by Karen Davis, PhD., president of United Poultry Concerns
A woman employed on a chicken “breeder” farm in Maryland wrote a letter once to the local newspaper berating the defenders of chickens for trying to make her lose her job, threatening her ability to support herself and her daughter.
For her, “breeder” hens were “mean” birds who “peck your arm when you are trying to collect the eggs.” In her defense of her life and her daughter’s life, she failed to see the comparison between her motherly protection of her child and the exploited hen’s effort to protect her own offspring – for the hen a losing battle.
“Them” versus “us”
Animal farming erects an unbridgeable boundary between humans and “animals,” especially farmed animals. The “them” versus “us” pervades industrial farming, which is rooted in traditional farming. The poultry industry takes pains to ensure that producers convey, as Egg Industry editor Simon Shane once put it, “the message that hens are distinct from companion species to defuse the misperceptions.”
It isn’t that agribusiness elevates “companion species” particularly, but that dogs and cats are the basis of the $30 billion pet food industry that serves as a dumping ground for millions of newborn male chicks (“hatchery debris”) and slaughterhouse “refuse.”
The idea that humans are a vastly superior order of being, distinct from the rest of creation, pervades society despite Charles Darwin’s demonstration of the evolutionary continuity of living creatures.
Even among “progressives,” interference with the presumption of human superiority and exceptionalism can ruffle feathers. Hostility among human groups is an integral part of human history, but just as bickering individuals and nations come together against a common enemy, so most people are united in defense of human supremacy over, and radical separation from, all other forms of life.
This prejudice can be seen in the resentment of some core feminists toward any suggestion that their suffering and other experiences are comparable to those of nonhuman females. They believe that cross-species comparisons crimp their identity as unique. They do not want to share the “privilege” of oppression.
Symbol of motherhood
An article I recently wrote titled “The hen is a symbol of motherhood for reasons we may have forgotten, so let us recall” was rejected by a progressive publication for implying similarities between human mothers and chicken mothers. The editors considered the comparison a slur against women.
Carol J. Adams, in “The feminist traffic in animals” in Neither Man Nor Beast, describes how far some feminists will go to deny other animals’ capacity for meaningful social relationships, and even their fear of death, to which Adams responds that these beliefs “are possible only as long as we do not inquire closely into the lives of animals as subjects.”
Powerful male predators
While some women may wince at comparison with their female counterparts – their sisters – in nature or captivity, men on the other hand relish linking themselves to wild animals, by which they mostly mean powerful male predators – jaguars, pumas, wolves and the like, whom they iconize as masculine.
What man chafes at being likened to a big cat?
(See Editor’s Note, below, by Merritt Clifton.)
Feminists who resent comparisons with nonhuman female animals whose behavior is similar in all relevant respects are not liberated in my view.
An environmentalist named J. Baird Callicott in 1980 dismissed all farmed animals categorically as having been bred to “docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency. It is literally meaningless to suggest that they be liberated,” he wrote in “Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair,” Environmental Ethics 2:311-338.
This sounds a lot like a stereotypical Victorian man’s view of women – and it is every bit as factitious. Yet even today, some feminists are battling a demeaning image of themselves as the equivalent of a mere “farm animal,” which is itself a demeaning and ignorant caricature.
Though science remains speciesist, the fields of cognitive ethology and evolutionary biology are expanding our understanding of how intimately we are connected to the other animals on the planet.
The chicken challenge
In a 2012 essay “The chicken challenge: what contemporary studies of fowl mean for science and ethics,” published by the journal Between The Species, Carolynn L. Smith and Jane Johnson presented science showing that chickens demonstrate complex cognitive abilities.
Wrote Smith and Johnson:
“The science outlined in this paper challenges common thinking about chickens. Chickens are not mere automata; instead they have been shown to possess sophisticated cognitive abilities. Their communication is not simply reflexive, but is responsive to relevant social and environmental factors.
“Chickens demonstrate an awareness of themselves as separate from others; can recognize particular individuals and appreciate their standing with respect to those individuals; and show an awareness of the attentional states of their fellow fowl.
“Further, chickens have been shown to engage in reasoning through performing abstract and social transitive inferences. This growing body of scientific data could inform a rethinking about the treatment of these animals.”
Mother’s Day plea
Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in May 2018 published a Mother’s Day plea for mother cows on the Psychology Today website.
Bekoff, in “What would a mother ‘food’ cow tell us about her children?,” wrote that he is now “freely using the word ‘children’ rather than ‘offspring’ or ‘young’ that are usually used when writing about young nonhumans. These youngsters are, of course, their children,” Bekoff acknowledged, “and many behavioral patterns have evolved so that they receive the best parental care possible.”
Petty & disassociated from reality
To deny our kinship with creatures who are other than human risks estrangement from the living world to a pathological degree. To feel slighted that a hen or a cow or a sow could love her children as a woman loves hers is petty and dissociated from reality.
I agree with animal rights author and attorney Jim Mason, who in 1980 co-authored the influential book Animal Factories with Animal Liberation author Peter Singer.
Mason in a recent interview advised against “separation from our kindred animals, “ urged us to “practice a sense of kinship by seeing behaviors that we share with other animals . . . and see these as your own experiences. Dwell on that – emotionally and spiritually. Feel that sense of the things we have in common with these others.”
I hope that any feminist, or anyone at all who relates to the attitude of a male farmer who snorted, “Who the hell knows or cares what a hen wants,” will reconsider. Such sentiments of alienation will not make the world a more just place for any sentient being.
Karen Davis, Ph.D., is the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl, including by operating a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Davis is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry; More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality; and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities.
Editor’s note, by Merritt Clifton:
While this is true in gist, and quite appropriate to her message, it is also true that men frequently identify with many other animals, including some who are farmed for slaughter, some who are common prey of hunters, and several who are relatively harmless but colorful and loud.
It is questionable, however, whether anyone of any gender or gender orientation would identify with teams named the Bitches, Sows, Cows, or even just Hens –– which suggests that the real issue is not what species or gender of animal is chosen to identify with, nor even how the animal is exploited, but rather whether the name of the animal is commonly used as a pejorative.
Elliot M, Katz, DVM says
“Harboring the idea of owning another living being is in itself an act of violence, and our outer violence toward nonhuman animals, which is so devastating to us all, springs from this idea. The vegan ideal of compassion for all life has as its core this same idea: that we are never owners of others. We can be their guardians, companions, friends, protectors, admirers, and appreciators, and this blesses us far more than we might think. The move from “owner” to “guardian” frees both the “owners” and the “owned,” and establishes the foundation for peace, freedom, and justice. We are all harmed by the culturally mandated ownership mentality that reduces beings to mere commodities, whether for food, clothing, entertainment, or the myriad of other uses. It is long past time for us to awaken from the cultural trance of owning our fellow beings, and instead see ourselves as their guardians. This is the very essence of compassion, sanity, and healthy relationships with nonhuman animals and with each other. I am grateful for and support IDA’s Guardian Campaign as an essential step in our individual and collective evolution to a brighter tomorrow for our children, and for the children of all our fellow beings.” Dr. Will Tuttle, pianist, composer, and former Zen monk, author of the #1 Amazon best-seller, The World Peace Diet, and recipient of the Courage of Conscience Award.
Mary Finelli says
I’ve seen feminists who also identify as animal advocates argue against referring to the sexual assault to which farmed animals are routinely subjected in the same way as sexual assault of human females. They’ve claimed, for example, that nonhuman animals don’t have the psychological capacity to suffer as humans do. When I pointed out that they don’t know what psychological torment it may cause the nonhuman victims, that it might be even more intense for them, and that such a claim is the sort of thing that industry makes, I was blocked from further commenting (on a popular animal rights Facebook page). It’s plain, old speciesism with a phony veneer of feminism. It is anti-feminist, and all the more contemptible coming from what is supposed to be the left.
Karen Davis says
I explore the issue of “Interspecies Sexual Assault: A Moral Perspective” here:
In particular, I focus on the interface between prurience and “business” in animal agribusiness, and in traditional farming, which is based on sexual manipulation of chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys and other farmed animals, and which is well-documented as contributing to salacious attitudes and behaviors toward the animals, arising from these intimate farming practices. It’s a commonplace joke in farming parlance that “a farm boy’s first girlfriend is a mule.”
It’s a commonplace of farmers and farmed animal experimenters to claim that the animals like being sexually [ab]used by humans. Just recently, an animal activist in Canada emailed me about an agribusiness meeting he attended in which a farmer insisted that farm animals WANT sexual “contact” with their owners: i.e., while the farmer is about “profit,” the animals are about “pleasure,” so it’s win-win.
Karen Davis, President, United Poultry Concerns
Karen Davis says
Thank you, Animals 24-7, for publishing my article. I hope it will usefully raise the issue among us of a continued human resentment at being compared with an “animal,” a “primate,” a “farm animal.” Just yesterday (June 8), I listened to a talk show on NPR in which the commentators expressed anger at being compared with “primates,” seemingly not recognizing that human beings ARE primates. What people who resent these comparisons usually fail to perceive is that the nonhuman animals are themselves denigrated by being caricatured, and it is the denigrating characterization of these animals as metaphors of inferiority, stupidity, etc., to which they are reacting without any idea of who these caricatures are in their own right. Not that most people would probably care, since our species as a whole seems predisposed to regard the earth and our fellow inhabitants as elements to be overcome rather than acknowledged respectfully as matrix and kin.
Karen Davis, President, United Poultry Concerns http://www.upc-online.org
Jamaka Petzak says
“…To deny our kinship with creatures who are other than human risks estrangement from the living world to a pathological degree. To feel slighted that a hen or a cow or a sow could love her children as a woman loves hers is petty and dissociated from reality.”
Eloquently and very well stated.
While I don’t claim success in being a purist, and while I am at times, as are many people, conflicted between what I “believe” and what I do, I couldn’t agree more with your above-quoted statement. And perhaps because I grew up in a household that was multi-cultural/ethnic and for the most part kind, gentle and thoughtful, I have always seen myself as a fellow animal, a primate, definitely, but not “better” than the cats my family and I have always loved and cared for, or the members of other species we have interacted with. It has always been abundantly clear to me that members of other species are sentient, that they have feelings and worth, and are worthy of our respect, protection when needed, and regard. As a minority woman, I am proud to include myself in the diversity of life. Would that all human beings could realize the truth of what you say, and prioritize our kind treatment of other living beings above such “values” as greed, competitiveness, and self-obsessiveness.
Karen Davis says
Thank you for your commentary on the issue I raise in this article. It is sad and strange how threatened many people seem to feel in being reminded of our connection with the rest of the living world on earth. Meanwhile, many hope to find our “equals” in outer space, on other planets and distant stars. You are fortunate to have grown up in the family you describe and to carry that experience through your life and feelings.
Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns
Tanya Tuell says
No, feminists are not right to resist comparison with females of other species. I am proud to call whales, horses, dogs, and butterflies, all living creatures, my brothers and sisters. It is a puzzle to me how a percentage of us, us humans, feel so connected to other animals and to nature while many humans feel nothing at all. Some of us were raised to care for others it is just who we are. Thank you for this article.
Dr. Rocco Paolucci says
Thank you, Dr. Davis, for writing an excellent (and brave) article that is right-on target. However, I think the issue of human-nonhuman animal relationship is much broader than that of “feminism”. There is a strong reluctance among many of the “oppressed” social justice groups (whether based on sex, race, religion, migrants, etc.) to compare their plights to that of nonhuman beings. Actually, it’s more than reluctance, I think they find it offensive and are strongly antagonistic. These groups are supposed to be very “sensitive to and empathize” with each other’s cause (and they are). However, this is not the case for those beings who have been and still are the most oppressed among us: nonhuman animals. No compassion, no empathy for the most innocent, persecuted, and exploited beings on this planet. Just think if many within these social “oppressed” groups became vegan out of justice and empathy for nonhuman beings, we would truly be a Vegan World almost overnight. I think there is incredible hypocrisy on their part and they should be confronted as often as possible.
Karen Davis says
I agree with you completely. In this article, I focus on women and feminism in particular because of the unexpected rejection of my previous article by a “progressive” publication, one of whose editors invited me to write it for Mother’s Day, only to have it rejected by a senior editor as a “feminist slur.” (So a speciesist slur is okay!) I discuss the question of the ethics and efficacy of comparing one group’s oppression with that of another in The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. In the article that was rejected, I discuss the continuity of devoted motherhood in women and mother hens. One problem with the Left is its roots in Marxism. Engels wrote, for example: “The most that an animal can achieve is to collect; man produces; he prepares the means of life in the widest sense of the word, which, without him, nature would not have produced. This makes impossible any immediate transference of the laws of life in animal societies to human ones.”
The hard core Left excludes (other) animals. The continuum between humans and other animals with regard to their mental lives extends, as Darwin showed, to love, memory, curiosity, reason, and sympathy for each other, but Darwin’s perceptions and those of the Left remain separate spheres essentially.