The domestic laying chicken has been intensely selected to be a persistent ovulator. That is, the tendency for broodiness has been nearly eliminated and, given the appropriate lighting and nutrition, many strains of laying hens produce an egg on almost every day. […] Commercial laying hens also spontaneously develop ovarian cancer at a high rate, and susceptibility to this disease has been associated with ovulatory events in women.
Think about all that for a second.
Hens are forced by genetic manipulation to lay eggs so frequently that they are highly predisposed to reproductive cancers. The thing they were bred to do for humans will likely kill them.
As is the case with all animals humans share space with, chickens can occasionally carry zoonotic pathogens that may transfer to humans and other animals. Sadly, many health organizations are zeroing in on this as a public health threat, and in the process they and the media are creating a skewed picture of chickens as dirty, diseased enemies of public welfare. And apparently cuddling is the problem!
So when HuffPost Lifestyle shared an ominously headlined article about chickens making people ill, Vegans with Chickens showed up to defiantly support chicken companionship and cuddles in the context of rescue and non-exploitation, pointing out along the way the hypocrisy of targeting chickens as too nasty to cuddle but perfectly okay to eat.
One of the most common discussions I get drawn into these days is on the ethics of keeping chickens for eggs in supposedly “humane” situations, like a suburban backyard. The details vary from time to time but always deal with humans wanting to eat hens’ eggs and feeling justification in doing so because the hens are not in a cage, a shed, or a slaughterhouse.
But there is much more to those “happy eggs” than is immediately apparent, and so I am hoping this post can serve as a handy guide for vegan advocates who have gotten beyond the “factory farming” horizon and want to talk about all forms of animal agriculture…and maybe for some non-vegans who think backyard eggs are better (they are not).
Just because a hen is not in a cage, shed, or slaughterhouse does not mean they are free from exploitation. One of the hardest parts of talking to people about the problems with “humane” eggs” is that culturally, we tend to focus on treatment (cages are bad, sheds full of sick hens are bad, slaughterhouses are bad, beating an animal is bad), so under the prevailing standards a little flock of hens in someone’s yard looks nice and bucolic. But that focus on treatment is really dealing with aesthetics, not ethics.
The crux of the problem with the whole idea that chickens’ eggs can ever be ethically neutral as a foodstuff for humans is: domestication. Modern domesticated hens lay about twenty times more eggs each year than their wild ancestors, the Red Jungle Fowl of southeast Asia, who lay 10-15 purely for reproduction. Read that again: TWENTY TIMES. That averages out at around 250-300 eggs per hen every year from about six months until their laying declines and peters out around four-five years old.
Selective breeding and genetic manipulation through thousands of years of domestication have thus completely hijacked the bodies of chickens: the ramping up of sex hormones and the physical process of laying takes a devastating toll, causing all sorts of problems (egg yolk peritonitis, impacted egg material, cancer, osteoporosis, prolapses…). These will usually kill a hen before she stops laying on her own; however, if kept healthy they can live into their teens.
The roosters suffer too–not only by being killed as chicks or once they crow because nobody wants male laying-breed chickens. They also have jacked up sex hormones that take a toll on their bodies as well. Simply put, no matter where they came from, virtually every single hen had a brother who was killed for no good reason.
It is also worth noting that whenever a chicken-keeper says their hens are all perfectly healthy, keep in mind that laying and other health problems happen in all breeds, not just the two most frequently used on industrial farms (white Leghorns and reddish brown Sex Links). Most people aren’t aware of the subtle signs that a chicken is ill (as prey species they are amazingly stoic) and get no vet care at all. The hens our sanctuary takes in from backyard situations are almost always sick with something, and/or have been the sole survivors of predator attacks due to negligence.
Along with all these physical consequences for chickens is the issue of bodily autonomy. When a hen lays an egg, why on Earth do we feel we have a right to something her body has created? Instead of stealing what is theirs, the best thing to do would be feed eggs back to the hens–eggs are usually their favorite treats, and doing so returns depleted vital nutrients in the eggs to the bodies they were pulled from.
For some reason humans think you can exploit and manipulate the bodies and very genes of non-humans over millennia, and then when those exploited bodies function as humans want them to, we can claim that what they do is “natural” and continue using them (dithering about welfare and treatment is often as far as we’re willing to go…).
That is fucked up, a tactic right out of the Humane Myth playbook…and that is why eggs are inherently unethical for human consumption, regardless of where they come from.
Eating hens’ eggs or allowing other humans to do so is perpetuating that system of exploitation and normalizing violence, including violence that is embodied as a result of domestication.
We adore our family of rescued chickens, and it is agonizing to get them to the safety of a vegan sanctuary and then see all the health problems they have due to their biology and breeding. Even with access to great veterinary care, far too often our hands are tied by their genes. We have lost so many beloved family members because of this, and I will never pretend that humans eating eggs and exploiting chickens to do so is nice, happy, or humane. No other vegans should either.
How do you respond with words to someone who murders your loved ones, glorifies that killing, is praised as a hero, and then casts you as a bully when you push back against such a heinous act?
This is the question I have wrestled with for months: How does trying to stop the murder of innocents make you the bully, and the butcher the saint?
In November of 2016, Wild Abundance, a homesteading & permaculture “school” in Asheville, North Carolina held a class to teach people how to “humanely” kill and butcher a sheep. A counter-protest, organized by the Let Live Coalition and in which I participated, got derailed by outside threats that were made by anonymous, unaffiliated individuals (against organizers’ requests to be peaceful and respectful when asking Wild Abundance to cancel the class). In the end two young sheeps were killed and processed…in order to “honor” them.
”The animal will be tethered, and when all the students are here, we are going to pray. Then we are going to wait for the moment that feels right and take the animal’s life.” – Natalie Bogwalker, Wild Abundance
In the ensuing mayhem after the start of the peaceful campaign, heated online rhetoric resulted in the would-be butchers pivoting on the notion of their vulnerability in order to divert attention from the act(s) of needless murder and blame “vegans” (en masse?) for the true violence. Natalie Bogwalker, owner of Wild Abundance, was portrayed (in pictures and words) as an innocent new mother being bombarded by militant vegans, and Meredith Leigh, the original instructor (butcher) for the class, as a stalwart hero of “ethical” food, food security, and sustainability.
The threats against them are unfortunate and had no place in the peaceful protest/campaign. But as a vegan, I (and many others) found this erasure/obfuscation of the true victims—the non-human animals being killed and butchered—to be both familiar and offensive. As a vegan who rescues, lives with, and cares for farmed animals, I found such intentional human narcissism to be beyond disturbing and disgusting.
Let’s be clear about this: What we humans have done over thousands of years is create a situation, a system, in which domesticated animals are victims by design, from birth. In particular, “humane,” small-scale farmers and so-called “ethical butchers” (see photo below) play off of the public’s admittedly wishy-washy concerns about animal welfare by portraying their actions—birthing and raising animals for the sole purposes of using, killing, and eating their bodies—as the best possible life for these beings.
“ETHICAL BUTCHERS” & THE ULTIMATE BETRAYAL
Thus, If you’re a “humane” farmer, what you essentially do is create a relationship with individual animals, feed them, care for them, build trust with them…and then that “one bad day” happens, and you throw them to the ground, restrain them, and kill them. That bond is shattered, and these intelligent, feeling beings experience much more than just physical pain in this ultimate betrayal of their trust.
To many, this sort of scenario is not only acceptable but also ideal—it is the best possible life for beings who are dead, dismembered, and digested: That lamb is little more than a conglomeration of choice cuts and leftover bits, no matter how deeply a butcher professes to “love” him or her.
We always must remember that this fact means that humans always have the power, along with free reign to enact violence (of all kinds) on innocent bodies. The indelible reality of this power dynamic, which results in the killing of non-consenting individuals, also belies any notion of “ethical meat,” even if Meredith Leigh can write an entire book on the subject (which, it should be said, largely ignores actual discussions of ethics).
Beyond the act itself of killing, when humans pretend to be victims while slitting an innocent’s throat, we perform an act of erasure that perpetuates violence and murder by transferring human sympathies to another human, not the dying non-human animal. Period.
Yet this sort of claim to victimhood is not only possible but also preferable to our culture at large. Thus Meredith Leigh, self-proclaimed “ethical butcher,” can talk up her “vulnerability” as a butcher of bodies and launch a campaign (and a hashtag…) against “vegan bullying” in the face of strong resistance to her planned act of murder during that class.
We must be honest in seeing what Leigh sees when she looks at an individual non-human. Her language is deeply disturbing in how it positions living beings as already-dead bodies, “components,” not-yet-divided morsels of flesh, calling to her and her tools to be separated and consumed. To her, the murder of the individual is merely a momentary passage to what they always were…
This way of seeing and representing individuals makes Leigh not an ethical butcher, but in reality a death fetishist. What drives someone who is supposedly in harmony with nature and its constituent life forms to so visibly relish the death and dismemberment of those under her dominion?
A lamb is not a pair of legs in a field, and yet…
A pig is not a blank slate upon which humans can perform meaningless acts of universal communication, and yet…
Her exertions to disembowel someone who did not want to die do not make her a hero, and they certainly do not make her a victim, and yet…
These are all examples of performance art meant to gratify an ego and please an audience, a narcissistic act of consumption in itself, as needless and disturbing and offensive as the idea of an animal being murdered by a “loving” hand, which she (and I should say all “humane” farmers and butchers) so clearly wishes to cultivate.
Yet for Leigh, the human-non-human relationship is always about domination—albeit a form of domination cloaked in the vacuous rhetoric of love, compassion, connection, oneness, and “cycles of life”—i.e., euphemisms for senseless acts of subjugation and violence.
EAT YOUR PRIVILEGE
What Leigh and all other humane farmers and all their consumers do not, cannot, understand is that to truly honor a living being means respecting and nurturing them while they, like all of us, struggle to stay alive. It means becoming a family with them, not an oppressor towering over them with a boot on their throat. And then when they die, despite your best efforts to keep them well for their own sakes, it means dignifying their deaths and memorializing them in your heart, forever, as a memento to a loss that cannot be measured.
When you know the value of their lives as individuals, the mentality that sees them as “components” becomes pathological beyond words, and the betrayal lurking within the shadow of the Humane Myth becomes an unbearable offense to your very family.
Perhaps if Leigh spent as much time as I do caring for the victims of animal farmers, and simultaneously entertained the notion that they actually desire and deserve to live, she might rethink her convictions about “ethical” meat. Otherwise, as it stands she seems to be profiting in many ways as a butcher-for-hire who does not have to confront the devastating realities of love, loss, grief, and systemic violence—the ubiquitous bullying that is part of humanity’s oppressive traditions. I am sure that privilege makes her lamb chops taste much less like a dead toddler.
It must be a wonderful thing, this privilege to confront the moment of death in a position of absolute personal safety and dominance—not to be forced to experience the catastrophe of a loved one’s death, of bearing the weight of their dead body, of digging their grave and piling dirt upon them, and then of putting your heavy, heavy foot in front of the other as if your life has not just been utterly upended, forever.
I will never know what that privilege Leigh so clearly enjoys is like…but I would still rather have our sort of genuineness than ever to sink into the cozy consumption and weakly defended self-gratification of Leigh’s “ethical meat.”
The day before I woke to the nightmare of the post-election world, I finished reading a graphic novel about a different human disaster. Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking, written by Anne Elizabeth Moore in collaboration with six different comic artists, offers a beautifully simple way of communicating extensive information about a very complex web of exploitation and oppression. In four chapters, Moore explores connections between the garment industry, fashion, sex work, and anti-trafficking NGOs. For me, the book served as part of the constant and necessary reminder that there is so much I don’t know and so much history lying beneath seemingly innocuous aspects of our lives.
While reading Threadbare, I saw many similarities to our culture’s animal use. We buy final products ready to cook, ready to wear. We don’t ever have to see the violent and exploitative processes that lead to their placement in stores for our convenience. Our consumerism is often the epitome of ignorant bliss, and oppressive systems encourage us to remain oblivious, an unfortunately easy task in an image-obsessed and superficial culture. Most of us really don’t like it when someone drudges up all the nasty shit at the core of our choices. Especially in a time when even a lot of social justice rhetoric centers personal choice and individualism, challenges to dearly held personal expression are typically unwelcome. The refrain often goes, “If something makes me feel good, how can it be wrong? I know everything is terrible. You don’t need to remind me. Just let me enjoy my bacon and H&M dress in peace. Let me hold on to my bigotry and prejudice. I’m not hurting anybody!”
But of course pleasure doesn’t exist in a vacuum even if it might feel that way in the moment, and even though pleasure matters, which it does – we are not here to just suffer and survive.
Our role as consumers is also only part of the design. Marginalized communities experience limitations that further complicate notions of choice. Dressing a certain way is often a key to accessing resources. Food deserts create disparities, and authorities may spread misinformation around nutrition and health. Connections exist amongst the animal agriculture industry and the medical industry as they do amongst the garment industry and NGOs. Corporations build factories overseas and move slaughterhouses and CAFOs to rural areas of the US in part to keep them hidden from the majority of white, middle and upper class consumers. This is painfully obvious in the rerouting of the Dakota Access Pipeline from a predominantly white neighborhood through sacred Native land at Standing Rock.
It can all feel overwhelmingly hopeless, as though we are powerless against an unstoppable force. And we need to forgive ourselves when we’re exhausted, when we’re scared, when we need time and space to heal and regain strength. But still, what we do matters, and it matters that we stretch ourselves to make imperative connections. Most of us don’t have to think about women in the garment industry, just as we don’t have to think about slaughterhouse workers or CAFO and dairy farm workers, but we can and we must.
The pain and suffering we are willing to allow others to experience for a singular momentary pleasure is one of the most heinous human traits. And the farther removed we are from each other, the more easily this exchange occurs. It doesn’t just take physical distance. We distance ourselves psychologically and emotionally with all kinds of mental gymnastics, often going so far as to acknowledge intellectually the harm we are doing yet refusing to empathize and imagine different ways of being and doing.
Empathy and imagination are crucial to not only our survival but to our ability to thrive. With Donald Trump’s election and a Republican majority, life is looking very bleak. But if there is one small sliver of comfort I take, it’s that more of us than ever are admitting this. The world of Donald Trump as president is one where horrors are revealed. Where once a postracial lens seemed to pacify so many (and will frustratingly continue to for some), I hope we heed this message in all its importance: we can’t keep ignoring our collective nightmares. We can’t keep pretending that all is well simply because so many of us don’t have to see where and when it is most certainly not. We have to confront our waste, our terrors, our injustice.
We may look for ways to alleviate the guilt that may come with admitting our complicity by placing the blame elsewhere or by justifying our behavior with desperate clinging to harmful traditions, just as Trump looks back to the past with the haze of nostalgia that it somehow used to be better, when we know it has been bad, it was never not bad. Resist guilt and instead take responsibility. As upsetting as it is to face the horrors of fast fashion or animal use or white supremacist patriarchy, it is also liberating. It is then we can begin to create a life otherwise.
In Threadbare, Moore writes, “Usually, an enforced culture of silence shrouds abuse and coercion.” To stop the cycle of abuse against our planet and each other, we must begin by acknowledging and speaking on the atrocities of the past – and I mean the past as recent as minutes ago. Be vigilant in this. Don’t let your fleeting pleasure and comfort excuse another’s oppression. Don’t let your ignorance fuel injustice. Move closer to empathy, to compassion, to movement and growth. If ever there was a time for us to learn and build new paths forward together, now is that time. If history has shown us anything, it’s that now has always been that time.
I recently read an article about the latest butcher/hunter being oh-so vulnerable by killing a defenseless being, talking about how super spiritual it is to murder someone as long as that someone is a different species and is culturally acceptable to cut up and eat.
I’ll share my favorite puke-inducing section from that article, and let me preface with a big LOL and some sobbing at the idea of respecting life as you rob someone of it but anyway:
“Both on paper and in person, Leigh’s respect for life and for the land shines through—as does, somewhat unexpectedly, her vulnerability. In her book, for instance, she includes a scene in which she prepares to slaughter a lamb named Hercules at a friend’s farm. ‘I drove all the way there with my troubles thick upon my back,’ she writes, and then describes the smell of hay in the barn, the look of the lamb’s eyes, and the mountains rising up in front of them as the lamb dies.”
Murder really heightens the senses, apparently. I’m pretty sure serial killers are on that shtick too. But who knew that as long as you choose the right victims, you can turn your sadism into vulnerability? The mental gymnastics! Humans are amazing.
People in positions of domination who exercise authority and power to enact violence often co-opt the language of vulnerability. This hurts me more than it hurts you. I do this because I love you. Lies. Domination is the rejection of vulnerability. Domination embraces power. It works to rationalize and excuse unnecessary violence as though it is in the best interest of everyone. It’s egoism. It’s how humans can make the slaughter of actual vulnerable beings all about their own feelings. “Ah, I’m so connected with the Earth now that I’ve denied someone else their connection to it. Especially now that the lamb is finally not screaming anymore, I can really take in all this beautiful scenery!”
A million myths exist to perpetuate our use of animals. One of the nastiest is that our hierarchical and exploitative relationship with them is naturally beautiful, spiritual, and loving. The idea that loving someone means violently killing them because we want to – for whatever reason – perverts the very meaning of the concept. Leigh saw “the look in the lamb’s eyes” like it was just another part of the scenery. What was that look? Why no mention of the inevitable struggle that ensued? Why no mention of the way in which Leigh killed the lamb? Instead the lamb passively died? Of course. In this story, as is often the case when the humane myth is at work, the horrific act of slaughtering an animal who wants to live becomes a mutual decision in honor of nature, one in which the victim participates willfully and in which the violence is somehow an act of respect and happens peacefully.
The only vulnerable person in the moment during which Leigh slaughtered a lamb was the lamb. Leigh, however, is eager to co-opt that experience and make it about herself and her anxiety surrounding her decisions to inflict violence and death upon the vulnerable, a despicably typical rationale for abuse of power. In this way, she clouds the hierarchical relationship that exists. She complicates her dominant position and her abusive behavior. She tells us, “It’s hard for me too!” Yet she emerges from that moment unscathed. In fact, she emerges with a prize! She now has parts to sell and to consume. Meanwhile, we’ll never fully know what the lamb experienced as they realized they were in danger, as they felt blade pierce their flesh, as they bled to death in the shadow of a killer who took solace in the beauty of the mountainside. (I mean, really??)
In another interview, Leigh fills out the sketch of her transition from vegan to “ethical butcher” (yes, you read that right). “High school exposure to horrific slaughterhouses, corporate domination, and empathy for fellow her fellow earthlings had turned her off meat. But everything changed after a trip to the third world—where she witnessed a population whose lives and livelihoods depended on animal protein (every last bit of it).” Confronting the very real fact of “third world” [sic] hunger and poverty, Leigh responds by seeking “ethics” in the American food system by booting living beings out of her field of ethical consideration and into the limbo of the absent referent.
We see the slipping away of living individuals for Leigh as she recalls asking herself, “We have hungry people in our country and we’re not going to eat something because we’re afraid to? Or because of regulation? Or because of whatever our culture has deemed normal?”
Whatever reasons Leigh has crafted to explain her decision to dominate, the least she can do is stop pretending that she is somehow vulnerable in that decision. The least she can do is acknowledge that the moment she willfully slaughters another being, she is fully in power. She is dominating. She wields a knife against the actual defenseless, vulnerable being.
Perhaps the most disturbing horror of Leigh’s “ethical” worldview is that her conscience can simultaneously feel a desire to care for and to treat “humanely” other beings, while also always already seeing them as dead bodies, as cuts of meat and grist for the gustatory mill. This sort of moral dysphoria takes for granted that other animals exist for us, and any nod towards individualizing them (and their concomitant “welfare”) becomes arguably the greatest betrayal imaginable—they each are equally someone and no one, a fragile life and a heap of carrion on the table.
This hypocrisy of perspective and narrative is enacted more and more, becoming normalized to the point of fetish in modern food culture: for example, a food co-op in Durham, North Carolina is celebrating community with a “farm to feast” lamb roast…but don’t worry, vegans, there’ll be vegan options too!
Leigh wields her power by the domination of true vulnerability, but through the logical twists of the humane myth, she can become an icon of compassion while committing murder. There is nothing vulnerable in her position…
And don’t even get me started on the nightmares experienced by oppressed groups coerced by capitalism into slaughterhouse jobs NOR on women trying to empower themselves by enacting traditionally masculine violence against other marginalized, vulnerable bodies. J/K, please get me started.
As ethical vegans who are also interested in helping animals living in this world right now because of humans, my partner, Rosemary, and I began to rescue farmed animals in order to get them out of the agricultural system—not to give them “better” living spaces in which they were still exploited, but to get them out once and for all.
We started the Triangle Chance for All microsanctuary, and from that The Microsanctuary Movement, around two hens: Clementine and Amandine. All of our rescue efforts on typical “pet” species took on a new quality when we transitioned to farmed animals. Once we rescued these hens from a shelter and began to interact with them as individuals, not as abstract concepts, the notion of being “vegan for the animals” took on a profound new importance.
Living amongst such wondrous beings, we began to reconsider – and to deconstruct – the ideal of an animal sanctuary. In late 2013, we had moved to a three-acre property outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where our view consists of a wall of trees rather than rolling pastures. But, in the course of applying vegan ethical considerations to the two hens suddenly residing in our house, we decided that we could scale the model down and get creative with what we have, not what we think we “should have,” in order to provide permanent shelter and care to our rescues. We began to see ourselves as building a “microsanctuary.”
Much has happened in the intervening two years since the lovely Clem and Am came into our lives. Fortunately, they are still living here with us, along with many other old and new residents of the microsanctuary. In every moment, though, they and the other roosters and hens who live here with us remind us of the value and importance of every life—even the lives that a speciesist, commodifying, cravenly capitalist society tells us are worthless. Baby chickens cost a couple of bucks at most, and roosters are “worth” even less; in a throwaway culture that concocts all sorts of selfish notions about what is “good,” these beings are the lowest of the low.
But to us they are everything.
Let us be clear about this: A microsanctuary is as much about ethos as it is about property sizes and resident numbers. A microsanctuary is grounded on the idea that sanctuary is a state of mind, and building one’s (human) life around the well-being of (non-human) animals is not only important but central to the ethos and ethic of veganism.
A microsanctuary can be any space run by a vegan (or multiple vegans) that is home to rescued animals and emphasizes their health and happiness above all else. So someone with a rescued house rooster is just as much a sanctuary (by virtue of being a microsanctuary) as a million-dollar non-profit with hundreds of acres and hundreds of animals.
This is important: We have to question the conceptual cultural categories we vegans inherit—such as “food” animal and “pet”—and we have to stop accepting the agricultural model as the ideal for these beings we suppose to respect. This is what microsanctuaries are doing.
By throwing out the ideal of what a farmed animal sanctuary “should” look like, Rosemary and I were able to really think about what sanctuary means for the residents and the caregivers in situations like ours. It is a revolutionary relationship and way of living, for modern vegans; it involves completely rethinking our perspective on the world and redefining ourselves in the (radical) role of caregivers.
This sense of dedication to the direct service of rescued farmed animals, as a way to end their exploitation, is what lies at the heart of sanctuary—and on an individual level truly defines a microsanctuary. To understand ourselves as vegans in light of the relationships we have with these beings is not only what defines our existence as co-habitants of a microsanctuary, but also shapes our notion of why we do what we do and where our moral obligations as vegans truly lie: to the animals.
Seen in this light, veganism is no longer so much a negative orientation, in the sense that we are trying to not cause harm or not be part of exploitation. It feels so much more positive to have a direct role in the care of the very individuals for whom most of us went vegan. Rosemary and I are and always have been vegan for the animals; saving and sustaining the lives of as many of them as we can has given our veganism so much more depth, meaning, and relevance.
Make no mistakes here: Microsanctuaries are meant to be radical spaces, just as microsanctuary vegans need to be a radical force.
What we seek is a world in which no individual being is used as a means to an end, and no individual being is made to feel (or be treated as) lesser than for any reason. That will only be possible with a staggeringly comprehensive overhaul of everything that we know in our modern life. It cannot happen if we keep bringing humans into the world as we do, and keep consuming in the ways and amounts that we do, and keep pretending that the human species has some special significance in the universe that makes it more valuable than any other, and keep rationalizing why it is okay for us to benefit from the suffering and exploitation of other beings so that our way of life can keep humming right along.
We as a species, as a culture, as a society, need to learn humility, and we need to recognize the value of other lives as much as we need to understand the tragedy of forcing them, without consent and for our pleasure, into existence.
Cleaning up chicken poop daily is a wonderful way to make that learning happen.
Go do it.
Originally published in Barefoot Vegan magazine, July/August 2016. Download a PDF version of the article here.