Archive for the ‘The Animal’s Almanac’ Category

Emancipating Compromise

» June 8th, 2013

The abolition of slavery in the United States is an historical drama that’s taken on new meaning for me since becoming an animal rights advocate. The parallels to the enslavement of animals, and the emancipatory hope therein, is both uncanny and encouraging. I’ve thus never looked so closely at the institution as a historical phenomenon.

What I’ve perhaps noticed more than any other factor is how usable that history has become. Specifically, I’ve noted how many animal rights advocates manipulate the historical reality of emancipation to intensify its contemporary relevance. I’m not naming names today, but what really leaps out at me as distorted historical analysis is the argument that, based on the history of emancipation, there’s no room for compromise when it comes to the abolitionism of animals.

In fact, the history of emancipation, which started as early at the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, is a history of compromise. Recent reading I’ve been doing on the intricate process of emancipation (see James Oakes new Freedom National) reminds me that when American blood soaked American soil between 1861 and 1865, that bloodshed was not only the culmination of nearly 75 years of compromise.  It also tells me that those fateful four years were also marked by an often shocking willingness to compromise over the issue of slavery. Not until the 13th Amendment was the door of compromise finally slammed shut (and then only to be tunneled under by Jim Crow).

Indeed, agreement after agreement among even staunch critics of slavery (no matter how fiery their rhetoric) worked to contain slavery while moving it out of the public arena as a topic of public debate. This tactic was both brilliant and necessary. The fear was (correctly) that any open discussion of slavery would lead to civil war. Many historians agree that had there been a civil war before 1850, the center would never have held, the nation would have been riven into tiny republics and slavery would have been placed beyond the eventual reach of the Federal Government.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the U.S. Constitution, the Missouri Compromise of 1819, the “gag rule” of 1836, and the Compromise of 1850 were national events that simultaneously precluded a national discussion of slavery while quietly hemming slavery into a “peculiar” place, namely the Deep South.  Critics of slavery agreed to tolerate but cordon it off. It was due largely to the efforts of Henry Clay that the union, based on this compromise, stayed whole and the prospects of emancipation remained real.   Again, without these measures, slavery surely would have spread into the west, become less peculiar, and, through, its sheer commonality, escaped the terminal discussion that bore down upon it in the late 1850s, after the Kansas Nebraska Act and at the Lincoln-Douglass debates.

There’s more. I’ve been teaching the above story to my classes for fifteen years. What I’ve recently learned, however, is how the spirit of compromise continued during the war itself. For example, the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 allowed Union soldiers to “confiscate” slaves who had escaped masters in rebel territory.  However, Lincoln, with the support of antislavery activists, signed these bills while declaring how direct federal interference into slavery in existing states was unconstitutional (he didn’t want border to states to join the Confederacy), nor did he rule out the option of future compensation.  Abolitionists did not like the idea of tolerating slavery under certain circumstances, but they intuitively sensed that sometimes you had to take a small step back before leaping forward.

And leap we did. By 1865 the United States had fought a brutal Civil War that killed 650,000 Americans to free 4 million slaves, a freedom solidified in an amendment to the Constitution, authorized in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination.  Slavery was abolished.  Compromise was the cause.





Pigs on Trial

» March 12th, 2013

This piece of mine ran a couple of weeks ago in Slate.

In the fall of 1457, villagers in Savigny, France witnessed a sow and six piglets attack and kill a 5-year-old boy. Today, the animals would be summarily killed. But errant 15th-century French pigs went to court. And it wasn’t for a show trial—this was the real deal, equipped with a judge, two prosecutors, eight witnesses, and a defense attorney for the accused swine. Witness testimony proved beyond reasonable doubt that the sow had killed the child. The piglets’ role, however, was ambiguous. Although splattered with blood, they were never seen directly attacking the boy.  The judge sentenced the sow to be hanged by her hind feet from a “gallows tree.” The piglets, by contrast, were exonerated.

Such a case might seem bizarre to modern observers, but animal trials were commonplace public events in medieval and early modern Europe. Pigs, cows, goats, horses, and dogs that allegedly broke the law were routinely subjected to the same legal proceedings as humans. In a court of law, they were treated as persons. These somber affairs, which always adhered to the strictest legal procedures, reveal a bygone mentality according to which some animals possessed moral agency.

Scholars who have explored animals on trial generally avoid addressing this mentality. Instead, they’ve situated animal trials in several sensible (and academically safer) frameworks. The dominant explanation from legal scholars and historians is that, in a society of people who believed deeply in a divinely determined order of being, with humans at the top, any disruption of God’s hierarchy had to be visibly restored with a formal event. Another hypothesis is that animal trials may have provided authorities an opportunity to intimidate the owners of animals—especially pigs—who ran roughshod through the commons. A sow hanging from the gallows was, in essence, a public service announcement saying, Control your pigs or they’ll die sooner than you hoped.

While these explanations go partway toward elucidating animal trials, none of them fully clarify the practice. They hardly explain why citizens went to great pains to create space for humans to judge animals for their actions. Correcting hierarchical order or sending a stern message to animal owners could have been accomplished much more easily and cheaply with summary execution. What the trials strongly suggest is that pre-industrial citizens deemed the animals among them worthy of human justice primarily because they had, like humans, the free will to make basic choices.

Judges routinely considered animals’ personal circumstances before making a legal decision. Take the exonerated piglets in the opening anecdote. The judge deemed them innocent not only on technical grounds (no witnesses came forth to confirm that the piglets attacked), but also because the pigs were immature, and thus poorly positioned to make clear choices. Furthermore, they were raised by a rogue mother, he indicated, and thus unable to internalize the proper codes of conduct for village-dwelling piglets.

Intentions mattered as well. In a 1379 case, also in France, the son of a swine keeper was attacked and killed by two herds of swine.  The court determined that one herd initiated the attack while the other joined in afterward. The judge sentenced both herds to death because their evident cries of enthrallment during the melee were said to confirm their expressed approval of it, whether they were directly responsible or not. A sow hanged in 1567 was convicted not only for assaulting a 4-month-old girl, but for doing so with extra “cruelty.”

The content of an animal’s character was also a factor in courtroom deliberations. In 1750, a man and a she-ass landed in court for alleged bestiality. The man was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. The she-ass, however, was exonerated because the townspeople submitted a document to the court noting that the animal was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.” This popular assessment led the jury to conclude that the ass was the innocent victim of a violent and deviant master. Only domesticated animals were subject to such character examinations—the expectation being that, living among humans, they better understood the difference between right and wrong. When pigs behaved badly in the courtroom—such as by grunting loudly in the prisoner’s box—this lack of composure could count against them during sentencing. (For more on these and other animal trials, see legal scholar Jen Girgen’s fascinating “The Historical and Contemporary Prosecution and Punishment of Animals.”)

What are we to make of this evidence that our ancestors imputed to animals a sense of moral agency? Contemporary responses have been either to mock them as pre-enlightenment rubes (“artifacts of a superstitious and ritualistic culture,” as legal scholar Katie Sykes summarizes this stance) or to dismiss them as sinister masochists who enjoyed watching animals dangle from the gallows because they had, as historian Edward P. Evans put it in 1906, “a childish disposition to punish irrational creatures.” Overlooked by these interpretations is something that, as we increasingly remove animals from public view, becomes harder to appreciate: These people saw aspects of animal behavior that we don’t see anymore.  In this sense, these seemingly odd trials have much to teach us about how fundamentally our relationship with animals has changed over time and how, more poignantly, we’ve lost the ability to empathize with them as sentient beings.

People living in preindustrial agrarian societies interacted almost constantly with domesticated animals. Seventeenth-century farming account books suggest that farmers of that era spent up to 16 hours a day observing and caring for domesticated beasts. They watched these animals make choices, respond to human directives, engage in social relationships, and distinguish themselves as individuals with unique personalities. This observational intimacy lasted well into the 19th century, until feedlots and packing plants consolidated the business of animal agriculture, eventually superseding the practices that kept animals and farmers in close and relatively long-term proximity. A change in mentality followed this consolidation. Humans began to think and talk about animals as objects. “The pig,” explained one agricultural manual from the 1880s, “is the most valuable machine on the farm.” Today, with nearly 99 percent of animal products deriving from these “factory farms,” this view of animals-as-objects persists as the dominant perspective.

However, talk to the 1 percent of farmers who work on small farms and maintain traditional agricultural practices, and they’ll tell you stories that evoke the premodern view of animals. Cheri Ezell-Vandersluis, a former goat farmer, has written that she was so charmed by her animals’ individual qualities that she started to think of them as “part of the family.” Another small-scale goat farmer in California writes that each of his goats “has a personality and I care about each of them as individuals,” and notes that he feels a “twinge” when he takes them to slaughter.  A heritage pig farmer in Homosassa, Florida writes, “[T]hey are amazing animals. Each one has its own personality. Little pig Marshall (the boar) is a water hose fanatic. It’s like watching a 3 year old playing in the sprinkler in the front yard.”

And the modern field of animal ethology confirms that farm animals, especially pigs, are fiercely smart. In the most recently publicized study confirming their rare cognition, pigs were shown to be able to use mirrors as tools in their search for food; in other studies, pigs have quickly learned new tasks (like playing videogames), displayed a prodigious memory for where food is stored, and even manipulated one another in a bid for food. The New York Times, referring to this kind of research, editorialized, “We keep probing the animal world for signs of intelligence—as we define it—and we’re always surprised when we discover it. This suggests that something is fundamentally wrong with our assumptions.”

There is something fundamentally wrong with our assumptions about premodern animal trials, too. Medieval Europeans gave animal agency the benefit of the doubt. We condemn billions of animals to conditions that amount to torture without a trial. Which practice really makes less sense?

Man and Beast

» March 5th, 2013

Early last month Germany banned the practice of bestiality—an act classically defined as penetrative sex with a non-human animal. Of course, the first reaction most rational people had to this news was “you mean it was ever legal in the first place?!” Not only was it ever legal (since 1969) in Germany but it remains very much so in Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden.

The driving force behind this legality, and the most vocal opposition to the German decision to ban bestiality, was an interest group called ZETA—Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Information. Given the geographic distance between P and Z on the standard North American keyboard, ZETA, one might note, is not likely to be confused with PETA, which holds no stock in the act of bestiality.

In the wake of the German ruling, ZETA fought back. A representative said, ”It is unthinkable that any sexual act with an animal is punished without proof that the animal has come to any harm.” Needless to say, this kind of comment conveniently overlooks the fact that a non-human animal typically lacks the ability to provide an essential prerequisite for human sexual intercourse to be legal: consent. As the ZETA rep kept talking, though, it became clear that overlooking consent was a small element of a much more sinister problem. This person added, “We see animals as partners and not as a means of gratification. We don’t force them to do anything. Animals are much easier to understand than women.” This ZETA rep, again needless to say, was a man. The importance of this designation will be evident in the last paragraph.

A topic of such moral and sexual magnitude scrambles the mind and, I’m going to guess, I’ll lose about 100 subscribers with what follows. On the one hand it’s ridiculously simple—bestiality is wrong—end of column. But, on the other, it can and should be easily tossed into confusion. I’m not going to support bestiality in what follows, but I am going to drop my preconceptions and think aloud on this one in order to highlight a paradox and, however cursorily, register my opposition to bestiality on different grounds than you might expect.

Questions that arise: How does such exploitation meld with the human’s view of the animal he was buggering? Does this rather dramatic crossing of the species barrier inspire greater love and respect for animals? Or is it the opposite—that is, that demented people copulate with animals as a very sick pretext to eating them?  And which is worse, really, screwing or eating an animal? What if the ZETA people truly love the animals with whom they copulate? Should these emotions be dismissed and criminalized? As a heterosexual male, I do not understand romantic/intimate love for another man, but so what. I support gay marriage and believe in the moral equivalence of homo and heterosexual love (interestingly, the 1969 legality of bestiality was the same year homosexuality was given legal protection).

By what measure, other than speciesism, do I exclude non-humans from this acceptance? This last question, of course, assumes that there might be a way for an animal to consent to sex with a human—which might be possible, as animal ethologists always remind us how animals tell us what they want. Or maybe not. Either way, to deny the power of consent is to accept some level of human paternalism or selective speciesism. 

It’s worth noting that this anti-bestiality act was passed under a pre-existing welfare statute, thereby highlighting the reality that you can’t bugger and animal but you can slaughter her. Could this inconsistent legal right to exploitation have the unintended consequence of increasing awareness about the complexity of the human-animal relationship?  That is, if a cohort of humans were legally authorized to express genuine sexual and romantic intimacy with animals, might more people question the ethics of eating them? Do we have any proof that animals might enjoy the act? Maybe not those in, I swear it, “erotic zoos” or “animal brothels,” but perhaps those out on the free range?  All unlikely, of course. But I’m just trying out a few different positions here.

A historical take on bestiality yields some interesting stuff.  In colonial America, especially Puritan New England, bestiality was seriously bad news for human and non-human alike. Death. The hidden significance of applying a legally mandated sentence to both human and animal for a shared sexual act was the paradoxical inclusion of supposedly “alien” species in the same legal framework applied to humans. The law said “you and the goat” are fundamentally different. The sex act said, “well, your honor, not that different.”

This inclusion, in turn, reiterated Cotton Mather’s dictum that, as Colleen Glenney Boggs cites it, “We are all of us compounded of those two things, the Man and the Beast.” Castaway in a New England wilderness, the prevailing fear—obsession, really—was that humans’ inner beast would be let loose and civilized Puritans would devolve into savage Natives. There was no dichotomy between civility and nature and the slope from one to the other was slippery. Bestiality was evidence that such a declension could happen in the thrill of any moment, and as quickly as a tomahawk to the head.

Interspecies sex was also evidence that the species barrier, for all intents and purposes, was, well, fluid. Dangerously so. It is the avoidance of this reality, in my opinion, that recently led Germany to ban bestiality, rather than the animal welfare justification, which I think is totally bogus because, last I checked, you can still make sausage in Germany. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe we should reserve our genitalia for consenting members of our of own species, but the erotic zoo advocates who would beg to differ are, in serially and sexually violating animals, also highlighting the evolutionary continuum that we prefer to ignore when we slaughter animals. They might also be doing so with more love than we’re comfortable acknowledging.

The gender implications of bestiality are mind-blowing and, to a large extent, are the primary grounds upon which I condemn this act. Given that penetrative power is generally limited to men, the species-bending implications of bestiality locate far too much cultural and social power in the human penis.* Plus, I cannot shake the memory that Mather, the Puritan minister quoted above, had a weird love for bees and ants. These species, as he saw them, were orderly and self-sustaining and should left alone, he argued, to offer humans a model of how to live organized and hierarchical lives. It was only the animals that could be physiologically fucked, he implied, that were fair game for brutal domestication or extermination. Not an ideology conducive to the lives of Puritan women in the seventeenth-century. Or the twenty-first for that matter.

tomorrow: Big Bald Mike 

*I’m fairly certain this is the most bizarre sentence I’ve written to date.

NOTE: I added the emboldened sentence after several comments came in.


Pigs on Trial

» December 5th, 2012

I’ve been doing some historical side reading (just a little) about pigs, animals for whom I’ve always had a soft spot. What initially grabbed my attention was a story from early October 2012 where a farmer was killed by his pigs. The commentary around that event was all over the place, but it basically boiled down to the claim that the killing was random. I wondered if that was the case. Hence my decision to do a little reading about pigs.

Turns out that there’s an extensive history of pigs attacking humans.Quite extensive. Between the Medieval period and the early nineteenth century it happened with such regularity that swine were frequently dragged into court as defendants. In some cases they were even dressed up as humans for the hearing. The prevailing idea was that the pigs had moral agency. Consistent with this perception, the pigs were sometimes acquitted or given reduced sentences. When they were convicted, they would be hanged and buried. Not eaten.

There’s a lot to say about this behavior and I hope at some point to have time to think it through and write more. For now, though, what sticks with me is the question of how humans lost that sensibility. I’m sure industrialization had a lot to do with it, but it’s astounding nonetheless how quickly an idea that was once pervasive–the moral agency of pigs–could so rapidly disappear from the public’s mind, going to seed under the assumption that a pig would never actually want to hurt a human.

The Chicken in History

» October 7th, 2012

After having read Annie Potts’ beautifully produced new book, Chicken, I planned to write a brief review of what I thought was a generally fascinating look into the cultural and historical representations of perhaps the least understood of the farm animals that we slaughter by the billions to make food products (McNuggets, chicken wings) that defy common decency. Then I learned that Karen Davis had just published a review of the same book in a journal called Humanimalia.  I am posting it below with, of course, Davis’ permission.


Karen Davis

Chicken Wisdom

Annie Potts. ChickenLondon: Reaktion Books?Animal,  2012. 216 pp. $19.95 pb.

Chickens are creatures of the earth who have been forced off the land. In Western countries billions of chickens are confined in industrialized buildings, and billions more are similarly confined in Africa, India, China, Russia and other parts of the world where poultry factory farming is rapidly supplanting, or has already supplanted, traditional farming. If there is such a thing as “earthrights,” the right of a creature to experience the earth from which it derived and on which its happiness in life chiefly depends, then chickens have been stripped of theirs.

Chicken traces the history of chickens, from their earliest known ancestry dating to a “pre-chicken” fossil record of 50 million years ago, to the “post-chicken” of industrialized animal farming ? “post-chicken” meaning that the worldwide chicken industry is doing everything possible, from genetics to advertising, to destroy the chicken intrinsically and in public perception as a living being and fellow creature. Author Annie Potts, a professor of English and Cultural Studies and Co-Director of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, does not view the human stranglehold on chickens lightly or approvingly. Growing up in a rural town surrounded by poultry farms, she says she stopped eating chickens at an early age and cherishes a “strong love for chickens.” Her book is “dedicated to all chickens born to and killed for agribusiness, scientific research and entertainment, and to those special humans who educate, advocate and provide refuge for these birds.”

Potts argues that the disparagement of chickens that dominates today’s popular culture is relatively new. Chickens were the first farmed animals to be permanently confined, in vast numbers, in automated systems based on intensive genetic selection for food-production traits and reliance on antibiotics and drugs. In the 20th century, the poultry industry in the United States became the model for animal agribusiness throughout the world. Roosters and hens went from being admired across cultures and time for “their vigilance, courage and loyalty to family or flock” to being caricatured as cowards and anthropomorphized as dim-witted. Hens became “egg-laying machines.” Chickens disappeared into “chicken.”

The disappearance of chickens into rhetorical anonymity and featureless buildings crammed with thousands of unseen birds has made it easy for the poultry industry, through advertising, cartoons, and other means, to devalue chickens publicly, just as it is busy eviscerating chickens biologically through its worldwide experimental programs in universities, genetics, and pharmaceutical laboratories. Who knew or cared what happened to chickens as the flow of cheap chicken and eggs entered the market after World War II? A friend of mine said that when she was growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s, every family kept a few chickens for eggs, but as soon as eggs started appearing in the grocery store, people stopped keeping chickens. Not having to tend them was labor-saving, and store-bought eggs were cheaper than feed and other supplies.

Chicken surveys the uses of chickens going back 8,000 years or so in folklore, popular culture, and art, from the “mythologies of ancient cultures to the mundane realities of the contemporary kitchen.” Four stages in the domestication of chickens, who evolved in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia and the rugged foothills of the Himalayan mountains, are identified: religion, including ritual sacrifice of hens and roosters and worship of eggs as cosmic symbols; cockfighting; the 19th-century craze in Europe and America of breeding “fancy” chickens for exhibition, an enthusiasm sparked in gentleman farmers by the importation to the continent of Asian breeds of chickens; and the utility breeding of “egg-type” and “meat-type” birds which grew out of the fancy breeding frenzy to seal the fate of chickens in the 20th century.

Potts traces a persistent tension in the human relationship with chickens. On the one hand, chickens have been accurately and appreciatively portrayed in literature and the arts; on the other hand, chickens have been trapped in anthropomorphic symbolisms and superstitions that have nothing to do with chickens except in a distorted, speciesist way. In cockfighting and religious rituals, chickens are tortured, killed and characterized by practitioners as wanting to be sacrificed to human and deific desires. As bad as industrialization has been for chickens, people have been assaulting chickens for ages ? in staged cockfights, blood fiestas, voodoo rituals, Hindu massacres, kaporos ceremonies, and more. Chickens deemed “sacred” disappear into symbolic, sacrificial designations and uses that are as obliterating of their actual selves, as grisly and demeaning to them, as their disappearance into meat is.

Fortunately, a counter strain of empathy and understanding runs through the record. In the chapter called “Chicken Wisdom,” Potts quotes people in previous centuries who delighted in the devotion of roosters and hens to their families and the ability of chickens to bond with other species. The Renaissance ornithologist Ulisse Aldrovandi wrote of a hen he raised “who would not go to sleep at night anywhere except near me and my books.” The eighteenth-century natural historian Gilbert White wrote of the affection he observed between a hen and a horse whose mutual loneliness brought them together. The hen would approach the horse “with notes of complacency, rubbing herself gently against his legs, while the horse would look down with satisfaction, and move with the greatest caution and circumspection, lest he should trample on his diminutive companion.”

This chapter provides important information about the intelligence, emotional sensitivities, social sophistication and sensory complexity of chickens, dispelling any notion that chickens are stupid or inferior beings. The idea that mammalian brains are superior to avian brains, or that “tiny things just can’t be intelligent or aware,” is discredited. Potts explains that while the neuroanatomy of mammals and birds diverged during evolution, the mental development of both “has actually been convergent.” The cortical cells of mammals developed on the surface of the brain, while homologous cells in birds were retained “deeper within the cortex.”

Chickens have excellent hearing, full-spectrum color vision, discriminating smell and taste receptors, and acutely sensitive skin. Their beaks, with which they explore their surroundings, forage for food, rake in nesting materials, preen their feathers, and defend themselves against predators, are endowed with special receptors enabling them to make “exact tactile judgments.” Chickens love to sunbathe, dustbathe, and socialize together. Their daily activities include playful chases, occasional spats, and vigorous vocal announcements ? crows, egg cackles, predator warnings, and “chook, Chook, CHOOK!” whenever food is found. Chickens have singing sounds of contentment that resonate through the flock intermittently during the day and often as they are settling down on their perches for the night.  They use their voices not only to exchange information intimately and across distances, but to express joy and enthusiasm as well as boredom, weariness and woe. Having lived with chickens since 1985, I know that chickens are vibrant individuals, cheerful in all kinds of weather from sunshine to snow, and as Potts shows through stories she relates, chickens assert “their own forms of agency and self-determination.”

The vitality of chickens is crushed, however, by the poultry and egg industries, which operate unchecked by conscience or accountability. In the chapter “Meat Chicks and Egg Machines,” Potts shows the horror to which humans have condemned chickens for products we do not need and should not be eating. She writes that in modern societies, chicken have become denatured, depersonalized and even “de-animalized.” This summary is apt so long so we remember that the minds, consciousness, and sensitivities of billions of chickens, whose body parts are marketed disgustingly as “wholesome food,” remain intact.

I personally have facilitated the recovery of hundreds of chickens rescued from poultry and egg operations. I have witnessed the revival of their personalities and self-confidence under the influence of sunshine, fresh air, loving care, and loss of fear. They have been traumatized, and as Potts writes, the suffering we inflict on chickens “seems set to intensify even further.” Yet their proprioceptive awareness remains and will persist, I believe, in the form of phantom limbic ancestral memories, recalling who they are ontologically, before our punishing hands were laid upon them.

In her “Epilogue: Appreciating Chickens,” Potts writes that alongside the terrible developments in poultry farming, there has been “a resurgence of interest in chickens as backyard helpers and cherished companions.” This interest is attributed to nostalgia for nature and a desire for contact with other species along with the activism and increased visibility of animal advocacy groups in North America, Europe and Australia. In Britain in the early 1970s, Clare Druce and her mother Violet Spaulding launched Chickens’ Lib, the first advocacy organization in the world dedicated specifically to exposing the atrocities of modern poultry and egg production. Clare Druce, together with a beloved hen I rescued in Maryland in 1985 named Viva, inspired me to establish United Poultry Concerns in 1990.

While the trend in urban backyard chicken-keeping has benefited chickens insofar as people who previously knew chickens only as food have discovered how delightful they are as living creatures, it has also attracted people who mistreat their birds and brag on the Internet about their slaughtering activities; it has also fostered a bustling hatchery business entailing the same kinds of factory-farm cruelties and callousness that small farm practitioners and locavores claim to reject. Sanctuaries such as United Poultry Concerns and Chicken Run Rescue in the United States, and The British Hen Welfare Trust in the United Kingdom, have taken in many “casualties of the urban chicken movement,” but our ability to absorb even a fraction of these victims, of whom the majority are roosters, is limited.

Chicken is filled with exquisite photography and illuminating artwork from earliest times to the present. The visual art of Marc Chagall, Mary Britton Clouse, Sue Coe, and others puts chickens involved with humans hauntingly before us. Chickenconcludes with the poignant story of Mr. Henry Joy, a small white rooster whose rescuer and friend Alisha Tomlinson, in North Carolina, arranged with area nursing homes and assisted living centers to visit residents as a “therapy chicken” to comfort and uplift their spirits. Until he died suddenly in 2009, leaving behind two grieving hens and his bereft human companion, Mr. Joy brought cheer to people while educating the public through media and community appearances “about chicken sentience and intelligence, factory farming and the truth behind nuggets.”

The pictures of Mr. Joy being tenderly and gently held in the hands of nursing home residents contrast grievously with images of the bleak fate from which chickens will never escape, unless we change our relationship with chickens and the natural world, or disappear entirely from the vast scene of suffering we have created on this planet. Potts concludes her account with the therapeutic suggestion that “Maybe we would all benefit from an audience with Mr. Joy.”

Playing the Subsidy Card

» July 2nd, 2012


Not only does it behoove vegans to learn more about modern agriculture, it also behooves us to know our agricultural history. I make this claim because behavioral omnivores/welfarists are currently promoting self-serving myths and half-truths about the viability of small, “humane” farms in a climate dominated by industrial animal agriculture. They are doing so, moreover, on the shoulders of a dubious historical assertion.

A little background. I’ve always maintained that as long as we have animal agriculture, factory farming will remain the dominant mode of production. I base this claim on the simple economic principle–supported by a wealth of evidence–that confining animals pays. It reduces production costs, streamlines efficiency, and results in cheaper animal products.  Horrible for animals, good for producers, superb for consumers.

These “benefits” are integral to the viability of industrial agriculture and, I would submit, make it virtually impossible for small, “sustainable,” “humane” farms infused with virtue and purity and welfare concerns to ever become more than niche alternatives for a small percentage of consumers willing to fork over more cash for their pampered flesh.  You cannot, as I have said, beat the devil at the devil’s game.

Critics of this interpretation cry foul. Typically, they retort that the game of animal production is rigged by the unfair advantages conferred on Big Agriculture by subsidies. “Subsidies” has become the trump card deployed by sustainable ag advocates to suggest that if factory farms and the small guys were allowed to compete on a level playing field, the small guys would win, capturing the market currently monopolized by the Tyson’s and Brookfield Farms’ of the food world. David and Goliath and all that.

This is, I’m afraid, a quixotic assertion, certainly more quixotic than suggesting that there could be a mass transition to veganism based on abolitionist principles. For one, advocates of welfare measures (whom I do not outright dismiss by any means) are hard pressed to explain how, in an economic environment that rewards consolidation, small farms will ever be anything more than boutique endeavors serving a rarified clientele. The inability to provide a viable economic explanation for how this shift might happen seriously burdens the welfarist position. It burdens it with the question of the long-term implications of supporting gradual improvements within an alternative system that’s bound to always be, well, alternative. Kind of like seeking to change a line in the textbook rather than rewriting it.

Resorting to the subsidy explanation tilts into windmills of deception. While it is true that subsidies, which were enacted in the 1930s to help struggling commodity farmers during the Great Depression, have indeed given Big Agriculture an unfair advantage (in the form of cheap feed), it is inaccurate to assert—as it is often asserted—that subsidies created the consolidation endemic to Big Agriculture. When this connection is severed, the subsidies trump card disintegrates.

The confinement of animals began fifty years before the government ever doled out an agricultural subsidy. And the confinement happened with pigs. Turns out pigs raised on free-range systems—which at one time all pigs were—were more likely to contract diseases. German importers of American pork, after years of testing, insisted in the 1870s that American producers begin to confine their swine indoors in order to reduce rates of contagion (trichinosis was the big concern). Producers did, the German market boomed, rates of disease dropped, and the template for CAFO’s was formed.

Subsidies only helped further this process. To attribute the rise of factory farming to the rise of subsidies and—worse—to suggest that the removal of subsidies would provide a mass berth for small farms, is to fight a current problem with deceptive history. Nothing good ever comes of playing fast and loose with the past.


The Animal’s Almanac: “Cherish them with warmth”

» April 24th, 2012


I’m currently researching a book that explores (in part) the nature of the human-domestic animal relationship in eighteenth-century North America. Integral to my argument is the claim that pre-industrial farmers developed an intuitive sense of their animals’ character as animals.Rather than objectify living farm animals, farmers worked to create environments that optimized their “animal-ness.”  

Needless to say, farmers ultimately exploited their animals for food, clothing, and other uses—a perhaps inevitable reality of life in a pre-industrial colony. The upshot, though, is that they generally did so without ignoring the animals’ point of view.  

This mentality was rooted in something so simple we tend to overlook it:  observation. Farmers spent the majority of their days interacting with farm animals. One document I explored was an account book from an eighteenth-century Massachusetts farm that practiced rotational grazing.  In a single month, according to this document, a young boy spent the majority of 18 days moving his father’s cattle from one pasture to another.  One can only imagine what he learned (unlike this poor kid).  For anyone who lives with companion animals, there’s no need to imagine.

What emerged from this pervasive mentality, this habit of observation, was an explicitly stated confirmation that animals mattered–as animals. Attention to the physical comfort of—and contact with—domestic animals was a constant theme in early American agricultural literature. In The Husbandman’s Magazine, John Smith admonished readers to “rub and cherish” their animals. “Cherish them with warmth,” he advised, “stroke them with your hands, raising the hide gently.”

Such attention to tender treatment had its counterpart in England as well, where as early as 1697, one writer was advising farmers to approach animals “with much familiarity, then stroke and scratch them gently.”  George Cooke insisted that the ox “must be indulged,” and he preferred “patience, mildness, and even caresses” as the means of doing so.  Horses, according to The New England Farrier, were to be “used with gentleness and good humor,” for they “remember injuries and have recollection to avoid appearances which once gave them pain.”

In a discourse on cows, the author of The Complete English Farmer, published in Boston in 1770, reminded readers that “ill treatment will only disgust them,” adding that the cow should be treated to whatever “aliments please him best.” Doggett thought it only fair that, since humans have domesticated animals (thereby rendering them practically useless to survive on their own), that they should “immediately become the objects of our kind regards.” Echoing the common fear that to hurt animals was to threaten human civility, he noted that “our sensibility is deeply wounded when they are abused.”

And so on. It goes without saying that today we’ve fallen from grace when it comes to cultivating a meaningful understanding of farm animals. Factory farms have effectively erased all contact with the animals we exploit, and the small-farm revival—as many posts on Eating Plants show (look under “the ethics of slaughter”) employs tired welfare-oriented rhetoric to obscure elitism, gluttony, and cruel dominion over farm animals. The irony in this tragic downfall is that pre-industrial farmers, working before Darwin, treated animals as if they were somehow aware that humans shared an evolutionary heritage with them.  And then after Darwin, when we knew better, we began to treat them like objects created by divine providence for our arbitrary use.

The Politics of Sight: Observing Farm Animals, Then and Now

» March 29th, 2012

Farmers in pre-industrial America were intense observers of animal behavior. They had to be. At a time when farm animals were integral to material life, agriculturalists couldn’t afford to neglect their economic livelihood. Some historians estimate that early American farmers may have spent the vast majority of their days–all of their days–tending to the seemingly endless wants and needs of their animals. I believe it. Spend time with the records of any early American colony and you will find yourself enmeshed in world of cows, pigs, and fowl.

The result of this persistent, inevitable observation was a deeply intuitive sense of the intrinsic value of farm animals. There is, of course, no denying that farmers ultimately exploited their stock to serve human needs–that goes without saying. Less appreciated, however, is the fact that dominion over animals was, as far as my research is revealing, as gentle as it was customary. Farmers paid consistent attention to the most subtle behaviors of the animals under their care, even going so far as to note what kind of sounds animals liked to hear. Abuse of animals could quickly lead to social ostracization.

Industrialization of animal agriculture undermined this habit of observation. Destroyed it, actually.  Most consumers today have no idea that meat, milk, and dairy necessarily requires the ruthless exploitation of sentient beings. It never crosses their minds. Producers, too, have little incentive to observe animals, much less understand their inherent value as animals. A highly rationalized factory system obviates that need, deadens our powers of observation, and sets us on the distant periphery of immense abuse. I know this may all be painfully obvious, but I think the demise of observation as the essential bond between humans and animals in agriculture is one of the most important, and destructive, developments in human history.

The resurgence of small-scale animal farming claims, in some respect, to recapture this lost bond. I’m dubious of such a claim. I can only speak anecdotally on this issue, but most small scale animal farmers I know outsource much their labor, are by no means as dependent on their animals as their pre-industrial forbears were, often work other jobs, and, frankly, seem to spend more time blogging than farming. I think it’s safe to say that very few small scale animal farmers today spend the vast majority of their day, every day, with their pigs, cows, chickens, and goats. They might fashion themselves as pre-industrial farmers nurturing the same bonds as those forged by their agrarian ancestors, but the world is no longer pre-industrial.  They’re a band of hobbyists whose work is as close to pre-industrial farming as a Renaissance festival is to the medieval era.

All of which leaves us with a paradox–or at least a weird situation. At a time when farmers truly appreciated the “animalness” of their animals–an appreciation borne of intense observation–they were, due to the vagaries of a settlement society, directly dependent on those animals for their livelihood. Today, however when plant-based agriculture has advanced to the point that it produces enough plants to feed 7 billion people, a cadre of environmentally concerned opponents of factory farming are seeking to bring us back to the old days by waxing rhetorically about recovering the lost human-animal bond. What they miss, I think, is that their purported power of observation is compromised by an unavoidable fact:  we don’t need the animals under their observation. The result is that “humane” farmers do not get the “animalness” of their animals. To the contrary, to raise an animal to kill when it is not necessary to do so means that the animal is not an animal, but an object, a commodity.

Animal Rights: Where to Draw the Line

» March 17th, 2012


Humans make remarkably sweeping decisions about our relationships with animals based on minimal knowledge about animals’ intellectual, emotional, and social lives. We seem to have very little problem commodifying sentient non-humans in order to enjoy the most remote and completely unnecessary luxuries.

We do so, moreover, without asking whether or not this act might be a violation of the rights that enlightened humans hold sacred. Ivory, fur, feathers, and fins–not to mention food and clothing–are the grammar and syntax of our material lives. It’s easy to take this lexicon of materialism at face value–there is, after all, little overt motivation to ask troubling questions about the status quo. But what if the status quo perpetuates profound injustice? And what if, by our every day consumer choices, we’re directly complicit?

These questions and thoughts came to mind as I read Steven M. Wise’s Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. Wise bravely confronts the legal question of which animal species deserve legal rights as persons. Critics will say that his conclusions are ultimately arbitrary, which is technically true. But the nature of the question–where to draw the line on a continuum of life–by its nature demands an arbitrary response.  There’s no way to be absolute about such a question.

Wise’s accomplishment is to make the line less arbitrarily drawn. The myriad and complex questions surrounding animals and rights were hardly all clarified at the end of this fascinating book. But I do know that if humans are going to grant the basic rights of personhood to humans who are mentally debilitated, we must grant them to a wide range of animals, including African Greys, Dolphins, bonobos, chimpanzees, dogs, and orangutans. And that’s something to ponder.

The Animal’s Almanac: Justifying Eating Animals

» February 23rd, 2012

Trace the oppositional arguments against animal rights to thier deepest roots and you’ll find an embarassment of ignorance. I was reminded of this fact while reading a bit on the history of animal advocacy.  A common tact employed by active opponenets of animal rights–and a rather innocuous one–was to obscure the weakness of their position in a cloud of sarcasm. One editorialist, undone by all the “proselytizing animal lovers” coming out of Victorian England, snarkily retorted that, if we were now going to care so much about mere animals, we should offer them “a little education, a little night school training, [and] a few newspapers printed in their language.” Funny (not). (See Diane Beers, The Prevention of Cruelty.)

In a more disturbing vein, those threatened by the rhetoric of animal compassion frequently sought refuge under the cope of sexism. Noting that a large proportion of the animal rights movement was women, medical experts concocted a hysteria-related disease known as “zoophilpsychosis.” Only unhinged females, the diagnosis suggested, could resort to the whacked out idea that animals mattered more than objects. Readers of Carol Adams (The Sexual Politics of Meat) will quickly recognize that matters today have changed little since the nineteenth century. In fact, on the sexism front, they may have become worse. “Meat,” she concludes (with ample and horrifying evidence), “is a symbol of male dominance.”

It’s true, and worse. I’m not going to elaborate here, but I urge you to plumb the depths of the pro-meat agenda. One needs little analytical expertise to quickly realize that common justifications for eating animals require an uncommon resort to sexism, speciesism, and solipsicim. Nowhere in this effort to justify unnecessary suffering will you find compassion, tolerance, or open-mindedness. Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, will you find an affirmation of love.