By Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D., The Inner Lives of Animals
In the autumn of 1991 I walked into the office of the owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras (HVFG). Since opening in 1989, HVFG has become America's largest producer of the fatty duck livers treasured by gourmets and reviled by animal advocates. I wasn’t there to purchase foie gras. I was there on a covert assignment for PETA. I posed as a graduate student interested in obtaining hearts from freshly slaughtered birds as part of a study of hybrid vigor. My “girlfriend,” an experienced undercover investigator, carried a running video camera in her purse. Izzy Yanay, the co-owner of HVFG who had agreed to the tour, kept us waiting for several hours as he did business on his telephone. He must have thought my companion had a weak bladder; several times she had to visit the bathroom to change batteries.
We never made it to the killing floor that day, where we had hoped to film the slaughter of ducks. I still don’t know what that’s like, but other covert investigations have successfully exposed the force-feeding process on these factory farms, in which workers pin the duck between their legs and use a plunger to force food down the duck's throat four or five times a day for a month until their liver is up to ten times its normal size.
HVFG made news last week (May 2010) when a federal court in Manhattan ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by The Humane Society of the United States charging HVFG with violating the Clean Water Act.
Do the birds suffer? Well, duh. Does it matter? My blog is about animals’ inner lives. I want to show that they have them, and that it matters. Frankly, there are not mountains of research on duck behavior or sentience. Nevertheless, 45 minutes browsing my bookshelf turned up the following tidbits:
- Ducks engage in a form of play called “locomotor play” (Burghardt, The Genesis of Animal Play, 2005)
- Bryce Fraser, an Australian writer who has raised many ducks, claims he could compile a dictionary of their calls: happy cheeps, sad cheeps, panicky cheeps, desperate cheeps, when-do-we-eat cheeps, where-are-you-mother cheeps, and I’m-coming-mother cheeps. (Fraser, Sitting Duck, 1971)
- Ducks are acutely vigilant of potential danger overhead. They show a fear response when a hawk-like silhouette flies over, but not if the silhouette passes in the opposite direction (goose-like). (OCAB)
- Ducks are among the animals known to feign death to evade predators. (OCAB)
- In addition to their sense of taste, ducks’ bills and tongues contain tactile corpuscles that detect movement. (OCAB)
- City ducks quack louder, apparently to compensate for the industrial din. (Hatkoff, The Inner World of Farm Animals, 2009)
- Parent ducks pluck down from their breasts and use it to insulate the nest; this also uninsulates their breasts, exposing a brood patch of skin to warm eggs and chicks. (Gould & Gould, Animal Architects)
- Unhatched ducklings pip the egg with the tip of their bill and begin vocalizing 2-3 days before hatching. This establishes vocal communication between mother and chick, which hatches with a preference for the calls of its own kind. (Manning & Dawkins, An Introduction to Animal Behaviour, Fifth Edition, 1998)
That is hardly a comprehensive digest of duckdom. But I think it’s enough to reinforce the notion that ducks have lives that matter to them—in case there was any doubt. Is it enough to compel the end of force-feeding them to put their grossly fattened livers in our mouths? In some places, yes. Foie gras is banned in thirteen European countries as well as Israel and South Africa. In the United States, public outcry has begun to filter down to policymakers. Chicago banned the sale of foie gras from restaurants in 2006, then repealed it in 2008. California has banned foie gras as of 2012. Such reforms are still only a pip in foie gras' egg. But like slavery and the denial of votes to women before it, foie gras is vulnerable to exposure as an abomination in civilized society.