The possibilities of extended monographs on individual animal species were well demonstrated by the 1970s release of American West historian David Dary’s “The Buffalo Book,” now a cult classic on “all things American bison.”
Now, one by one, London’s Reaktion Books has been publishing lovely, colorful single-species monographs with wide popular appeal. The latest, Annie Potts’ “Chicken,” is the forty-fourth in the series, further dramatizing how far in the, ahem, pecking order this humble but utilitarian bird has plummeted in public estimation.
It was not always thus, as Potts demonstrates in her captivating survey of centuries of history, legend and culture involving the species, preceding her frank descriptions of modern agricultural mass production and destruction of chickens and poultry products for human consumption.
The relegation of the once-admired bird to a cheap food product has fostered the perception that chickens are otherwise fundamentally worthless, low-functioning, “brainless” animals (“bird brains”), writes Potts. In writing here about “all things chicken,” the knowledgeable co-director of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies, besides resurrecting the species’ reputation, necessarily emerges as their eloquent advocate.
“In just over a century,” she writes, “chickens have been transformed from birds revered for their bravery, fortitude and devotion to parenthood, to the least respected and most manipulated beings on the planet. The term ‘chicken’ now symbolizes cowardice, and the hen, whose love for her chicks was once so admired, has become a dispensable egg-making machine.
“Instead of a natural lifespan of up to twelve years, the typical farmed chick today will live for about six weeks, never having experienced sunshine, rain or grass. In modern societies these birds have become de-natured, de-personalized and even de-animalized.”
Mass production of broiler chickens pioneered in California almost a century ago and the “battery” farming of eggs in Maryland have ramped up into a worldwide expanse of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) whose aim is year-round production at the lowest cost in labor and money. Savings have grown exponentially as chickens have been engineered to mature and fatten so fast in physical conditions so dismal many human consumers are finally thinking hard about how healthy their food can possibly be.
The full-grown “broilers” who land on the table as adolescents are the lucky ones; the male chicks among those bred for laying are essentially worthless, immediately “macerated”—sliced and diced into pieces for feed, the source of those chicken byproducts in your dog’s food.
There are alternatives to these methods, not all unalloyed goods, which Potts also surveys. But this volume would be bleak indeed if she did not—as she has—saved the worst for last. Through much of this volume, stories of the relationship between chickens and humans throughout history and legend are set beside an often-joyous carnival of colorful art. We learn, for example, that breaking a wishbone for luck came from the ancient Etruscans, and that legendary gender-bending crosses of roosters with other species terrified the imaginations of Europeans for centuries.
She also documents the chicken in popular culture and art, including some forms of protest art that now confront mass-agriculture issues. Had she cast her net further beyond the Commonwealth, she might also have communicated that during our Civil War General Robert E. Lee had a pet hen that reliably laid eggs for him even during military campaigns. And we can also wish she knew of the guilty pleasures of Dick Orkin’s Chicago-originating syndicated radio feature of the 1960s, “Chickenman.” (“He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!”)
As for the “bird brains” of chickens, she assays modern research demonstrating not only chickens’ ability to learn but also to communicate in a complex manner; too, they have a remarkable ability to differentiate individuals, not just birds but humans. Further, they manifest emotion, pain and anxiety. Their brains are much smaller than those of apes, for example, or “cute” species like cats, but Potts insists they are deserving of respect for how well their drastically different wiring serves them.
In the end, the author’s enthusiastic embrace should persuade us of the worthiness of chickens, in their very differences: “Instead of fearing or dismissing this alterity,” she suggests, “we might instead respect and take pleasure in the uniqueness of chickens, their inscrutable yet delightful chickenness, their complex and nature-loving chicken worlds.”
I’ll cluck to that, as well as to how the author has helped me find forgiveness in my heart for that free-ranging bantam rooster who mercilessly chased me around my grandparents’ Missouri farm when I was only three or four. (Maybe my grandfather was right: “It’s because you’re the only thing on the place smaller than he is.”) With Potts’ book, chickens again rule the roost. (Martin Northway)
By Annie Potts
Reaktion Books, paper, 216 pages, $20