically altered cow, this egg-laying
machine of a dumb ass chicken. I created them, which gives me the
right to despise and abuse them. They let me "create" them, which
gives me the right to despise and abuse them." The next step is
to assert that these animals wanted, even chose, to resign their
metaphysical autonomy to the will of humans on the darkling plain
Environmentalism challenges us to think about how we view
and treat the weaker and more pacific beings in our midst, be
they nonhuman or otherwise. It invites us to explore how we want,
on principle, to regard these beings. Are we content to maintain
that a genetically altered creature, or a docile and perhaps even
stupid one, deserves to be morally disdained or abandoned? Do we
believe that a weaker creature is less entitled to justice and
compassion than more vigorous types? Do we suppose that
creatures whose lives we humans have wrecked do not have
paramount moral claims on us?
Environmentalism has a tendency to blame such victims.
There are implications that ecological sophistication comports
with turning away from them sniffily, like a bored husband, or
Dr. Frankenstein, to things more "interesting" and grand, like a
mountain, or, more aptly, to "thinking" like one.
Adherents of environmentalism have rapped animal rights
advocates on the knuckles for caring about "little things," like
individuals and beings with feelings. By contrast,
environmentalists operate in the big realm:
They at least attempt to listen to the entire fugue of rocks
and trees, amoebas and heavy metals, dodos and rivers and
styrofoam. Animal rights, by contrast, is a one-note samba.
Where environmentalists worry about salt marches and all the
plants and creatures therein, animal right activists worry
about the suffering of individual animals. Where
environmentalists worry about the evolution of island
endemics, animal right activists worry about the suffering
of individual animals. Where environmentalists worry about
species extinctions, animal rights activists worry about the
suffering of individual animals" (Knox 1991, 31-32).7
A question for environmentalism concerns the nature of the
big realm it claims to represent and worry about. If,
ecologically regarded, the concrete manifestations of existence
are inconsequential, what substance does this realm possess?
What are its contents and where do they reside exactly? Can the
ecosphere be thus hollowed out without being converted to a
shell? An ecologist once said in an interview that the individual
life is a mere "blip on a grid" compared to the life process
(Pacelle 1987, 8).8
Yet, it may be that there is no "life
process" apart from the individual forms it assumes whereby we
infer it. The "process" is an inference, an abstraction, and
while there is nothing wrong with generalizing and speculating on
the basis of experience, to reify the unknown at the expense of
the known shows a perversity of will. How is it possible, as the
environmentalist asserts, to worry about "all the plants and
creatures" of a system while managing to avoid caring about each
and every one? Why would anyone want not to care?
I know of no composer or lover of music who disparages the
individual notes of a composition the way some environmentalists
scorn the individual animals of this world. Maybe this is because
the musically educated person perceives in each note the universe
of song that note in turn helps to create. The poet William Blake
said that we must learn to see the universe in a grain of sand.
We must learn with equal justice and perception to hear the music
of the spheres in the cluck of a chicken, starting with the hen
who, historian Page Smith says, "is rich in comfortable sounds,
chirps and chirrs, and, when she is a young pullet, a kind of
sweet singing that is full of contentment when she is clustered
together with her sisters and brothers in an undifferentiated
huddle of peace and well-being waiting for darkness to envelop
them" (Smith and Daniel 1975, 334). If I think like a mountain,
will I be able to hear this hen singing?
To accept the environmentalist argument that the suffering
of individual animals is inconsequential compared to the ozone
layer, we must be willing to admit that the sufferings of
minority groups, raped women, battered wives, abused children,
people sitting on death row, and our loved ones are small
potatoes beneath the hole in the sky. To worry about any of them
is, in effect, to miniaturize the big picture to portraits of
battered puppy dogs. Or does environmentalism shift to the more
convenient ground, when it comes to humans and oneself, where all
species are equal but one species is more equal than others and
membership has its privileges? An environmentalist writes: "We
care about bears and buttercups for themselves, but also for us
humans. That's the selfish, Cartesian bottom line: I think,
therefore I deserve a hospitable environment" (Knox 1991, 37). 9
The reasoning may or may not be sound; the sensibility makes my
This sensibility has placed many environmentalists at a
distance from "farm" animals and allowed them to patronize the
nature of these animals without checking the facts.
Environmentalism has two major moral arguments against
agricultural animals. One is that agricultural animals disrupt
the natural environment. Environmentalists and animal rights
advocates agree that large-scale intensive animal agriculture is
ecologically inefficient and unseemly, and ethically obscene.
The United States poultry industry pollutes fields and streams
with fourteen billion pounds of manure and twenty-eight billion
gallons of waste water each year. According to a report,
"Thousands of poultry farms and processing factories churn out
millions of birds everyday--along with carcasses and chemicals
that contaminate the land and poison the water with toxic wastes"
(Giardina and Bates 1991, 8). This is detestable, but it is not
the chickens' fault. It is ours.
Environmentalism's second major moral complaint against
domesticated "farm" animals is that they lack the behavioral
repertoire and elan vital of wild animal including their own
ancestors. As a result, "farm" animals are disentitled to equal
moral consideration with wild animals. If this is true the blame
is not on them; it is on us. Morally, we owe them more, not less,
for bungling their birthright. But how diminished is the nature
of these animals genetically? Two researchers who have been
studying the behavior of "laying" hens for years state:
A good place to begin thinking about what a hen needs
for a decent life would be in the jungles of Southeast
Asia where, with persistence, one can track the red
jungle fowl ancestors of the domestic chicken. These
wary birds live in small groups of between four and
six, and are highly active during the day--walking,
running, flying, pecking and scratching for food, and
preening. At night they roost together in the trees.
Domestic chickens released on the islands off
Queensland, Australia, and the west coast of Scotland
showed remarkably similar patterns of behavior. David
Wood-Gush and Ian Duncan, of the Agricultural and Food
Research Council's Edinburgh Station, observed that the
Scottish birds formed small, discrete social groups
which spent much of their day foraging either
separately or together, then returning at dusk to
roost. The hens concealed their nests and raised and
defended their broods. In short, there is no evidence
that genetic selection for egg laying has eliminated
the birds' potential to perform a wide variety of
behaviour (Nicol and Dawkins 1990, 46).
This snookers the industry claim, which has been bought by
environmentalists, that "laying" hens have been "bred" for the
battery cage and are genetically accommodated to a sterile,
docile, and slavish existence that would drive humans and wild
animals mad. How many environmentalists are aware that, in
addition to the routine debeaking and sometimes even claw removal
of these birds (to help "adaptation" along), efforts have been
made to fit them with contact lenses to "calm" their
"uneconomical" frenzy by destroying their vision (Davis
Dr. Nedim Buyukmihci, a veterinary ophthalmologist at
the University of California, Davis, says of even these birds
that upon release from the cage and removal of the lenses,
following a period of adjustment, those hens in his care "would
do all the things hens normally would do if allowed: scratch for
food, dustbathe, spend time with one another or apart from one
another, make attempts at flight, stretch their wings and legs
simultaneously, preen, and the like. Preening, of course, was
severely curtailed due to the mutilation of their beaks"
Contrary to the unexamined assumption that "laying" hens are
our metaphysical slaves, Dr. Page Smith, the cultural historian
of the chicken, correctly observes: "Chickens are, on the whole,
very sturdy creatures or they could not have survived the
experiments that have been performed on them in the last fifty or
seventy-five years in the name of scientific chicken raising"
(Smith and Daniel 1975, 331).
Paradoxically, like most of us, chickens are sturdy and
vulnerable and, in situation that insult their nature, pitiable.
Their experience of being alive in the flesh, be it one of pain,
joy, or learned helplessness, is as much a part of the biosphere
as the composite experience of a mountain. It feels good to think
like a mountain and experience the Romantic Stone Age sensations
of a predator (not prey) and a hunter (who in ecology has taken
equal trouble to ramify the gratifications of being a gatherer?).
It does not feel good to think like a battery hen and view
oneself and one's species through her eyes, not as an
autochthonous Hero in Chains but as a bewilderingly cruel
creature who punishes her and has no mercy.
I submitted "Clucking Like a Mountain" to Environmental
, "an interdisciplinary journal dedicated to the
philosophical aspects of environmental problems," because it
seemed to provide the best opportunity to meet the
environmentalist community on its own conceptual grounds. The
editor turned it down. Of the two referees, one favored and
the other opposed publication. The one in favor did not "share
the author's views," but considered it a "highly worthwhile essay
. . . a provocative piece, challenging the views that generally
dominate the pages of Environmental Ethics."
The second reader, seemingly a poultry researcher, insisted
that the arguments ignored "much factual information," for
instance, that "it is in the interest of those individuals that
raise hens in battery cages that the welfare of those hens is not
so ignored that egg production is impaired" and that "the
industry has made considerable strides in determining the proper
mesh size for battery cages to avoid leg entrapment." The two
major problems of hens in battery cages, as in all intensive
animal agriculture, are that when things go wrong they go wrong
in a big way, and waste disposal. I had failed to mention the
major benefit of "increased productivity through a savings in
time and labor." Moreover, I had implied that hens could care
about the death of other chickens and ignored the disadvantages
of free-range production, making the imaginary viewpoint of a
factory farm battery hen via a human interpreter read like
In rejecting the manuscript, the editor said it ignored much
material that readers of the journal are familiar with including
Callicott's "'Triangular Affair,' which discusses chickens in
some detail," and Birch and Cobb's The Liberation of Life, "which
specifically contrasts the lives of chickens with chimpanzees"
(Hargrove 1992). The editor has a policy of not publishing papers
on animal welfare ethics unless they pertain specifically to
environmental ethics. The point of a revised paper would have to
continue to be that domestic chickens should be a concern of
environmental ethicists from an environmental perspective,
supporting Callicott's argument in "Back Together Again" that we
need a single ethic.
I believe that we need a single ethic in which we are a
voice not only for life but for lives--for all of the soft and
innocent lives who are at our mercy. I share Callicott's
Darwinian view that we and other animals have a common
biosociality rooted in evolutionary kinship and, in the case of
domesticated animals, direct interactions that often include
mutual affection. However, I do not share his view in "Back
Together Again" that "barnyard" and other domesticated animals
have an a priori ontological status whereby their very being is
synonymous with the diminished roles humans have assigned to them
as food sources, plow pullers, and pets. Nor do I believe that
there is a kind of evolved unspoken social contract between "man
and beast" in the so-called mixed community of humans and
domestic animals (Callicott 1988, 167), in which the "beasts"
just happen to be our slaves and inferiors whom we treat exactly
as we please, as in our manipulation of their reproductive
systems for market efficiency and other purely human ends rather
than species fitness or their individual and social happiness.
The will of the domesticated animal is no different from that of
a human slave in being at the mercy of an "owner" backed by a
legal system which defines her or him as property.
The contract idea ignores these and other facts such as the
innumerable diseases of domestication which, pertinently, have
created a flourishing animal research, pharmaceutical, and
veterinary industry. It romanticizes and exonerates our
relationship to domesticated animals and teasingly suggests that
species that in other environmentalist contexts are rigorously
denied moral agency and autonomy, in some sort of lopsided
scapegoatism, just happen to have them here. Domesticated
animals were themselves once wild and free. "Egg-type" chickens
released into wild habitats they personally have never known
revive their suppressed behavioral repertoire. Whether farm and
other domesticated animals could survive under feral conditions,
it is inappropriate to refer to an "unspoken social contract"
between themselves and their human "masters."
The editor of Environmental Ethics cites Birch and Cobb's
contrast between the life of a chicken and the life of a
chimpanzee. In Matters of Life and Death, John Cobb, a professor
of Christian theology, raises contemporary issues including
whether humans have the right to destroy the environment and
exterminate or cause extreme suffering to other species. In the
section on animal rights, he distinguishes between the life of
chickens, veal calves, tuna, and sharks and the life of humans,
nonhuman primates, and marine mammals, arguing that while God's
perspective comprises both groups, "the right to life applies
much more to gorillas and dolphins than to chickens and sharks"
(Cobb 1992, 36). Understandably, chickens and sharks regard their
lives as most important. However, "judgment" regards their death
to preclude further experiences of much less distinctive value
than does the death of a primate or sea mammal, and their contri-
bution to the divine life to be much less significant. The
potential experiences of veal calves, chickens, and others
consigned to their class are "not remarkably distinctive." These
animals' fear of death is "not an important factor in their
lives," and their death "does not cause major distress to others"
(Cobb 1992, 40).
In short, the editor's letter, with its suggested reading,
acts out my own analysis. It seeks to shout down the voice of the
individual animal and author and to delegitimize me as a speaker
who knows chickens in deference to the "experts" with whom the
world order and divine mind just happen to agree that animals
humans like to eat, such as chickens, veal calves, and tuna, and
animals who like to eat humans, such as sharks, have less
valuable personal and interpersonal experiences and a lesser part
in the universe. How do the experts know? They decided.
I have been impressed by the realization that a few men have
virtually "decided" what experiences count and even exist in the
world. The language of western science--the reigning construct of
male hegemony--precludes the ability to express the experiential
realities it talks about. Virtually all of the actual experiences
of this world, expressed through the manifest and mysterious
characteristics of all the different beings, are unrepresented in
the stainless steel edicts of experts. Where is the voice of the
voiceless in the scientific literature including the literature
of environmental ethics? Where do the "memory of suffering and
the truths of subjugated knowledge" fit into the domineering con-
struct of our era (Adams and Procter-Smith 1993, 302)?
Carol J. Adams and Marjorie Procter-Smith ironically observe
that "the voice of the voiceless offers a truth that the voice of
the expert can never offer" (1993, 302). This voice requires a
different language from the language of experts, a verbal and
lyrical equivalent of the subjective and intersubjective
experiences linking humans to one another and, through an
epistemology rooted in our evolutionary history, to other animals
and the earth. Significantly, the poultry science referee of my
"Clucking" essay chides me with "too much first person singular"
and snorts that "Sixteen billion chickens cannot tell me the
psychic price of scientific enlightenment."
If women feel bludgeoned by this oppressive mentality, how
must the animals be affected by it? Let us consider not only the
pain that we impose on them, but the moral ecology within which
we inflict it--the belittling, sniggering atmosphere of pompous
hatred and contempt that we emanate in which countless billions
of beings are forced to live. This moral ecology is as
distinctive a human contribution to the range of experiences in
the world as anything else that our species has conferred (see
I have a photograph of a poultry researcher posing for the
media in an experimental battery hen unit with a scientifically
blinded and defeated hen in his arms and a smile on his face
(Greene 1992, A-6. I have a letter from a poultry experimenter
who writes: "I think you will agree that the human species is the
only one that has any compassion for its prey. . . . I perceive
in your literature the proposal that chickens be treated as pets.
The child who is holding a Plymouth barred rock hen should stay
near a supply of clean clothes. I have been involved with many
thousands of chickens and turkeys and I don't think they are good
pets, although it is evident that almost any vertebrate may be
trained to come for food" (Jukes 1992).
This is the voice of the expert so insensitized that the
image of a little girl tenderly holding a hen in her arms
produces only thoughts of the hen's defecation--a reminder that
his involvement with thousands of chickens and turkeys is such
that they evacuate when he touches them. In being barred from
entering the environmentalist dialogue by way of "Clucking Like a
Mountain," I cannot help wondering how far the delegitimization
process acts as a form of intellectual protection against the
mute importunities and soft dialogues of all the Vivas in the
world. There is no comfort in seeing the eyes of a hen staring
out of the cage built especially for her. The supposition that
she has no expression, nothing to express, is, however, a great
- This extended essay on "food" animal slaughter and
vegetarianism was written in 1892 as a preface to the Russian
edition of Howard Williams's Ethics of Diet (1883). Williams's
book is a biographical history of philosophic vegetarianism from
antiquity through the early 19th century.
- See Callicott (1980), "Triangular Affair," p. 315: Toward
the "urgent concern of animal liberationists for the suffering of
domestic animals . . . Leopold manifests an attitude which can
only be described as indifference."
- In Lord of the Flies, see chapter 8, "Gift for the
- Leopold says on p. 137, "Only the mountain has lived long
enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf."
- See also Callicott (1988), "Farm Animal Feminism"
(letter), The Animals' Agenda. Cf. Ursula K. Le Guin, "She
Unnames Them," January 21, 1985: 27. "Cattle, sheep, swine,
asses, mules, and goats, along with chickens, geese, and turkeys,
all agreed enthusiastically to give their names back to the
people to whom--as they put it--they belonged."
- "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." The inscription
on the entrance to hell in Dante's Inferno, III, 9. See also
Davis, "Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection"; "Mixing
Without Pain"; and "Farm Animal Feminism" (letter).
- For a valuable consideration of this issue, see Michael
Allen Fox, "Environmental Ethics and the Ideology of Meat
Eating," in Between the Species. He says for instance on p. 122,
concerning the environmentalist dismissal of dietary ethics and
the suffering of individual animals, that it is "ethically myopic
and no more than self-serving; it is an example of the kind of
compartmentalized thinking that humans have practiced far too
long and from which environmental ethicists had promised to
deliver us. It is a kind of thinking that must be abandoned if
human and other forms of life are to coexist and flourish on this
- In Pacelle, "The Foreman of Radical Environmentalism,"
David Foreman of Earth First! says on p. 8, "I see individual
lives as momentary energy blips on a grid."
- In "The Rights Stuff," Knox concludes on p. 37 that
"Those who would fight the earth's battles can't help but make
common cause with animal rights activists where their interests
coincide--but carefully, lest the ever-elusive big picture
doesn't get miniaturized into portraits of battered puppy dogs."
- See Karen Davis, "Red Contact Lenses for Chickens: A
Benighted Concept," 1992. Available from United Poultry Concerns,
Inc. P0 Box 59367, Potomac, MD 20859.
- The 1994 report on Laying Hens by the Swiss Society for
the Protection of Animals uphold this claim, noting on p. 11,
"Neither thousands of years of domestication nor the recent
extreme selective breeding for productivity have fundamentally
altered the behaviour of chickens. The frequently expressed view
that the brooding instinct has been bred out of present-day
hybrid birds has been proved wrong. Hens repeatedly become broody
even under intensive production conditions." My personal
experience with domesticated chickens over the past 10 years
supports these observations.
- Except for some sentence tightening, the above essay,
"Clucking Like A Mountain," is represented here exactly as it was
submitted to the editor.
- See, e.g., Mary Anne Warren.
- On the concept of the moral ecology of pain and
suffering, see Karen Davis, "What's Wrong with Pain Anyway?"
- Adams, Carol J. and Marjorie Procter-Smith. 1993."Taking Life
or 'Taking on Life'?: Table Talk and Animals." In
Ecofeminism and the Sacred. Ed. Carol J. Adams. New York:
Continuum Publishing Company.
- Birch, Charles and John B. Cobb, Jr. 1981. The Liberation of
Life: From the Cell to the Community. Cambridge: Cambridge
- Buyukmihci, Nedim C. 1992. Letter to the author.
- Callicott, J. Baird. 1980.
- "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair." Environmental Ethics 2:311-338.
- 1988. "Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Back
Together Again." Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics
163-169. 1992. Rpt. in The Animal Rights/Environmental
Ethics Debate: The Environmental Perspective. Ed. Eugene C.
Hargrove. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
- 1988. "Farm Animal Feminism." Letter. The Animals' Agenda
- Cobb, John B., Jr. 1992. Matters of Life and Death.
Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.D
- Dahl, Ruth. 1987. "Thinks We Show Favoritism to Whales."
Letter. The Animals' Agenda (June): 47.
- Dante. 14th Century. Inferno, III, 9.
- Davis, Karen. 1988.
Potomac, MD: United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
- Giardina, Denise and Eric Bates. Summer 1991. "Fowling the
Nest." Southern Exposure 19.2: 8-12.
- Fox, Michael Allen, "Environmental Ethics and the Ideology of
Meat Eating." Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics
- Golding, William. 1954. Lord of the Flies. N.p.:
- Greene, Jan. 1992. "Cal Poly chicken study ruffles feathers:
Animal rights groups blast contact lens study." Telegram-
Tribune, San Luis Obispo, CA (March 13): A-1, A-6.
- Hargrove, Eugene C. 1992. Letter to the author.
- Jukes, Thomas H. 1992. Letter to the author.
- Knox, Margaret L. 1991. "The Rights Stuff." Buzzworm: The
Environmental Journal 3.3: 31-37.
- Le Guin, Ursula. 1985. "She Unnames Them." The New Yorker
January 21): 27.
- Leopold, Aldo. 1949; 1966. A Sand County Almanac. New York:
- Nash, Roderick Frazier. 1991/92. "Island Civilization: A Vision
for Planet Earth in the Year 2992." Wild Earth (Winter): 2-
- Nicol, Christine and Marian Stamp Dawkins. 1990. "Homes fit for
hens." New Scientist (March 17): 46-51.
- Pacelle, Wayne. 1987. "The Foreman of Radical Environmentalism: A
Discussion with David Foreman of Earth First!" The Animals'
Agenda (December): 6-9, 5-53.
- Roszak, Theodore. 1972. Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and
Transcendence in Postindustrial Society. New York: Anchor Books.
- Sagan, Carl. 1977. The Dragons of Eden: Speculation on the
Evolution of Human Intelligence. New York: Random House.
- Schleifer, Harriet. 1985. "Images of Life and Death: Food Animal
Production and the Vegetarian Option." In Defense of
Animals. Ed. Peter Singer. New York: Basil Blackwell. 63-73.
- Seed, John et al. 1988. Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a
Council of All Beings. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
- 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 and
- Swiss Society for the Protection of Animals STS. 1994. Laying
Hens: 12 years of experience with new husbandry systems in
Switzerland. Bern: Kummerly + Frey AG.
- Walker, Alice. 1988. "Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the
Road?" Living By the Word:Selected Writings 1973-1987. New
York: Harcourt Brace Janovich.
- Warren, Mary Anne. 1992. "The Rights of the Nonhuman World." The
Animal Rights/Environmentalist Ethics Debate: The
Environment Perspective. Ed. Eugene C. Hargrove. Albany, NY:
State University of New York Press.