January 10, 2017

What is it like to be a chicken ... owned by Tyson?

The header before the ellipsis points, for those not getting it, is riffing on Nagel's famous essay "What is it Like to Be a Bat?"

The riff, and even more the portion after the ellipsis, is based on living in an area of the United States where chicken farming is a major employer and even more, is chicken processing, namely, by Tyson.

Seeing a flatbed semi loaded with chicken coops, all carrying a fluffy white bird headed to his or her demise, and the highway-speed wind effects ruffling feathers (yes, literally) more than enough to expose naked chicken flesh prompted me to start writing.

First, re Nagel. Yes, bats fly by echolocation. But, it doesn't work over long areas, so, "blind as a (hypersonic) bat" is more true than not, perhaps. Per Dan Dennett, the idea that this makes their "whatness" harder to discuss or picture than other animals of similar intelligence probably isn't true. That's even if we accept at least a "soft" version of qualia. (And, it's also Dennett finding an acorn in the forest.)

That said, and Tyson ownership aside, it's surely likely that it's easier to picture what it's like to be a bat than to be a chicken. Wild chickens probably aren't as smart as bats, and domestic ones are dumb — though perhaps not as dumb as domestic turkeys.

Chickens are less social than bats, or humans, too. And ... animal rights issues aside for now, surely have a lesser emotional palette.

Plus, given that the expression of both intellect and emotions occurs in reaction to environmental stimuli, that domestic chicken living on a 40,000-bird Tyson farm, most all of his or her life spent in a cage about the size of a kitchen trash can.

That is, per existentialism, "existing" and not "living."

It's even worse.

Humans who have been close to chicken farms know what the ammonia-like smell of chickenshit is like. Most humans probably assume that birds in general, with beaks not noses, may not have much of a sense of smell.

Well, new research shows that's wrong for birds in general and chickens in particular.

I don't care how many vent fans there are in a modern breeding house (without which, in hot Southern summers, the birds would die in 15 minutes). That shit has to smell shitty to a chicken, I would think.

 It's like being incarcerated. No, scratch that.

It IS being incarcerated. And, while a chicken isn't a human, it's closer, evolutionarily and culturally both, to a human than it is to, stay, a sea star. So, to some degree, it might be easier for humans — at least those who have spent time in jail — to understand what it's like to be a Tyson chicken than a bat.

Don't tell me that a Tyson chicken doesn't have its fair share, or far more than its fair share, of anxiety and other mental health issues. Don't tell me that, at some base level of instinct, it's not yearning for freedom.

At the same time, don't overread and over-project. That chicken has never experienced freedom, and doesn't fully know what it's like. For that matter, neither does a free-range chicken know freedom. It's free — and still highly protected until slaughter — on a carefully selected range.

On the other hand, contra the Michael Pollans of the world, artisanal Smithfield hog hams and true (not fake PR) free-range chickens aren't the answer, unless we all (1 percent as well as 99 percent, Michael) simply eat a LOT less meat.

We need to do that anyway, for other reasons, of course.

And, if we want anything above just grams of meat per day, and we want to reduce agricultural stress on our planet, we need to start rooting for Dutch scientists to make test-tube meat a success — a commercial and ecological success — as soon as possible.

The answer until then is ameliorating animal conditions on factory farms, even more for hogs and cows, likely more intelligent than chickens.

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