by Karen Davis, Ph.D.
Founder & president,
United Poultry Concerns
Heinrich Himmler, who founded the quasi-military police unit known as the SS [Schutzstaffel]and administered the Nazi death camps, was initially a chicken farmer.
According to Charles Patterson in his book Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, Himmler’s “agricultural studies and experience breeding chickens convinced him that since all behavioral characteristics are hereditary, the most effective way to shape the future of a population – human or non-human – was to institute breeding projects that favored the desirable and eliminated the undesirable” (p. 100).
“By blurring the boundary between animals and human beings,” says Boria Sax in Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust, “many Nazi practices made the killing of people seem like the slaughtering of animals. The Nazis forced those whom they were about to murder to get completely undressed and huddle together, something that is not normal behavior for human beings. Nakedness suggests an identity as animals; when combined with crowding, it suggests a herd of cattle or sheep” (p. 150) – or, as well, a pile of defeathered chickens making the victims “easier to shoot or gas.”
“Most people unite in defense of human supremacy”
For most people, as I discussed in The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale (2005), blurring the boundary between human and nonhuman beings, in order to harm humans more easily, is disturbing not because it raises questions about how we treat other animals, but because it threatens our superior status as humans.
For many people, the idea that it is as morally wrong to harm animals intentionally as it is to harm humans intentionally borders on heresy.
Similarly, the idea that animals could suffer as terribly as humans in being forced to engage in degrading behavior offends many people.
Hostility between and among human groups is historical, but just as bickering individuals and nations come together against a common human enemy, so most people unite in defense of human supremacy and uniqueness over all other forms of life. The boundary between “human” and “animal” cannot be breached.
But the animal/human boundary is continuously breached & blurred
In reality, the boundary is continuously breached and blurred. Theriomorphy, in which the human and nonhuman animal come together, takes many forms. Humans and nonhuman animals share a common evolutionary heritage and sentience, and we share many similar and identical interests and behaviors.
Meat-eaters incorporate animals into themselves by eating them, human infants’ first milk is often that of a lactating cow or goat, and many people are theriomorphic as a result of cross-species organ transplants, as discussed by several previous ANIMALS 24-7 commentators in the wake of the first pig-to-human heart transplant, accomplished on January 7, 2022.
(See Are pigs among our closest kin? Heart transplant revives debate and The Five Piggies of the Apocalypse, by John Robins.)
Bestiality in the name of God
So-called bestiality – sexual relations involving human and nonhuman animals – is, as Midas Dekkers observes in Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, “omnipresent – in art, in science, in history, in our dreams” (p. 5).
In myth and religion, animals are frequently employed by the gods to impregnate women. Dekkers notes that “Jesus Christ, himself the Lamb of God, had absolutely no need to be ashamed of his origins, since the dove which had fathered him in Mary was a god as well as a dove. Like the children of Leda and her swan [in Greek mythology], he is at the same time the product of bestiality (man x animal) and of theogamy (god x man). The same ambiguity is found in other religions” (p. 10).
Research as “sacrifice”
A similar ambiguity appears in Western science. Animals are substituted for humans in biomedical research, which is based on the assumption that animals can double for people as sources of information about the human condition.
Inflicting human diseases on animals in search of a cure, however modern it may seem, is really a type of primitive purification ritual. Through the ages, people have sought consciously or unconsciously to rid themselves of their impurities (diseases, sins and vices) by symbolically transferring their impurities to sacrificial victims, known as scapegoats. Often, these victims are represented as having both human and nonhuman attributes.
Jesus & the chickens
In Christianity, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb who bears away the sins of the world. In the Hasidic custom of Kaporos, adherents transfer their sins symbolically to chickens, their “doubles,” who are then slaughtered.
Swinging a chicken three times by the legs around his or her head, the practitioner chants: “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken shall go to its death, and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace” (Wenig, p. 2).
The ritual transference of one’s own transgressions and diseases to a sacrificial animal victim constitutes an interspecies rape of that victim. In both cases, the animal victim is treated as a receptacle for the victimizer’s defilement. In both cases, the animal victim is involuntarily made to appear as an aspect of the victimizer’s identity.
Humans, by virtue of a shared verbal language, can aggressively challenge the profanation and misappropriation of their identity. By contrast, a nonhuman animal, such as a hen, is powerless, short of human intercession, to protect her identity, as when she is characterized by her abusers as an “egg-laying machine” or as a symbolic uterus for the deposition of a human being’s spiritual filth, illustrating Jim Mason’s observation in his book An Unnatural Order, that traditional religion “sets up a mind that is ‘entertained’ by scenes of debasement” (p. 180).
“Animal farming invites crude conduct”
The boundary between animals as food and animals as sexual objects and religious appendages is thus blurred, even though the animals are not considered in their own right at all.
The rape of farmed animals is an ancient practice, not only because these animals have always been readily available for sexual assault on the farm, but because farmed animal production is based on physically manipulating and controlling animals’ sex lives and reproductive organs.
Sexually abusive in essence, animal farming invites crude conduct and attitudes toward the animals on the part of producers and consumers alike.
“We absorb them; they do not absorb us”
Use of domesticated birds, goats, and sheep as literal and symbolic aspects of human religious experience reflects these animals’ primary status as consumables: beings whose value resides in their absorption into the human body and into the anthropomorphic imagination in which they are frequently cast as ennobled by their contribution.
As numerous commenters on the recent transplant of a pig’s heart into a man’s body have observed in support of this operation and its future applications, people who eat animals and drink their milk are already comfortable having animals’ bodies and fluids inside their own.
Organs from other animals simply expand this comfort zone, adding even more “benefit” to humans. The superior status of humans is in no way diminished in being chimerically mingled with nonhuman animals. After all, we absorb them; they do not absorb us.
Davis, Karen. 2005. The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. New York: Lantern Books.
Dekkers, Midas. 1994. Dearest Pet: On Bestiality. Trans. Paul Vincent. New York: Verso.
Mason, Jim. 2005. An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other. New York: Lantern Books.
Miller, Hallie. 2022. “University of Maryland doctors in Baltimore perform first successful transplant of pig heart into human.” The Baltimore Sun, January 11.
Nellore, Usha. 2022. “Pigs can now hog the spotlight: Reader Commentary.” The Baltimore Sun, January 13.
Patterson, Charles. 2002. Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. New York: Lantern Books.
Sax, Boria. 2000. Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust. New York: Continuum.
Wenig, Gaby. 2003. “Human Atonement or Animal Cruelty?” Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. October 30.
KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl, including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Her latest book is For the Birds – From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl published by Lantern Publishing & Media.