When HuffPo Misrepresented Chickens, #VegansWithChickens Responded…

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.

It was brilliant…

This is only the beginning…

A Handy Guide for Vegan Advocates Discussing Chickens and Eggs

By Justin Van Kleeck

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.

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Althea was the sole survivor after a predator broke into her coop one night and killed her sisters, who like her were hatched as a school project and were living at the school. She was blinded during the attack and nearly died from improper care.

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.

Trudy was so excited about an egg treat she leapt up to eat it out of my hand!

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.

Further Reading

“Backyard Eggs: Expanding Our Notion of Harm”

“What’s Wrong with Backyard Eggs?”

“Eggs: What Are You Really Eating?”

“No Such Thing as a Harmless Egg”

“Eggs. Period.”

“Lessons in Applied Speciesism”

The Inescapable Speciesism of “Progressive” Media

By Justin Van Kleeck

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Having lived with chickens for several years now, I can quite clearly see just how impossible it is for mainstream America and the media serving it–whether far “right” or far “left”–to step back from a conceptual framework that positions non-human animals as lesser beings here for our consumption.

A rather jaw-dropping example is a recent article in Mother Jones about the problems with so-called “cage-free” eggs. As we all should expect by now, the article shocks no one in its shocking revelation that the “cage-free” label on a carton of eggs means much less than most starry-eyed egg-eaters think it does…

Articles like this are endlessly frustrating because they assume, reinforce, and depend upon the premise that non-humans (in this case egg-laying hens) are, inextricably, objects within the human food system, and thus they emphasize the details of treatment over the ethics of use.

That is, in ethical terms, they are asking the wrong questions because, in virtually every single case, they are depending on a conceptual framework in which chickens (like other consumable animals) are food, always and already and forever...

Every single journalist who wants to do a story on the “transition” (ha ha) to “cage-free” eggs (ha ha) should, instead, take a big step back and think about a few other issues, if they actually want to do some compelling (or “progressive” or even fucking less exhaustively trite) journalism.

1. Where are the boys? Chickens (like most species) give birth to roughly equal numbers of male and female offspring. But where are the boys at these supposedly more “humane” cageless egg farms? Answer: they are dead. They are almost all dead (the few who make it out are usually dead, just at a later date) because hatcheries (where virtually every chick today is born) kill them outright…because no one wants them. Why in the name of profit would a farmer raise a boy–feeding and caring for (ha ha) them–the same way as a hen who will lay the eggs that farmer sells???

2. How many of these supposedly “happier” hens are going to lay like mad for a year or so, then lay fewer eggs, and then either be slaughtered *because* they are less productive or die because they develop one of the inevitable health problems laying hens experience as a direct result of selective breeding for egg production–including egg-yolk peritonitis, ovarian cancer, or one of the many other related conditions?

3. As long as major media outlets (as well as so, so many vegans…) promote the notion that there is a “better” (read “acceptable”) way to use non-humans for food, what you will encounter is a gentrification of the food system (“happy” animals are expensive animals, obviously) coupled with a continued exploitation of non-human animals for human food, to the utter detriment of the non-humans. There is no necessary (or even sufficient) imperative to stop eating animals in a narrative that says treating them “better” is less deplorable than treating them like Descartes’ automata.

To take the position that “nicer” exploitation is somehow acceptable means both condoning violence and excusing the vast number of humans who actively crank out endorphins over being “compassionate” animal lovers/exploiters, completely ignoring the paradox that recognizing the need to be “nicer” to animals necessitates asking why they deserve to be treated any nicer than cogs and robots. At all.

This happens all the time, of course… One glaring example is how NPR, the great bastion of liberal media, seemed to do story after story in the summer/fall of 2015 on how rough of a time the food industry was having because Avian Influenza was killing (or causing to be murdered) millions of laying hens, which meant egg prices were going up. GASP–chefs and bakers had to look at plant ingredients instead, or pay more for eggs as supply decreased!!!

The complete inability of supposedly progressive journalists and media to actually think about the underlying ethical problems and real-time implications (on the victims) of the exploitative, speciesist food system is borderline criminal. To watch instance after instance of it occur is as disconcerting as it is disappointing.

But then again, what incentive would the media outlets–catering as they do to a culture as pleased by bacon as it is by “happy” eggs–have to do otherwise than applaud mediocre measures that make everyone feel nice as they eat their omelette?

The answer: none.

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.

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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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In Memory of Autumn

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This is Autumn the rooster. I want you to know his name.

Autumn died suddenly yesterday after what appeared to be a brief illness, seen mostly in a mild runny nose. I took him to the vet just a few days prior, and with medications was certain that his recovery would be swift.

But chickens are masters of hiding their suffering, and it seems there was much more going on than he let on.

Autumn is dead, so I suppose I should have said, “This was Autumn the rooster.” The problem with recent and unexpected deaths, though, is that past and present coexist. They mingle together; they dance and flirt in a sort of chronological vortex that pulls in your mind, little by little.

Soon nothing seems quite clear and concrete; everything exists in a liminal state, swirling.

Lurking around all of this dysphoria, of course, is a recognition that roosters specifically (along with chickens in general) fall very low on the scale of moral consideration for most people. Whereas hens lay eggs that humans can eat, making them at least “worth something” to the many humans who love to eat eggs, roosters do not do a whole lot that humans find particularly useful. In fact, roosters are mostly a pain in the ass–a kicking, biting, intimidating whirlwind of feathers and fury that your average human wants to avoid.

These interrelated attitudes of apathy and aversion towards roosters lead to some devastating consequences. Female and male chicks are born in about equal numbers, but males are, as a policy, killed at hatcheries. If they are not ground up alive or suffocated in a trash bin, you might find their dead bodies used as packaging material and insulation for the chicks you ordered for your backyard flock and your “happy” eggs. The horrors faced by these young boys are just unfathomable, but we know what goes on. For example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ–faib7to

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukWtsY04cAc

Those boys who do make it out alive typically end up, like Autumn, unwanted and abandoned; many end up killed once they reveal themselves to be male with that first crow.

I remember getting a message that police in a local town had picked up a stray hen, and the only offers to “rescue” her came with a promise to eat her. I got in the car, drove to where she was being held, and got her out of harm’s way. For several weeks, in fact, we believed Autumn was a she. Until that crowing started.

He was always an affable fellow. While not obviously craving affection, he would very quickly fall asleep on your shoulder while being held, and he loved a good scratch on the neck.

Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.

Once he arrived at our place, he quickly became attached to another recent rescue, Salem. They were virtually inseparable. One of my fondest memories is bringing them outside to their yard and watching them greet each other with a rooster dance. Where one was, you would find the other. Their bond was profound.

Autumn’s last days were spent inside, for what we thought would be a short recuperation period. I held him to help give him his medications on what would be his final morning, scratched his neck (like a Narcoleptic, he quickly nodded off as I stroked him), and gave him a kiss.

The dysphoria of sudden death is in many ways centered on a clumsiness in transitioning from present to past tenses. We experience this transition with every breath, but changing tenses for individuals and our relationships with them is a much harder process to navigate: I still feel out of balance and teetering, as does the rest of the world…

This was Autumn.

I want you to remember his name.

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The Boys

Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.
Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.

Autumn (foreground) and Salem of Triangle Chance for All came into the Microsanctuary at different times, from different places, but when both were adolescents. After a few weeks of socialization, they became best friends. Now they are almost never apart.

Every evening when we bring people inside for bed, we typically take Autumn in first. Inevitably Autumn makes a fuss until we bring his buddy inside, and Salem runs up to us when we go to get him, expectantly waiting to be picked up and carried back in to see his friend.

The bond between these roosters is absolutely charming, just as the larger rooster flock they are a part of is delightful to behold. Our cultural assumptions and notions about roosters are sadly shallow reflections of their true personalities. Living with them as we do, as vegans, we cannot but appreciate their beauty … and feel dismay over the fact that so many see them as merely unwanted “byproducts” of the eggs they eat.

Autumn and Salem are individuals, and they are a pair. They are not, and never were, mere byproducts.