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Michael Pollan Talks Trash about Chickens

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Michael Pollan Talks Trash about Chickens Just Like Big Ag He Denounces

[Ed. Note: Also read We Ate a Lot of Hearts, Because You Could Get Them for Nothing]

From Free From Harm
May 2013

A special thanks to Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns (UPC) for alerting us to this interview. [Ed. Note: UPC recommends writing letters to the editor of Smithsonian Magazine at lettersed@si.edu.]

“Their brains have been bred right out of them, they’re really nasty and stupid.” That’s what Michael Pollan had to say in a recent interview in Smithsonian Magazine about chickens like Edith, pictured here, whom I recently rescued from the trash. After only 5 days, she has become attached enough to me (someone who does not view her as trash) to rest at my feet, and to wait by the door for my return.

Michael Pollan chicken sentience
 Edith, our latest rescue, is a "broiler" hen and one of the sweetest and smartest birds we’ve met in a long time.
Photo: Robert Grillo

Pollan’s apathetic attitude toward chickens is the same one held by the very industrial food industry that Pollan claims to oppose so strongly. With sustainable, “food revolution” types like Pollan “talking trash” about animals and devaluing them in exactly the same way Big Ag does, is it any wonder that chickens like Edith are treated as trash — literally thrown away like garbage? Is it any wonder that we think nothing of breeding and killing 40 billion birds like Edith every year to slaughter them at a mere six weeks old? Isn’t this just a classic case of victim blaming, intended to draw attention away from those responsible for systemic animal abuse?

If Pollan were consistent in his opposition to industrial agriculture, he would not be raising chickens who were bred by industrial hatcheries. And he would certainly not be directing his disdain at the victims of that industry. The rational opposition to “frankenbirds” would be a refusal to support the industrial hatcheries. Instead, Pollan trashes the chickens.

And even if chickens were truly “stupid and nasty,” what does this have to do with how we treat others? Do we only treat those who are “smart and sweet” with a modicum of respect and instead cut off the heads of those we deem less intelligent or lovable? Don’t we ourselves become “stupid and nasty” when we decide, arbitrarily, that someone else deserves to be abused and exploited? We denigrate animals who can’t defend themselves as “stupid and nasty” when we want to do something bad to them; in this case, when someone like Michael Pollan wants to cut off their heads or stuff them through a kill cone and slit their throats, just to satisfy his trivial culinary pleasure.

At the same time, and in contradiction to the above position, we attempt to justify our violent eating habits based on what other animals do, when it is convenient for our argument. “They attack and kill each other, so why shouldn’t we?” But animals kill from compulsion and necessity, about which they have no choice. Humans do have a choice; we are not compulsive predators, nor do we have any biological need for the flesh or bodily secretions of other animals.

Pollan’s characterization also reveals a form of bigotry that is equivalent to making sweeping generalizations about particular categories of people. The statement, “All Mexicans are lazy” is based on the same oppressive and illogical thinking as the statement “Chicken are stupid and nasty.” This is the language of objectification, of turning a “someone” into a “something.”

Animals are individuals. Chickens have emotional worlds and unique personalities just like our beloved cats and dogs. If people really want to see this, they should visit, not a farm, but an animal sanctuary — where animals are given the opportunity to express their true natures by caretakers who encourage them to be who they really are, not what we need them to be in order to feel okay about needlessly exploiting and killing them.

A special thanks to Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns (UPC) for alerting us to this interview. [Ed. Note: UPC recommends writing letters to the editor of Smithsonian Magazine at lettersed@si.edu.]