Revenge on the Farm

The previous post featured a Teach Yourself title of 1965, Modern Poultry Keeping, championing the new factory model for British chicken-farming nearly new, anyway, for already the toll of chickens eaten in the U.K. had increased from 1 million in 1950 to about 150 million in the year of that book’s publication. Today, it’s approaching 1 billion. And of course biotechnology has been backing or pushing the progress all the way.

Accordingly, most of the 139,000 birds which appear in the Home Office’s statistics for animal research in 2014 were so-called ‘domestic fowl (Gallus domesticus)’. These were chosen to pioneer, test, or otherwise provide information about farm-animal disease (6,512 birds), drugs and poisons (11,045) feed safety (8,553), GM possibilities (798), etc. etc.  Really the word ‘domestic’ is now a sad misnomer for this animal which research and development have done so much to evict from its own or anyone else’s home-life. As the novelist Patricia Highsmith notes, when she sets the scene for her chicken-farm story ‘The Day of Reckoning’, “not a chicken in sight!” This is a fine come-uppance story which I shall, in a moment, add to the category discussed last month under the heading ‘Animal Revenges’ (15 February). But first a little more about science on the farm.

I also mentioned in the previous post Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines, which at that same mid-60s time made public the immorality of the new farming. There was a very welcome re-issue of this book in 2013, and in the new introductory pages we are told that although ‘improving animal welfare’ has now become “one of the key ways a scientist can demonstrate the importance and impact of their work”, still “Ruth’s work is not yet done”.

Not indeed, and surely not even as well on the way as those words seem rather complacently to imply. As to ‘improving animal welfare’: that it has become a respectable scientific discipline is certainly a good thing (although 1,509 domestic fowl apparently had to be sacrificed for it in 2014); that it took so long to do so is something which the Royal Veterinary College might reasonably be asked to explain, if it wasn’t for the fact that, being itself a vivisector, that organisation is also itself part of the explanation. For to relegate ‘animal welfare’ (as opposed to mere animal health) for as long as possible to the realm of the ‘sentimental’ amateur has been very helpful to all such institutions. But anyway, even this celebrated advance is partly, perhaps largely, Feather coverage is greatly reduced on the birds, AFPhumbug. Most technical or biomedical innovations in the process of turning animals into food can also, with a little thought and PR, be presented as good for the animals, if that’s also good for their own “importance and impact”. Even the recent grotesque experiment in featherlessness turned out to be altruistic: with their feathers on, it was said, chickens “suffer tremendously” from over-heating in broiler sheds, at any rate in hot countries.

As to Ruth Harrison’s work being “not yet done”, it’s rather the point of that story of Patricia Highsmith’s to show that there’s only one way to get that work done, if we really do want it done, so I shall now turn to ‘The Day of Reckoning’.

The story is set in North America in the early 1970s, but like all good cautionary tales it will do for anywhere, any time a point which I shall illustrate in square brackets here and there. John Hanshaw, a young politics student, is paying a visit to his uncle Ernie’s farm or rather to Hanshaw Chickens, Inc., as it’s proudly called now that Ernie has made the change of farming method urged by our Teach Yourself title. So now there’s a “long grey barn … huge, covering the whole area where the cow barn and pigpens had been”. Ernie Hanshaw himself has turned from husbandman into the sort of engineer that Teach Yourself prefers: “Machine farming”, he exclaims to his nephew; “just imagine, one man – me – can run the whole show!” At meals, his talk is “of vitamins and antibiotics in his chicken feed, and his produce of one and a quarter eggs per day per hen.” [Title of paper to be read at the forthcoming World’s Poultry Science Association meeting at Chester University: ‘The effect of high levels of whole barley with enzyme supplementation on laying hen performance’]

What this change means for the animals, Patrician Highsmith makes plain enough. A modern reader will not be taken by surprise, except perhaps by the so-far modest scale of Hanshaw’s one shed, holding perhaps a few thousand birds. [Application at present before York City Council: plan for a broiler ‘farm’ at Rufforth accommodating 288,000 birds at any one time, with six ‘crops’ a year] The lighting system deludes these young birds into behaving as if it’s Spring, and therefore into wearing themselves out laying eggs steadily for ten months. This and their close confinement (they “couldn’t turn around in their coops”) has so disturbed them that, as Hanshaw’s wife Helen unhappily says, “Our chickens are insane”. But Patricia Highsmith also makes it clear that they have not lost the urge to live according to their nature. They are either trying to do so (“Much of the flurry in the barn was caused by chickens trying to fly upward”), or expressing their frustration at the impossibility, through neurotic behaviour which is in its turn frustrated: “They’re de-beaked. They’d peck each other through the wire, if they weren’t … ever hear of cannibalism among chickens, John?” [Advice from the Virginia Tech Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty: “Don’t take chances! Make cannibalism control part of your management program and you will save a great deal of time and money.”]

By contrast there is, not far away from Hanshaw Chickens Inc., one of those unreconstructed farms of the mixed and under-automated variety so much deplored by Teach Yourself (although, as that book’s author says, “thankfully the numbers become fewer each year”). On this farm, the hens live a more or less natural life: “They can see the sun! They can fly! … And scratch for worms – and eat watermelon!” Those cries of sympathetic pleasure are human, but not therefore necessarily more complex than the pleasures which they respond to. Still, implicit in them there is this much more, an idea of freedom which may turn into something more thought-out and purposeful. So Helen adds, “Sometimes I want to open all the coops in the barn and open the doors and let ours loose, just to see them walking on the grass for a few minutes.” And the same idea is more powerfully represented in a dream which John has that night:

He was flying like Superman in Ernie’s chicken barn, and the lights were all blazing brightly. Many of the imprisoned chickens looked up at him, their eyes flashed silver, and they were struck blind. The noise they made was fantastic. They wanted to escape, but could no longer see, and the whole barn heaved with their efforts to fly upward. John flew about frantically, trying to find the lever to open the coops, the doors, anything, but he couldn’t.

In this brilliantly imagined episode, John Hanshaw, airborne but struggling ineffectually with the man-made machinery, becomes physiologically identified with the chickens and their urge to freedom. At the same time, as a super-man, he is the one active and practical possibility to which they look for its realisation.

And at this point I go back to the comment which Stephen Eisenman added to that post ‘Revenges of the Animals’, mentioning his recent article entitled ‘The Real “Swinish Multitude”’. In that article, he has proposed a way of understanding and acknowledging, as political history, the liberation efforts of animals: a “history from below” of the kind which E. P. Thompson so notably pioneered in his Making of the English Working Class (1963). Without such a history, a resistance or liberation movement lacks the self-awareness and coherent vision which it needs if it is to be cumulative in what it achieves, and if it is to be finally respected and given the place it claims: in short, if it’s to win. As Jason Hribal’s African saying goes, “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero” (see again ‘Revenges of the Animals’). And this is where even the lion must look upward, like Hanshaw’s hens, to higher (or let’s say, different) faculties than he or they possess. But not just in the writing: “All political resistance requires collaboration, mutual aid, and action in common”, says Stephen Eisenman: “… This is how animal protest occurs – sympathy and collaboration between humans and animals striving for liberty.”

Even purely human revolt is driven by a full spectrum of motive, from the most deeply buried collective instinct to flourish (“the whole barn heaved with their efforts”), through to the intellectually formulated insistence on the right to do so. Anyone who has ever been part of an impassioned demonstration will have felt this. All of the less verbalised region of motive we can share with the animals: but it is up to us, as specialised thinkers, to supply what Eisenman calls “higher level executive function”, our capacity to deal with the man-made world and its machinery, political and material. It’s what John Hanshaw tries to supply in his dream, sharing but also rising out of the common urgency of the barn to do so.

Stephen Eisenman summarises thus: “animals live in a political and not simply a biological arena; … they communicate to each other and to us their desires for safety, companionship, and love; and … their aspirations for freedom cannot be easily separated from the project of human emancipation.” It’s the meaning of Patricia Highsmith’s story too. The hens are a pathetic few months old, hardly more than children, but they have an insistent collective interest, clearly communicated, and as clearly refused by force. It’s a political situation. And bound into it is a human bafflement only slightly less poignant. For the farm is an inhuman place for the people as well as for the animals: seed sack bleak and dangerous. [See label, right, from a sack of dressed seed.] The sort of thing that happens to the Hanshaws’ kitten, run over by one of the huge service-vehicles (its flattened corpse is the first and emblematic sign of ‘life’ that John sees when he first arrives on his visit), might equally happen to one of the family and indeed does. The young daughter is caught and killed under a descending grain-container. And it’s this shock that precipitates the “reckoning” of the title. What John only attempted in a dream, Helen, the bereaved mother, gets done. The hens, themselves bereaved mothers though they haven’t ‘known’ it, come pouring out of the sabotaged barn and, though scarcely able to walk (“staggering, falling on their sides … falling backwards”), begin to reclaim their species-life, their birthright: “Look! … They don’t know what grass is! But they like it!” And John and Helen share in this liberation: they and the chickens are equally described as “mad”, a revolutionary madness perhaps.

As for poor Ernie, obsessed and (not unlike his hens) wretchedly depreciated by the mechanisation he thinks so highly of … well, the “reckoning” itself is between him and the hens, and readers of Patricia Highsmith will guess that it’s surprisingly unpleasant.

‘The Day of Reckoning’ was published in 1975, part of a collection of stories called The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. All but one are come-uppance stories, mostly told from within the mind of the animals (“history from below”, in fact): elephant, camel, truffle-pig, rat, goat, and others. The exception is a fine study, likewise from within, of a fastidious cockroach, though even he (it is a he), by making his way in a hostile man-made world, triumphs. That punning title, Beastly Murder, may initially seem to mean ‘horrible murders by animals’. But as you read the stories, the libellously pejorative sense of ‘beastly’ is worn away, and the title comes rather to mean the murders which animals might be driven to commit  in pursuit of, and within the means of, their proper nature: beast-like bids to live beast-like lives.

“Agriculture”, says the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “is applied biology, and it’s where a lot of today’s cutting edge science is getting done.” No; freedom is applied biology, and it’s in accordance with that principle that we must re-write animal history, in words and in their lives and our own.


[References: the 2013 edition of Animal Machines is published by CABI, and Beastly Murder (1975) by Heinemann; Stephen Eisenman’s article appears in Critical Inquiry, vol.42, no.2 (Winter 2016), pp.339-373; the quotations from research institutions and the Home Office animal research analysis can be found on the relevant web-sites; featherless chicken report from BBC Online News, 21 May 2002.]