Thinking of Chickens
Travel for long in the state of Arkansas and you’re likely to find a chicken. Not that chickens run rampant, crossing the proverbial road at will, but the countryside of Arkansas, The Natural State, is littered with the makings of the chicken industry, which are, as you may be aware, unnatural. Shimmering in the Arkansas heat, long rows of chicken houses line state highways and county roads and dirt tracks where the plumes of dust from passing trucks linger in the air. In remote backwater spots gut factories slaughter tens of thousands of chickens a day, where local streams are usually, though not always, the color of old puke. In the cities packing plants light up entire blocks, generators whirring into the night, and semi trucks, bound for all corners of this great land of ours, provide a regular convoy to and from said plant.
In Arkansas, there is Wal-mart and Tyson. Wal-mart, I think, needs no introduction. Tyson is chicken. And though Wal-mart might be the more ubiquitous by sight, Tyson holds top honors in the olfactory genre. Often, farmers lace their fields with chicken manure. Combined with the dry Arkansas dust that settles on the fields, it is not a pretty sight. Or smell. Gut trucks weave along narrow county roads, leaving a swath of olfactory offense in their wake. And, without going into a chemistry lesson on the decomposition of shit, suffice it to say that during the breaking down process of chicken manure, ammonia is produced, which, combined with the yellow fertilized fields and the loud rumblings of passing trucks, offends at least three of the five senses.
A chicken house can be a hundred yards long and house 25,000 chickens. This is not a small chicken coop, where a dozen or so chickens produce eggs, scratch around the yard, and wake the neighbors at 5 am. These CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations) litter the countryside of the South. Tyson, the largest poultry producer in the world, supplies local growers—who work under contract—with chicks, feed, medicine, and transportation. Growers, then, are responsible for construction, maintenance, and labor costs, as well as disposing of massive amounts of manure.
They are paid by results. And though the data is often conflicting, with industries like Tyson claiming growers are paid well, and environmental groups like Grist! claiming low wages, one rarely sees, at least in my home state, chicken houses butted up against mansions, the wavering light from the backyard swimming pool reflecting off the rusted tin roofs of the chicken houses, or see people sitting on their back deck drinking champagne and conversing over the constant clucking a few feet away. Instead, the industry seeks out rural areas, where poorer farmers are often trying to find ways to hang on to their farms, where the neighbors won’t complain, mainly because they are in the same situation, and there is no unifying body that will group together to keep them—Tyson, Cargill, and other poultry producers—out.
They are called chicken houses, but they are not chicken homes. The houses are relatively clean before the chicks arrive, and seemingly spacious, but once the chickens near the end of their incarceration, they have produced massive amounts of waste and taken up all the space of the chicken house simply by growing. The industry average is less than half a square foot of floor space per bird, and though that is only slightly smaller than the size of the average college dorm room, college students are allowed out of their rooms to attend class and drink and karaoke and have pre-marital relationships with others of their kind, which, of course, chickens are not allowed to do.
They require tons of work. The water troughs—hundreds of them in each house—must be cleaned with bacterial soap. The automated feeders must be checked and re-checked, the windows adjusted for heat, and the dead chickens gathered for disposal. It is hard work in the summer, the hot air thick with chaff and flies, and the smell so strong in your throat you can taste it. Add to that rodents, maggots, flies, fertilizer, gut-trucks, polluted water, summer heat, and the dead pits. Ten to fifteen feet deep, ten to fifteen feet wide, the dead pits are covered by a concrete slab, not unlike a storm cellar. Each day, as the house fans circle slowly overhead and workers move through the hot air feeding and watering and cleaning, they throw the dead into the dead pits, where, throughout the summer, as the flies get in and lay their eggs and then the maggots appear, they squirm and writhe, seething, and the smell seeps out of the ground and into the air.
The numbers of dead, of course, are less in winter, or else the cold keeps the maggots out and it only seems there are less of them. In summer, the various factors that cause deaths are too numerous to go in to, and though we are only talking about chickens here, many health-related organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have raised the possibility that we don’t really know the long-term effects manure and other types of pollutants will have on our general health, ecosystems, and air quality. They do, however, post a list on their website of public health concerns, which include antibiotics, pathogens, nutrients, pesticides and hormones, solids such as feathers and feed, and trace elements of copper and arsenic which may or may not get into our groundwater.
Besides the human element, there is the ethical argument about animal treatment, welfare, and general happiness (of the chickens). The rabid-protector of animals group, PETA, has, among other things, requested that Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) implement basic improvements in animal welfare, and boycotted the food-maker, stemming from allegations that KFC “does chickens wrong.” PETA has also boycotted Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s. Some of the improvements PETA asked be implemented include:
“That the company conduct announced and unannounced audits of all its cow, pig, and chicken slaughterhouses, and stop purchasing from suppliers that fail these audits; increase the living space for hens being raised for their eggs; stop starving chickens in order to force them to produce more eggs; and implement humane catching standards for chickens.”
Among PETA’s claims are that the chickens are overcrowded; that they are fed stimulants and hormones that cause them to grow so quickly that bones break and organs no longer function correctly; that they are subsequently grasped by these broken appendages and stuffed into small crates to be transported to the slaughterhouse where they will often be scalded while fully conscious.
McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King agreed to PETA’s requests. KFC states it has a “comprehensive animal welfare program,” but has refused to implement the improvements PETA has requested, which roused PETA to post a long list of grievances on their website, as well as videos, literature, “Boycott KFC” shirts, and vegetarian starter kits.
Are chickens smart enough to realize they are not being treated fairly? Is ignorance bliss? Are chickens ignorant? Or simply unhappy, like most of the rest of us? Do the mass of chickens lead lives of quiet desperation? Did the chicken cross the road to get away from the unhappy conditions of the chicken house, only to find that there was another one waiting for him on that side of the road as well?
An article posted on govegan.com states that chickens are “inquisitive and interesting animals whose cognitive abilities are more advanced than those of cats, dogs, and even some primates.” That they are social creatures, they can recognize up to a hundred other chickens, and they have their own personalities. They can “comprehend cause and effect and understand that objects exist even after they are hidden from view” which “puts their cognitive abilities above those of small human children,” and while that is high praise for the lowly chicken, we’re still talking about an animal that will defecate in its own water and food, as well as an animal that will, when bored and not de-beaked, peck at another chicken until it is festooned with gaping wounds, which leads one to believe that the appreciation of the finer things in life might be lacking in them.
Consider the common chicken. Gallus gallus domesticus, which, for purposes of our essay, shall be known as a broiler chicken. Pre-1930s, which means pre-John Tyson and pre-vertical integration, a micromanagement term for ownership and control, whereby companies are united by a hierarchy and share a common owner (John Tyson), chickens were valued for their eggs, and only slaughtered on special occasions (which could, I suppose, be considered an honor. Of sorts). They lived a life of leisure, pecking around the yard, finding worms and bugs, laying eggs, et cetera and et cetera and et cetera, until the day came when grandma stepped out back carrying a hatchet and they fled for their lives, which may be the reason so many of them decided to cross the road.
With the advent of hatcheries, chicken houses, and slaughterhouses, the life of the chicken changed dramatically. A fertile chicken egg takes 21 days to hatch. Chicks hatch from the egg able to see and walk and feed themselves (they are also cuddly and cute, and that, combined with the fact that they have very little meat, is probably why we don’t eat them then). To prevent diseases that might kill off the chicks and therefore profit, the chicks are vaccinated before they leave the hatchery. From the hatchery, they are loaded onto transport trucks that will take them to their new home, where they are unceremoniously unloaded into a long, not very wide house with 25,000 or so other chicks. I suspect identity might become an issue at this point, if chickens had an intelligence quotient higher than one. But, here, they gambol and cavort (actually they do much more eating and defecating and occasionally pecking at each other) for anywhere from four to twelve weeks, depending on whether they are to be marketed as spring chickens, broilers, or larger roasting birds.
The houses are floored with sawdust, shredded newspaper, or straw, which becomes increasingly slippery and fouled (no pun intended) as the chickens eat, defecate, grow larger, and then defecate more. Feeding, watering, lighting, temperature, and ventilation are carefully controlled, reasons being that A) growers want maximum growth of the chickens, and B) so they don’t kill each other (more light makes a chicken more aggressive). Farmers can grow five or six batches of chickens a year, with a period of two to three weeks between batches for cleaning and fumigating. The litter, sawdust, etc., must be dumped, since most of it is now soiled with feces and urine.
Trucks arrive a few hours before dawn, when the chickens are asleep. They are snatched up and thrown into the trucks, where, unbeknownst to them, the slaughterhouse awaits. Here’s where things get messy. It is also the point where one might ponder the industrious ways we have of killing, the factory line regularity of it all. I suppose one could make a metaphor for war here, or firing squads or gas chambers, but the next few pages are gruesome enough without all of that.
The chickens are hung upside down by their feet on a continuously moving line and an inspector gives them an ante-mortem inspection, which causes me to wonder the sorts of things that would cause said inspector to reject a bird. One supposes signs of disease and the like, but remember that we are talking about a bird that has been housed with 25,000 others of its kind, all shitting on each other and sleeping in piles of shit and drinking from water that others have shat in.
The chickens, upside down and having passed inspection, enter the slaughterhouse through a narrow opening and are immediately stunned, usually by an electrical current running through down-hanging wires or by an electrified water bath. Their jugulars are sliced open. They then pass through a bleeding tunnel, where an estimated 50% of the blood is removed.
Still upside down, they are scalded next, the hot water softening the skin for the defeathering process. They pass through large drums where rubber discs or handles beat at them until they are depilated of all unsightly back hair. Once defeathered, their feet are cut off, and they pass from the “dirty” section of the slaughterhouse to the “clean” section, which is almost, but not quite, like going from junior high to high school, only in reverse.
Here they are vented and drawn, which sounds nice, but venting is opening their guts with a pair of stiff shears and drawing means to draw out all the guts. The edible offal—heart, liver, gizzards—are removed for further cleaning. The head is pulled off. The neck is cut off. The birds are then washed, chilled, drained, and frozen.
So, to review: hung upside down, shocked and stunned, throat cut, scalded, defeathered, vented, drawn, decapitated, washed, and prepared to be shipped to all parts of the country where someone like you or me is browsing through the meats section at our friendly neighborhood supermarket, wondering what to feed our children for dinner.
But knowing what we know now of diet, the popularity of the chicken continues to rise. High in protein, low in fat, with much less cholesterol and other bad things than, say, red meat or pig fat fried in lard, the chicken is good for us. And it’s tasty.
Most people never see the dead pit chicken, or the non-point source pollution-causing chicken, or the chicken that has been de-beaked because chickens in close quarters will eventually turn on each other, like most other animal species, and with their beaks fully intact, they will, literally, peck each other’s eyes out, all of which revolves around some sort of chicken caste system, which gives rise to the phrase “pecking order.”
But the fried chicken is divine. Dipped twice in egg-wash and flour, then fried at precisely 350 degrees for twelve minutes a side, lightly salted and peppered, the fried chicken is revered. Franchises like KFC, Popeye’s, and Bojangle’s litter fast-food highways, much the same way chicken houses litter state and county roads in the rural South, though the smell from one is not quite as bad as the other.
There’s also baked chicken and grilled chicken and broiled chicken and rotisseried chicken, chicken and mushrooms and chicken and rice and chicken and dumplings and chicken and almost anything. In Chinese restaurants there’s sesame chicken and walnut chicken and cashew almond chicken and sweet and sour chicken and General Tsao’s chicken and chicken egg rolls and, depending on where said restaurant is, chicken nuggets, much like McDonald’s chicken nuggets, which brings us to the chicken strip or chicken nugget or chicken chunk or whatever name the fast-food industry can come up with for a de-boned and deep-fried piece of chicken.
This is not to mention Italian or French or Mexican or Indian or any other type and/or style of food that I do not know enough about to converse intelligently upon. Nor is it to mention the use of chicken as a breakfast meat, a deli meat, a flavor for snack crackers, or an appetizer such as wings or bite-size buffalo chunks.
But it does take a stubborn nose and selective memory to put aside such concerns as waste, pollution, dried chicken guts in eyebrows, and, for lack of a better word, stink. But if there’s one thing I know about America as a country, is that we will not let small things like non-point source pollution or maggots get in the way of something we really enjoy. And, since it’s entirely possible to avoid rural areas if you don’t live in one, it is now, despite the large and growing numbers of chicken farms, quite easy to go through a day, or several days at a time, without seeing any of this, thereby erasing and/or forgetting and/or never realizing or confronting said concerns, but rather, enjoying the chicken in what for most of us is its natural state, which is to say, cooked.
All this occurred to me, suddenly, not too long ago, as I reflected on a rather unsettling two weeks of my life, in which I found myself called to military service to defend the chicken.
In the winter of ’93 my National Guard unit was activated. I received a phone call with a code named operation order, and after an hour or two of turning over various military excursions in my head and wondering what foreign country I would be sent to, I drove to our armory to learn about the more serious nature of the activation: three inches of ice had fallen on Northwest Arkansas, and hundreds of chicken and turkey farms were without electricity. Our job was to save them, launching Operation Save the Chickens, which would, in the next two weeks, save the Arkansas poultry industry millions of dollars. In groups of two, ice still falling all around, coating everything with a thin, and then thickening, layer, we loaded diesel generators into the backs of Hum-vees and were directed to the first of what would become many chicken houses. There, we hooked up the generator to the houses and sat shivering as warmth slowly returned, and, once done, we moved on to the next, and the next, often sleeping on cots inside the houses, where, in many of them, the smell was so overpowering we donned our gas-masks to be able to breathe.
The farmers became a litany of older men, usually short and balding and slightly overweight, with thick red hands and chapped faces filled with worry, watching with a fretful eye the temperature in his houses slowly climb, and there is for me now more than one set of conflicting emotions, such as why the governor spent state money to save a private industry, and why did I not bring a toothbrush, and why, instead of teaming up with Jonathan Britton didn’t I team up instead with Nikki Irby, one of the only females in my unit, who just happened be the same age as me and did not look too bad in camouflage.
It would be the first and only time my unit was activated for military service. We’d been left out of Desert Storm. Had missed Vietnam long ago, before my time. I’d be gone when Operation Iraqi Freedom began. But there were a few nights—tired, possibly hung over if we’d been able to slip in a bottle and the chicken farmer left us alone long enough to drink it—when we felt like old campaigners, like the guys in All Quiet on the Western Front who steal the chickens or ducks or whatever it is and have that moment there towards the end.
But this is all cloudy and vague, a few fleeting impressions. The smell of the chicken houses is still thick in my throat however, the eye-watering rising of ammonia, the dust and chaff that hangs in the air. I remember making four or five hundred dollars. Kicking chickens when they would not get out my way. Never, at any point during the entire operation, wondering if the chickens were happy, or that chickens could be happy, or that chickens even knew what happy meant, or what this was all about, or are slaughterhouses inhumane, or is eating meat of any kind inhumane, or realizing, through a process of looking ahead, that one of them (the chickens) might someday end up on my table, twice-dipped in flour and fried to a crisp golden brown.
I didn’t set out to write about the slaughtering of chickens, but rather to simply describe the chicken houses in my home state and the noxious effect they have on the surrounding countryside and what could possibly be done about it, but it seems there are deeper concerns than whether or not you might be forced to follow a loaded gut truck on your way to the lake on a hot summer afternoon.
I wonder if our concern for the chicken stems from the realization that we are not so different. The mass of us crowd ourselves into cubicles and office spaces under artificial light, squawking and scrabbling for food, pecking at each other, dumping our waste wherever and whenever we see fit, dreaming of crossing the road, just to see what’s on the other side.
The animal lover will argue here that we are indeed very different from the chicken. We have choices, and it is our choices that force such conditions on the animals. As well as it is our choices, over long periods of time, that have allowed the world to become this way. And we are not eaten. Ever. There is always that.
The environmentalist will argue as well. That the chicken has no choice but to defecate in its own food, but I posit the idea that we do the very same. That in our attempt to satiate our own desires, we allow industry to run roughshod over lesser creatures like chickens and turkeys and all sorts of flying and non-flying fowl; over poor farmers and their neighbors; over ecosystems and rivers and lakes and the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve; over Iraq and any other country in which we have a vested interest; and we do nothing to stop any of it and we are, in effect, shitting all over the world in which we live. That because of our insatiable need for food, oil, money, SUVs, new houses, college educations for our children, swimming pools, Viagra, Vicodin, vodka, a better life, the other side of the road—that in our pursuit for what we often consider the finer things in life we run around like chickens with our heads cut off, listening to chickenhawks who promise a chicken in every pot and acting like birdbrains when we believe them.
I don’t attempt to offer answers here. That would be a matter for a far more philosophical discussion that others have already made and there is no need for me to re-hash. In a perfect world animals would gambol and cavort until old age and then we would ceremoniously and euthanistically slaughter them and revere their souls as we partook of their sustenance, and sustainable farming would protect the environment while we went on about our daily lives blissful and unoffended by waste, treatment, odor, etc.
But we have neither the time nor the luxury nor the appetite for such now. Like the chicken house a few days before gathering time, we have crowded the world in which we live and are forced to deal with it. And though there’s a long way between what we need and what we want, if there is an answer, it’s that we should attempt to bridge the gap, or at least narrow it somewhat. The entire point, it seems, behind the old humorific about the chicken crossing the road is that no one, including the chicken, has any idea what lies on the other side, although I prefer to think of a world without maggots in my groundwater.
Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays 2005 and 2011, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, and the literary journals Ecotone, Glimmer Train, North American Review, and Southern Humanities Review, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University. “Thinking of Chickens” originally appeared in the Southwest Review and is reprinted here by permission of the author.