Potts, Annie. 2012. Chicken. London: Reaktion Books.
(Summarized by Mark Suchyta, Animal Studies Graduate Program, Michigan State University)
In Chicken, Annie Potts provides a compact account of Gallus gallus domesticus and their long history with humans. While chickens were first domesticated about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, Potts’s story begins with the dinosaurs, the ancient ancestors of birds. Recent fossil evidence demonstrates that many, if not all, dinosaurs were feathered. Among the most ferocious was the Tyrannaosaurs rex, whose fossilized tissues most closely match those of the modern chicken species. The chicken’s most direct ancestor, the jungle fowl, evolved much later, about 50 million years ago in Southeast Asia.
Potts identifies four stages of domestication or “taming” which tell the story of the evolutionary development of chickens as well as how chicken-human relationships have changed over time. The first and earliest stage of domestication focused on the use of chickens for religious and cultural purposes in Southeast Asia. Birds were selectively bred for feathers, bones, and eggs, all culturally significant décor or tools. Roosters were often exploited for their time keeping abilities as well as for cock fighting. However, eating chickens was uncommon and sometimes forbidden. The second stage of domestication consists of the increased geographic dispersal of chickens through trade and colonization. Chickens flowed out of Southeast Asia and were present in places such as Rome, Greece, and eventually, the Americas. The third stage consists of the “hen craze” in Europe and North America during the 19th century, which was heralded by a surging interest in chickens for hobby and agriculture. During this period, breeding focused on exhibitions, although egg and meat production became more common as well. The forth and final stage of domestication describes how most people living in industrialized countries live with chickens today, through industrialized agriculture. This period is defined by the development of modern poultry science for the purposes of efficient meat and egg production.
The second chapter, “Chicken Wisdom”, discusses bird intelligence and how chickens experience the world. Potts asserts that while modern Western culture depicts birds as unintelligent (e.g. “bird brains”), chickens have long been admired for their abilities to guard, protect, nurture, and communicate with each other. She argues that the assumption that chickens are unintelligent is based on two premises. First, humans tend to associate intelligence with those that look human. Second, we attribute intelligence to brain size or the size of the cerebral cortex. By these criteria, chickens are very different. However, they are remarkable in their own right. Chickens have very acute senses of sight and hearing. They have also demonstrated linguistic ability, spatial memory, and tool use. Potts cites avian experts Susan Orosz and Guy Bradshaw, who state that “birds are not just a step ahead of reptiles nor are they emotionally immature, but closer to being feathered apes” (32).
Chickens are fast learners. Their education begins at a very young age, as mother hens relay important information to embryos. They demonstrate social order. In the wild, a dominant rooster is at the center of a territory with multiple hens. The dominant hens reside in the middle with the dominant rooster while other hens roam the periphery. Roosters also roam in this territory, with the least dominant roosters residing the furthest out, the most subject to predation. Chickens also develop complex pecking orders, which are not necessarily linear, but can be triangular, rectangular, etc.
The third chapter, “Chickenlore”, surveys the importance of chickens in human culture. Throughout our history, chickens have been worshiped and respected and feared and abused. Of particular symbolic importance is the egg. The egg is often associated with life and rejuvenation. Native Hawaiian legend states that the archipelago of Hawaii hatched from a giant egg. Prior to the middle ages, Europeans often described Earth as an egg incubating precious metals. Easter eggs are common across the world and are used to symbolize spring and new life. Roosters are frequently a symbol of masculinity—strong, brave, leaders, fathers, and mates. Cockfighting is over 3,500 years old and is often framed as a contest of masculinity, both for the rooster and the human trainer. Potts describes cockfighting as a form of “public masturbation” and misogyny. Winning birds are described as heroic while the loser, both bird and human, is teased as female and penetrated (71). The hen, on the other hand, is a symbol of an ideal mother, endearing and nurturing to her chicks.
Chickens are frequently depicted as symbols of the sun, life, and rebirth. The first day of the Chinese New Year is called the Day of the Chicken because only a heavenly chicken knows when the first sunrise of a new year occurs. In many religious traditions, such as Hasidic Judaism and Santeria, chickens are sacrificed to atone for past sins. While less common, chickens are also symbols of darkness. Easter Islanders believed that white roosters were capable of sorcery. Spirits such as Kikmora in Slavic culture and Pollo Maligno in Columbia are believed to signify bad omens.
The fourth chapter, “Popular Chickens”, examines the portrayal of chickens in Western popular culture. Between the World Wars, chickens symbolized the opportunity and propensity suggested by the rise of industrial agriculture. Media such as Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush told stories of individuals finding wealth and satisfaction in the chicken business. Potts, however, argues that this rapid industrialization has removed chicken from the public eye and has resulted in more negative and abusive conceptualizations. Some have challenged this view of chickens by portraying them as noble underdogs, which Potts calls the “heroic chicken motif” (101). These tales adopt chickens as metaphors for the marginalized, both human and nonhuman.
The fifth chapter, “Gallus graphicus” examines how chickens are represented in art and imagery. Images of chickens date back as far as 3,000 years. They have been portrayed as noble and bold but also in less flattering ways. The plight of the chicken in industrial agriculture has recently resulted in a large body of work that discusses and depicts suffering and the marginalization of the chicken, which is discussed in detail in the sixth and final chapter,“Meat Chicks and Egg Machines”.
This last chapter provides an overview of the realities of modern industrial agriculture. Each year over 50 billion chickens are killed for meat. Potts chillingly states that by the time the reader finishes the first page of the chapter, 16,000 chickens will be killed in the US alone. She traces the rise of industrial agriculture to the use of incubators, artificial lighting, the rise of modern poultry science, and the vertical integration of agricultural industries. These developments have allowed farms to raise substantially more chickens at a lower cost per head. In fact, it is not unusual for a few individuals to maintain a farm with millions of chickens.
Today, most chicken meat comes from broiler chicks—literally chicks when they are slaughtered at six weeks of age (chickens naturally live around 12 years). These chicks are packed by the tens of thousands into dirty, dark warehouses where, because of genetic engineering, they grow so fast that their bodies cannot support themselves. The fate of egg laying hens is no better. Packed into battery cages and under constant lighting, the average hen lays nearly 275 eggs in a year until they are sent off for processing into various food products. Since only female chickens lay eggs, there is no use for the male chicks of the species engineered for egg laying. These chicks are slaughtered within the first 24 hours of their life. Each year, over 272 million chicks are gassed, microwaved, smothered, or shredded.
The life of a chicken in the age of industrialized agriculture is bleak and does not seem to show much signs for improving. However, in the epilogue, “Appreciating Chickens”, Potts offers some words of encouragement. She discusses advocacy and sanctuary on the behalf of chickens. She states:
The growing appreciation of chickens…occurs as part of a wider re-evaluation of—and nostalgia for—the natural world and a desire to engage more closely with nonhuman species. Evident since the 1970s, this trend is associated with an increase in recreational activities that involve animals, a dramatic rise in the number of households containing companion animals, enhanced public interest in animal welfare issues, and higher visibility of animal advocacy groups. And, like other animals, chickens have benefited from these recent socio-cultural and attitudinal changes (175).