Lessons in Applied Speciesism

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By Justin Van Kleeck

i.

The memory of picking up Orion and Hikaru, our first rescued roosters, from the shelter is still vivid, albeit with the fuzzy edges of most past memories. In contrast with Hikaru’s vibrant reds and oranges and blacks, Orion was essentially white. His personality was a similar study in contrasts: whereas Hikaru was often ferociously forward and likely to peck you if you got too close, Orion was just scared. We could not get within ten feet of him for months.

Both of these roosters had their own medical issues that needed tending to: Hikaru had a horrid case of scaly leg mites, and Orion had a nasty bumblefoot on each foot. The foot issues never slowed Orion down as he ran, for many long minutes at a time, away from us as we tried to catch him to take him inside for bed every evening. (Getting him out for the day was a less-extended process, simply because his makeshift pen in the basement was smaller—making it easier to catch the flashing white roo.)

Memory is tricky not just for being fuzzy—especially fuzzy in places where you want it to be sharpest. It also tends to be infuriating for its proficiency in adding much later the proper emotional significance to moments, to events, to routines, that we would be all the better for if we could catch them in that moment of time when they are most relevant.

It was only after days of watching Orion nearly constantly as he weakened, sickened, showed his age, and eventually died that memory imbued those moments—now long gone, fading as quickly as they gained greater significance—with the sort of heart-breaking weight they suddenly had for me. And still have, now, several months since Orion died.

In my head, which is as damaged as my heart after losing too many dear companions, the year-plus that slowly-yet-quickly unfolded after my first ride home with Orion is not strictly linear. The X-axis has twists, crinkles, folds in upon itself. Early moments ripple forwards and touch upon later ones, yet always remaining past, further back along the unforgiving, unrelenting X. It becomes unbearable at times.

You see, no longer is Orion just the fleeing, fleeting white feathered biped who squawked and screamed if we got too close. As he learned to trust us, and as he took his rightful place as the great grand alpha rooster of our homeplace, he started to recognize us as belonging along with him here, in this place, with the other hens and roosters over whom he cast such a watchful eye.

I never really realized the impact of this evolution until the edges became far too fuzzy. I could not have known in the moment how much it would mean to me that, for weeks before he became too sick to walk steadily, or be on his own in his yard as normal, he would walk up to me when I came around to pick him up and carry him in for the evening. Perhaps I am just a failure at this whole chronology thing, but the evolution of our mutual trust over time seemed to be just a simple fact of the present. It simply was, alive in all its momentousness much as Orion was bigger than life in his roosterly presence.

His waning was too much. His death was impossible to process. His burial was more than enough to break me in places I did not know remained to be broken. His absence is a void that memory tries desperately, blindly and haphazardly, to fill with something approaching the reality of what he was.

Always, it fails.

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ii.

The death of Orion the rooster takes place within a larger matrix of chicken care, of course, that makes his experience (and ours) so much more tragic. This past summer, we lost a number of chickens over a period of a few weeks, in what were (are) without doubt the most difficult times of my life.

After thousands of years of domestication for food and entertainment purposes, chickens have only recently started to receive any sort of moderately adequate medical care. And after thousands of years of domestication for these human ends, much as with purebred dogs they are born with a whole host of inherited health problems. Modern hens breach their shells already “programmed” to lay 250-300 eggs each year, and the males who make it out of hatcheries alive are born from that same mutated, hijacked gene pool as hens. To put it bluntly: modern chickens are bred to live fast, lay lots, and die young.

This is all worth mentioning because it throws into relief the sickness, attempts at treatment, and death of Orion the rooster—and so many chickens like him who are fortunate (and rare) enough to receive some level of reliable veterinary care.

When you take your dog or cat into the vet’s office with some ailment, you assume that you will be given a reasonable diagnosis, a treatment plan, and a potential outcome. We take this as a given; we believe, with the sort of faith most gods would envy, that our medical caregivers will offer us something accurate to work with.

Not so with chickens. There is almost nothing like that with chickens.

iii.

Speciesism is the belief that humans have a primary universal significance giving them the right and power to dominate other species for their own ends. There are many ways in which speciesism dictates and shapes our everyday experience; human society as we know it would not exist without an unquestioned belief in the predominant glory of humankind. Even amongst those who fight for “the animals,” the ascendancy of humanity is a nauseating “of course” that is as impossible to challenge as it is to uproot—even rhetorically. It permeates us, and all we build, because it is at the foundations of everything we know. Even a glimpse at that foundation from above is enough to induce a vertigo that none of us can handle.

Beyond blatant anthropocentrism, of course, is an extension of valuation based upon what is more or less worthwhile for humans. This can be most clearly seen in the (horribly arbitrary, yet indelibly pernicious) division between “companion” and “food” animals. Culturally, we value and accept certain species of non-human as members of our family, as outside the realm of consumable (though even they get “consumed” in various ways—but I digress). In contrast, a culture’s “food” animals remain forever beyond that horizon of simple companionship. They cannot shake the ascription of consumable, even for humans who choose not to consume them.

This is why you would think it pretty typical to adopt a dog or cat for your household; if you mention adopting a chicken for a new family member instead, you will surely encounter raised eyebrows, even amongst other vegans.

Through speciesism, our culture’s food animals remain consumables, others, inextricably intertwined with the notions of slaughter, disassembly, preparation, and consumption. A part of what defines our culture is what beings we consume—for example, we do eat cows, but we do not eat dogs. Doing the latter will reveal you to be as problematic a part of Western society as will not doing the former.

iv.

Thus the sheer paucity of reliable veterinary care and medical expertise for chickens (and other farmed/food animals). Imagine the horror of the rare vegan who rescues a farmed animal and finds that every book, veterinarian, and online forum is devoted to a level of care warranted only by the ends of exploitation.

This is what we faced in trying to treat Orion. Our vets could find and show us instances of his decline—failing kidneys, neurological problems, labored breathing—and point to whatever pathogens their diagnostics might show.

But because of a millennia-old, speciesist approach to chicken “care,” our context for treating Orion felt limited at best, medieval at worst. We had no fucking idea what was going on, what we could do, and how we could keep this dear member of our family alive. Indeed, attempting to get veterinary care may have done more harm than good, in Orion’s case and in the cases of others, thanks to the limitations in knowledge about chickens and the relative inexperience with extended treatments.

Needless to say, the irony of this situation never escaped our attention: one of the oldest domesticated species is still one of the most enigmatic, and most difficult to treat, precisely because of humanity’s pathological effort to create a bigger, better chicken.

v.

As hard as the limitations of medical care were, even more challenging and insulting were the regulated restrictions in potential care that we encountered while trying to treat our chicken family members.

Imagine going to your veterinarian when your cat is sick. The vet runs some tests, drawing blood and doing a fecal culture and possibly pursuing an ultrasound or radiograph, and discovers the cause of your companion’s ailments. Voilà—thanks to the tests, your vet gives a diagnosis for your cat and knows the specific medications that can successfully treat her.

Now imagine that your vet stops you short after the diagnosis, explaining that while there is a medication available to treat your cat’s condition, federal and/or state regulations prohibit her prescribing that medication for your cat. Essentially, the well-being and SURVIVAL of your cat must defer to a mandate on what drugs can be administered for X, Y, and Z reason.

Surely you would be whipped into a frothing fury over such utterly absurd nonsense. When your companion, your family member, is sick, the only thing that matters is getting them well.

Unfortunately, applied speciesism carries the companion animal/food animal divide into the realm of what drugs are available for treatment. The “Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank,” or FARAD (not linked here because FUCK YOU), is the Food & Drug Administration’s effort to protect human consumers from possibly harmful chemicals entering the sacred human food supply.

Or, put in slightly less speciesist terms, the FARAD exemplifies how U.S. consumers prioritize their own health concerns over the well-being of the animals they pay others to needlessly breed, raise, fatten up, slaughter, process, and serve by withholding certain drugs (chemicals) that could possibly impact human health.

The frenzy over drugs in animal products does mean something: antibiotic-resistant organisms are not things you want to fuck around with, and in large part we have the agricultural industry to thank for an ever-increasing resistance in bacteria and viruses. You might as well see most modern animal farms as infernal cauldrons from which Orcs are born…because they ARE.

However, applied speciesism relegates forever certain species such as chickens to the “food animal” category, thus dumping them into the buckets that FARAD (i.e., the FDA and USDA) determines cannot receive certain drugs. No matter what.

The problems with speciesism’s influences on available medical treatment arise when those of us who rescue chickens, take them out of the food chain, and refuse to use them or any of their parts for human benefit run headlong into the wall of FARAD. Even if we know what particular pathogen or condition a particular chicken has, and we know what particular medication would successfully treat it, we very well might not be able to administer said drug because some humans somewhere are eating others like our particular family member.

Because of speciesism, because of human consumption habits, every member of a particular species is condemned to “food animal” status and the correspondingly circumscribed options for care we give to beings we intend to ingest.

The idea that someone might have ever eaten Orion or one of our other companion chickens is enough to induce a fugue state. The inescapable fact that we are forced to treat chickens like Orion as if they were to/could be eaten is only insult piled on to injury.

vi.

The perniciousness of speciesism becomes clearer when we see some of the (many) ways in which it grinds up the bodies of individual beings within the cogs of human culture. Abuse, murder, and consumption are only the more obvious ways in which speciesism gets applied through, and onto, the bodies of non-human animals.

We likely will never know what exactly happened, biologically and pathologically, with Orion the rooster. But it is still painfully clear that the ignorance we encountered, and the restricted care options we were forced to navigate, had their roots in the sickened soil of our speciesist culture.

And perhaps even more painful is my recognition that, cast in this light, the many months during which Orion came to shape me, teach me, and trust me are nearly meaningless because he was little more than a throwaway and a commodity to so many other humans.

With my last breath, I will refuse, resist, and refute this self-serving sickness of the human species. Orion’s life was worth more than that, as is the life of every “farmed” animal we selfish humans have forced into existence.

Their worth shall not be measured by the paltry marks of human myopia.

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