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Assuming Chickens Suffer Less Than Pigs Is Idle Speciesism

An essay called "From Shepherd to Advocate" smacks of groundless claims.

I'm pleased to offer this guest essay by Dr. Karen Davis, President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns.1

"When we are uncertain, even only slightly, about their ability to experience pain or to suffer, individual animals should be given the benefit of the doubt. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the phylogenetic distribution of pain and suffering."

Upon reading From Shepherd to Advocate by Sentient Media founder Mikko Jarvenpaa, I made a note: “He would choose to inflict suffering on birds over mammals. He considers human life and experience more valuable and desirable than the life and experience of other animals.”

Jarvenpaa also writes that after exploited humans, the pig, “rather uncontroversially,” is the “next most intelligent exploited animal.” Jarvenpaa's essay reminded me of a piece Dr. Bekoff wrote called "Are Pigs as Smart as Dogs and Does It Really Matter?" in which he argued that pitting animals against each other in terms of intelligence or how much they suffer not only is bad science but also harmful.2

Concerning Jarvenpaa's claim, we do not know the mental capacities of any animal well enough to conclude that a particular type of animal is, without doubt, the most intelligent or the least intelligent, or number 2, 5 or 8 on a cognitive scale of 10.

In his essay, Jarvenpaa writes: "[If] I was forced to cause a proportionally similar amount of suffering to a chicken or to a pig, say, suffering equivalent to that of a lost limb, I would choose to cause the suffering to the chicken because I assume that action to cause less suffering both in quantity and—perhaps more controversially—in quality."

First let us look at the lost limb example, followed by the question of “quantity” of suffering in chickens versus in pigs, and then at the link between these two instances. The question of surgically and genetically mutilating animals and the suffering they experience in being thus mutilated has been studied for decades. Animals including chickens, turkeys, and ducks have been systematically tortured and continue being tortured in experiments designed to extract “confessions” of suffering (suffering in the form of injury as well as the sensation of injury, as not all injuries are consciously perceived by the injured) from their bodies and minds.

Birds With a “Lost” Limb

Scientists cite neurological evidence that the amputated stump of a debeaked bird continues to discharge abnormal afferent nerves in fibers running from the stump for many weeks after debeaking, “similar to what happens in human amputees who suffer from phantom limb pain” (Duncan, p. 5). The hot knife blade used in debeaking cuts through a complex of horn, bone, and sensitive tissue causing severe pain. In addition to the behavioral impairment of eating and preening with a partially amputated beak, a “memory” of the missing beak part persists in the brain, beak and facial sensations of the mutilated bird after “healing” has occurred.

As to the suffering caused by a severed limb, there’s a difference between, say, a missing finger, claw, or leg and a mutilated mouth. The latter is a far more consequential wound in that it involves the fundamental necessity of having to nourish oneself through pain and disfiguration affecting the entire face and gastrointestinal tract of the victim. Moving beyond generalities about suffering, let us understand that the beak of chickens, as with all birds, isn’t just this detachable “thing” they peck and poke around with.

Along these lines, Donald Bell and William Weaver write, "The integument of the chicken (skin and accessory structures, e.g., the beak) contains many sensory receptors of several types allowing perception of touch (both moving stimuli and pressure stimuli), cold, heat, and noxious (painful or unpleasant) stimulation. The beak has concentrations of touch receptors forming specialized beak tip organs which give the bird sensitivity for manipulation and assessment of objects. ... Beak trimming affects the sensory experience of a chicken in more than one way. It deprives the bird of normal sensory evaluation of objects when using the beak." (p. 80)

Finally, let us put debeaking in a context in which the procedure is conducted by workers in farm hatcheries around the world. As soon as egg-industry hens, turkeys, ducklings, and birds used for breeding hatch in the mechanical incubators, they tumble down metal carousels into the hatchery “servicing” room where they experience, not the soft comfort and care of their mother hen, but the rough handling of the operators who holler and yell and grab them by their heads, necks, wings and tails while shoving their faces into the debeaking machinery, breaking bones, tearing and twisting beaks and damaging joints—all without anesthetic or veterinary care (Glatz, pp. 87-92).

Ranking Animals: There Aren't "Higher" or "Lower" Animals

As to the “less suffering in quantity” that Jarvenpaa speculatively ascribes to chickens versus pigs, what does this mean exactly? If by quantity is meant the number of chickens versus pigs suffering in agribusiness, the number of abused chickens exceeds that of all other land animals and is second only to the number of aquatic animals suffering at the hands of humans in open waters and in fish factories. Conservatively speaking, each year one billion pigs are slaughtered for human consumption worldwide versus 60 billion chickens comprising 40 billion “broiler” chickens, 6 billion egg-industry hens, 6 billion egg-industry roosters destroyed at birth, and millions of chickens used for breeding.

Dr. Bekoff states that ranking animals on a cognitive scale and pitting them against each other as to who is smarter and more emotionally developed, or less intelligent and less emotionally developed, is not only silly but harmful since these comparisons can be used to claim that “smarter animals suffer more than supposedly dumber animals,” whereby “dumber" animals may be treated “in all sorts of invasive and abusive ways.”

As Malcolm Gladwell observed in “The Order of Things” in The New Yorker:Rankings are not benign. ... Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking.” (pp. 74-75)

Is human life and experience really "more valuable and desirable" than nonhuman life and experience?

Considering the chronic misery human beings inflict on the sentient world as a matter of course, there is every reason to disagree with Jarvenpaa’s view that human life and experience are “indeed more valuable and more desirable than a non-human animal experience of life.” More valuable and more desirable to whom and for whom? I’d say it’s the person looking in the mirror, asking rhetorically, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”

I do not share the view that human life and experience are the most “important” and desirable and that no matter what cruelties and hellishness we inflict on our fellow creatures, our existence should be celebrated. What good we bring is almost entirely to ourselves alone and does not benefit, but harms, the other inhabitants of the Earth and their homes. One need look no further than the current planetary mess of our making.

Jarvenpaa says of his involuntary connection to the slaughter of the sheep he befriended on his family’s hobby farm: “Betraying the trust of the innocent is the worst feeling I know.” The feeling that lodges in all of us who have felt the guilt of betraying those who trusted us and who needed our good faith, which we failed to keep, should arise each time we are tempted to betray an animal by offering him or her up for sacrifice to the “higher” animal construct—whoever, anthropomorphically, that may be at a given time. There are no “higher” animals, except in our heads, and we see where that fiction has led.

1) United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Dr. Davis is the author of many books including For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation-Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domestic Fowl. For an interview with her click here.

2) I was very surprised to read "From Shepherd to Advocate" based on an interview I did with Jarvenpaa in which he makes claims that are directly opposite from what he wrote in his earlier piece. For example, he stated, "The idea of the rights of sentient animals is a natural extension of a significant trend in human history. Today, we no longer think that humans are the pinnacle of creation, or that a flat Earth is the center of the universe, or that the Western white male is somehow superior to other people–though unfortunately we still have work to do on some of those."


Bekoff, Marc. Are Pigs as Smart as Dogs and Does It Really Matter?

_____. Do "Smarter" Dogs Really Suffer More than "Dumber" Mice? (The pains of supposedly "smarter" animals are not morally more significant than the pains of "dumber beings.")

_____. For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation. (An interview with Dr. Davis.)

_____. The World According to Intelligent and Emotional Chickens. (Chickens are as cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex as many mammals.)

_____. Chickens and Pigs: Incredible Cruelty Claimed To Be Humane.

_____. A Tribute to Dr. Victoria Braithwaite and Sentient Fishes.

_____. It's Time to Stop Pretending Fishes Don't Feel Pain.

Bell, Donald D., and William D. Weaver, Jr., eds. Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production, 5th ed. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 2002.

Davis, Karen. Will Birds Sing or Will They Be Silent? Our Choice is Their Fate. Animals 24-7 and United Poultry Concerns, May 18, 2019.

Duncan, Ian. “The Science of Animal Well-Being.” Animal Welfare Information Center Newsletter. Washington, DC: National Agricultural Library 4.1 (January-March), 1993.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Order of Things.” The New Yorker, February 14 & 21, 2011.

Glatz, Philip C., ed. Beak Trimming. Nottingham, U.K.: Nottingham University Press, 2005.