Eyes have always been central in defining the worth of animals to man. The Australian journalist Ambrose Pratt defended lyrebirds from the lodging and urbanisation of their Victorian habitat by declaring the species artists, shown by their “eyes of genius.” Nature writer Sy Montgomery imbued octopuses with souls, thanks, in part, to their expression, which reminded her of “the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses: serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time.” Animal eyes reveal a soul. They reveal a conveniently human presence within.
Almost no-one says this about the domestic chicken. German filmmaker and droll pessimist Werner Herzog calls chickens “the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures” in the world. Chicken eyes, for Herzog, reveal the “completely flat, frightening stupidity” trapped within their fiendish brains. In his short story ‘The Egg’, Sherwood Anderson is horrified that a typical chicken is born “hideously naked,” fattened on grains, and “stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun, becomes sick and dies.” In their cosmic obliviousness, chickens are so much like people that they mix one up in one’s judgment of life, Anderson says.
“Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms,” he concludes.
Over the last few months I have had many occasions to look into avian eyes. At the start of the year I moved with two housemates into a sharehouse in Dulwich Hill—an old Greek place with fig and lemon trees, and a massive chicken coop out the back. The previous tenants sold us their four chickens for $100—two black-and-white speckled Plymouth Rocks and two ISA Browns.
In the months following, we set about learning what it means to be chicken parents, including, but not limited to, building a chicken run, making nesting boxes for them to lay eggs, finding ways for them to roost, learning what scraps they like the best, and entertaining them (and ourselves) by hanging ears of corn from string at a height just high enough that they have to jump with their little squat legs and peck at the kernels. We learned about their bumbling curiosity, and that straw is very exciting to them. In their incessant scratching and foraging, they always seem to be expecting to find something amazing under the straw. Whether scratching, or walking around the yard, they always hold their necks straight and their heads high and proud. They remind me of haughty socialites out for a stroll.
They have also revealed to me that our urban ecosystem contains violent potentialities. Before the chickens came I thought the only predators hunting among the homes of suburban Sydney were property developers and credit operatives; but now I know there are also foxes and snakes and other carnivores lurking in the shadows.
We’re in the process of giving them names based on their personalities: Alice is skittish but gentle, an escape artist named in honour of the neighbourhood cat who visited our former sharehouse. Battle Chicken is the most brave and assertive, the alpha. Simone is independent; an adventurer and the dreamy wanderer of the group. The personality of the fourth—the smallest of the two Plymouth Rocks—remains elusive.
Although there is much to love about our chickens, an undeniable charm and softness, I cannot shake my sense of unease whenever I look in their eyes. Their irises are blunt and reptilian, and contain a coldness that seems impenetrable. My housemate, Tanya, puts it succinctly when she tells me she sees “chaos” in their supermassive black pupils.
Our vaguely unsettling feelings seem to me, to echo Freud’s concept of ‘the uncanny’—the dread that accompanies sensing the strange within the familiar. Chickens have been ubiquitous, in a very specific commodity form, my whole life. But it was only recently that I learned how little I knew of them.
In the last two centuries, according to John Berger, capitalism has reached a stage, whereby animals have gradually disappeared from human view. Where once they lived at the centre of our world—in our yards, on our farms—today we live without them. In zoos, as pets and as representations, they are fetishised as entertainment. And in post-industrial society, their bodies are mostly treated as raw material.
The breeds in our backyard come from this system, one where chickens are bred to be processed as manufactured commodities. In our interactions, both species—chicken and human—look across similar, but not identical, abysses of non-comprehension. To look and to be seen is to begin to perceive something of what has been lost, and to wonder if there is any way to bring some understanding back.
Battle Chicken and her sisters are radically different from their predecessors, the red jungle fowl of Southeast Asia, from which all modern chickens originate. Red jungle-fowl made their way around the world on trade ships and as domestic livestock, but rarely as edible meat.
Until the first decades of the twentieth century, the idea of eating a productive laying bird was an extravagance limited only to rich nobility. Apart from the occasional luxury of a capon (or castrated rooster), most American housewives in the early twentieth century would only cook laying hens that had outlived their fertility. Specialised companies collected spent fowl and fattened them with a pre-digested mash of buttermilk and grains until their body weight doubled. These “fryers” were not easy to cook, and yielded a dry, gamey meat that was suitable only for Sunday roasts or stocks.
By any economic standard, the post-World War II growth of the US chicken industry has been remarkable. The chicken’s journey to the centre of dinner plates throughout the world is part of a larger process of agro-industrialisation that has transformed our food practices and diet. It is the story of a profound restructuring of the relationship between nature and technology, one whereby avian biology has been subordinated to the needs of industrial production. This transformation refashioned chickens into what historian William Boyd calls an “efficient machine for converting corn and soybean into animal flesh protein” in the case of broiler (meat) chickens, and “mechanical oviducts” in the case of laying hens.
In this story, the chicken came before the egg. Chickens got their start in the late-19th century with “HenFever” when they were bred for their ornamental features like rainbow tails and feathered feet and sold as show breeds to US chicken fanciers. When this bubble burst in the 1890s, fanciers recouped their investment by turning their flock towards egg laying. Up to five-to-ten-million Americans tried and failed at egg farming.
Table eggs gave chickens their industrial future. But first hens had to be stripped of their maternal instincts. Farmers learned that hens would become “broody” after laying 15 eggs and refuse to lay more until the chicks had hatched and learned to forage for themselves. To subvert this, factories began to favour breeds found to be “non-broody”. The introduction of electricity meant their day-old chicks were put in kerosene or electric incubators that kept them warm until they grew their feathers.
The introduction of electricity for lighting and heating also altered their circadian rhythms and kept them working well into the night, and through their winter pause. The breakthrough which led to their confinement in the massive sheds we see today was the addition of vitamins and antibiotics to their feed.
Vitamin D, in particular, allowed chickens to be taken out of the sunlight and fortified them against ailments of confinement, particularly leg-wasting diseases.
As an example of the explosive growth in this period: in 1925, Delaware produced 50,000 chickens for meat. By 1940 Delaware poultry farmers had sold 35 million. One half of all chickens raised in this first decade died of disease or malnutrition before reaching market age.
Around 80 per cent of antibiotics produced today are used for livestock. Antibiotics were introduced to agriculture with experiments in the 1950s, which discovered that feed laced with antibiotics encourages chickens to grow twice as fast.
Confinement and improved nutrition played their part in the early decades, but most of the gains in poultry output from the 1960s were driven by genetic and breeding improvements. Some of these earliest ventures were direct spin-offs from attempts to develop hybrid corn. The new chicken industry grew in parallel with the massive roll-out of cheap corn and soybean mono-cultures in the Midwest.
The real watershed in breeding came when the US Department of Agriculture sponsored A&P Supermarket’s Chicken of Tomorrow contests in 1948 and 1951, otherwise billed as “the World Series of Poultrydom.” Thousands of breeders entered the competition, hoping to help the supermarket—a 1920s equivalent to Walmart—develop a bird: “chunky enough for the whole family – a chicken with breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried inlayers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more.”
The two winners of this competition—bred by Charles Vantress from California, and Arbor Acres—were crossed into hybrid chickens that would eventually become the breeding stock worldwide. They were celebrated with a parade through Georgetown, Delaware, replete with a smiling, waving Festival BroilerQueen perched on top of a car.
Thanks to their efforts, the modern chicken puts on weight fives times faster than the chickens of the 1950s. A full-grown broiler can be slaughter-ready in five weeks, and it can do this on less than half the feed of a chicken from the 1930s. The trade-off is that their tiny skeletons can no longer accommodate the weight of their growing bodies. Chronic pain, tibial necrosis (i.e. rotting bones), and bowed or broken legs are all common ailments among factory-farmed chickens.
A few years after the Chicken of Tomorrow contest, Arbor Acres was bought by the American businessman Nelson Rockefeller, who integrated the company with others that brought modern consumer capitalism to countries like Brazil and Venezuela. Peasant food production was undercut and replaced with a capital-intensive system reliant on US agriculture.
Arbor Acres thus went global, starting in Latin America and moving quickly to Africa, Asia and Europe. For more than four decades, the company sold as much as eighty per cent of the world’s broiler breeding stock. Still today, this stock accounts for half of the chickens raised in China.
The complexity of broiler genetics has protected these investments. The intricate family trees of modern chickens—the ones most profitable for factory farming—can only be replicated by the companies that bred them. As with hybrid corn or soy, chicken farmers have no option but to return to these massive companies for new chicks to start each new crop. A biological lock has been put on a species that populated millions of farms and gardens for centuries, imprisoning the chicken behind a wall of intellectual property and trade secrets. The keys are owned by only a handful of companies in the world.
We are still eating the Chicken of Tomorrow. Today, the average American consumes more than three times the amount of chicken they did 50 years ago, while consumption of other animal flesh protein has stayed level or declined. The broiler chicken outweighs all other birds on earth by three to one. 60 billion of them are killed every year. About 650 million of those are killed in Australia, where the per-capita annual consumption of chicken meat has increased ten-fold since 1965. We have transformed the chicken, and the chicken has transformed the world. To take one example, the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), which produces six hundred million chickens a year, has to deal with 1.5 billion pounds of manure annually—equivalent to a city of four million people.
Above all, industrialisation is about simplification, and there is much that has been lost. Thousands of small farmers who took part in the Chicken of Tomorrow contest were replaced by immense transnational chicken operations that control the birds from hatching to carcass. These birds are often contracted out to independent farmers to be grown and fattened using cheap labour. In the US South one in five of these farmers earns below the poverty line.
Genetic uniformity has made the industry more susceptible to disease. In addition, an estimated 50 percent or more of ancestral chicken breeds have been lost, the greatest decline taking place in the 1950s with the introduction of industrial chicken production. Around 1,500 irreplaceable global mammalian and avian live-stock breeds are at risk of being lost.
The ubiquity of the chicken, of course, means they area vivid marker of the Anthropocene, the new epoch that marks the overwhelming impact of humans on the Earth’s geological processes. Billions of the chicken’s distinctive bones, scattered through dumpsites across the globe, will become traces of this geological instant. Possibly, in the future, the chicken of tomorrow—including Battle Chicken and her friends—will be uncovered along with all our other technofossils from the bitter sands and even from within the remains of buried humans; an undeniable marker of capitalism’s rapacious spread across the globe. There is an irony that the more their eviscerated and dismembered parts intersect with ours, via meat, feathers and eggs, the more chickens—and all animals—ultimately disappear from human life. It would be unimaginable, from the fossil record, just how alienated from them we were.
The only visible path through our unmown lawn is the one that leads through the backyard to the henhouse. Interacting with the chickens has become the joy of our days. They coo excitedly in the morning when I let them out of their coop to roam the yard, and rush with curiosity to the fence throughout the day to see whatever we’re up to. At dusk they trundle back together and I watch them bed down for the night before locking the gate. Battling for roosting position in the coop, they enact the pecking order and reveal their capacity for hierarchical violence.
Most wonderful of all is finding their eggs, sometimes sheltered precariously in corners of the yard or in the shed. The eggs have buttery yolks the colour of bright saffron—they glow like a Turner sunset. Especially in the beginning, we would treat each new egg with a reverence and sense of wonder. By contrast, their taste revealed the dreariness of store-bought eggs—their sad, greying yolks and brittle shells borne of stressful confinement. Overtime, I’ve found myself surprised by my contentment in knowing that our eggs come from happy, healthy chooks. Consumerist guilt revealed to me only in its absence.
Half of all Australian eggs sold come from caged chickens, as of 2017. A veterinarian friend from Perth recently recounted to me her experience as a student on a factory farm that produced a million eggs per day. In the hatchery she oversaw minutes-old male chicks, fluffy things such as you would see on Easter cards, dumped straight into bins to be gassed. The vaccinated and de-beaked females were stuffed in cages and taken to sheds where their natural curiosity and boredom meant they stampeded towards anyone who entered. People walking through the shed were told to slow down to avoid “whirl-pools” within the mass of birds so desperate for any stimulus they will trample each other to get a look.
Most disturbing for my friend was witnessing one of the routine purges of a laying shed, when 50,000 hens whose productivity had declined were thrown into giant bins to be gassed ahead of the arrival of their replacements. Every time a hen was grabbed she could hear their brittle bones crack, and again when they were slammed through the metal bin lid. After the purge the birds were dumped outside, some survivors running panicked around a pile of dead and injured hens as high as the ceiling.
As I write this, in early 2019, up to half a million chickens could be destroyed by Bridgewater Poultry inVictoria, due to the sheds being infected with salmonella from wild birds flying overhead. Such unfathomable carnage is routine within factory farming.
Sometimes, as I’m stacking homegrown eggs into our fridge, I find myself going down strange mental detours. Are chickens part of the working class? Are these eggs an appropriation of their surplus value? Is our small backyard coop a capitalist enterprise? I think of ridiculous images, like chickens in overalls carrying little hard-hats and toolkits and punching the clock. But for certain others these questions are not so absurd. For some animal studies theorists, the unpaid labour of animals has provided the structural conditions for the rise of capitalism. They work to grow meat or milk, the main difference being that in their case, their bodies are both the means and the product.
The reduction of animals to objects, which has a philosophical as well as an economic history, has preceded the same approach to man. Nearly all techniques of human social conditioning and control have started with animal experiments. F.W. Taylor, who developed time motion studies and the “scientific” management of industry, proposed that ideally workers must be “so stupid” that they resemble ox.
Before he became a major figure in American eugenics, Charles B. Davenport praised the chicken for their great variety, fecundity and diversity of characteristics. Using language that anticipated his later enthusiasm for eugenics, Davenport said poultry breeding should focus on racial “purification” as a step toward creating “a new race which shall combine various desirable characteristics found in two or more races.”
The closest my housemates and I came to exerting direct control over our chickens was when we bought a blue dog harness and tried to take Battle Chicken for a walk. It soon became apparent that Battle Chicken did not like being chained to the yoke of our amusement. She struggled with the saddle, got her feathers and her wings tangled and, eventually, won her freedom. In other words, she resisted. Her sisters do this in other ways—Alice, for example, confounds us with her ability to escape the chicken run no matter how many fencing adjustments we make.
This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read the full piece alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.
Michael Dulaney is a writer and journalist based in Sydney. His work has been published by Griffith Review and The Monthly, among others. He tweets to a small audience of bots at @michael_dulaney
Max Mose (b. 1985) is a cartoonist/illustrator/programmer currently based in Madison Wisconsin, USA.