I went out last week to pick up some hens to replace the ones that were taken by some wild beast earlier in the year. An email had gone around at work saying that they had 200 to find homes for. They had been part of an experiment on debeaking methods, trying to figure out the best way to stop them from pecking each other to death when three of them are packed into a cage the size of a hatbox. It was a good experiment- within the system- trying to make chicken culture more humane. Kind of like putting a band-aid on a cancer, as a wise man once said.
But, the experiment was over, and the birds were surplus to requirements, and it was needful to get rid of as many as could be gotten rid of to people who wanted them, before the others were sold to the chicken extract manufacturers.
They seem healthy enough. They all have a lot of feathers missing, so they don’t look so crash hot, and the claws on their feet are dreadfully long since they’ve spent their whole lives walking on wire cage. It was neat to watch them lift their feet really high as they walked upon the ground for the first time, and neat to see them peck at things in the earth for the first time, and discovering dirt baths for the first time, and generally starting to behave like chickens instead of like automaton drones. It was like they had just been born.
Time will pass, and we will doubtless discover the distinctive personalities of each of the five hens, and they will no longer be an undifferentiated mass of ragamuffins. For they are all different when you get to know them, just like rats and cats and elephants.
I will remember, of course, the shed full of hundreds like them packed into hat-box sized wire cages that we didn’t take away, and the nine billion (or is it nineteen billion? Ninety billion?) of their kind that we slaughter every year.
There aren’t many meals on a chicken. There are a lot more on a cow. It is much better to kill the occasional cow and share it around, rather than making continual hecatombs of chickens. I strongly suspect that there is not a lot of difference between what it is like to be a cow and what it is like to be a chicken: both can obviously feel pain, be happy or miserable, and have individual personalities.
Better yet, I thought as I was driving home with my cardboard box full of chickens, we should eat whales. There are many more meals on a whale than there are on a cow. Thousands and thousands and thousands of chickens worth. Sure, they are particularly sensitive and intelligent animals. But we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at letting a particularly sensitive and intelligent human die to save the lives of tens of thousands of epsilon semi-morons. At least, I hope we wouldn’t. Chickens have feelings too. Chickens can suffer. I think if you added up all the suffering and lost potential of the thousands of chickens you’d need to balance one whale, even if they are much dumber and less sensitive than the one whale, it could hardly be a contest. Besides, whales are the ultimate free-range animals. Up until the moment they catch and explosive harpoon in the guts, they live free in the open ocean, pursuing their mysterious cetacean social goals. They aren’t shut up in hatbox-sized cages or debeaked or nothing.
I’ve always been anti-whaling, and I still am, viscerally and sentimentally, but really, I don’t think we have a leg to stand on. We have frivolously and sentimentally promoted a few animals, like dolphins and dogs, to honorary human status, and expecting other cultures to do the same is the worst kind of cultural imperialism. We get understandably upset when them accursed foreigners complain about us eating those cute wittle-icky kangaroos. How can we complain about the cruelty of whaling when we subject innumerable other animals to miserable lives before knocking them off and devouring their corpses? As another wise man once said, first remove the stick from your eye, then go about removing the speck from the other guy’s eye.
When we embrace vegetarianism- which will, by the way, do more to curb global warming than closing down every coal-fired power station in the country*- we can go about pontificating to the Japanese about whaling. But until then? Much better to eat the gigantic happy animals, instead of the itty-bitty miserable ones.
* Statistic just made up by me. But almost certainly true. Research pending…