Chickens and Other Endangered Species

broiler chicken

Are chickens an endangered species?

Today I saw the documentary Racing Extinction, which focuses on how climate change and the (sometimes) illegal wildlife trade are contributing to one of the largest mass extinction events in world history. It was extremely powerful. I cried…twice. They did a great job of portraying the stories of animals as individuals whose lives matter, not merely as tokens/exemplars of a species.

In one scene, they showed a shark stuck on the ocean floor, struggling to move. Her fins were cut off and she was completely helpless. It was agonizing to watch; knowing that she wanted to move, and thinking about the fear and confusion she must have felt by being immobilized. With this in mind, I have to ask: Does it really matter how many other sharks there are like her? When you are watching an animal being tortured, do you need to research her species and its population size to decide whether or not you should care? If we learned that the shark actually wasn’t from an endangered species, would it make a difference? Well, it definitely wouldn’t make a difference for the shark.

I can’t help but think that the documentary was somewhat confused and contradictory in this regard. Clearly, the activists in the film were deeply affected by the suffering of many of these animals–not about the species as an abstraction–but the actual lives of the individual animals. They were moved to tears by the horrors they saw. But then at other points, it seemed that their main concern wasn’t with the animals themselves, but the idea/form of the species as a whole. The worst example of this was the director’s joyful account of watching a tuna being ripped apart by a shark. I was horrified. One second he was literally crying about a dying fish, and the next he was smiling about it. Again, neither the tuna, nor the shark, knows nor cares about their status on the endangered species list. Similarly, the tuna presumably does not care whether he is being mutilated by a human being or a whale shark. I wouldn’t.*

A species doesn’t feel pain. It doesn’t feel join, or excitement, or fear, or anything. A species doesn’t want to avoid extinction. It doesn’t want anything. Species is a human construct: an idea, a way of categorizing real living beings (that do feel things and do seek to avoid death) in a way that helps us better make sense of the world. In that way, a species is like a baseball team. Just like a species, a baseball team doesn’t feel anything, even though it is comprised of players who do. This similarity to baseball teams is precisely why we shouldn’t care about species too much– not because baseball is really boring, which is objectively the case–but because baseball teams don’t feel anything. Let me explain: if everyone on the Yankees died in a plane crash and the franchise went out of business, it would be a great tragedy. It would be awful because all of these people would have suffered through the fear and horror of a crashing plane. It would be horrible that all of these people who enjoyed their lives and wanted to keep living are gone. It would be terrible because of all of the suffering and loss their friends and family would endure. Now for some people, at least for Yankees fans, it would also be really sad that the Yankees went out of business  and are aren’t going to play anymore. But I hope you’ll agree that the bigger tragedy would be that these players lost their lives, even if the end of the team is also tragic.  It seems the same logic should apply to species. Just like the Yankees fans, even if we care about a species going extinct, we know the real tragedies are the suffering and death of all the animals that didn’t want to die, and the loss experienced by their friends and family.

So what does this have to do with chickens? Well, chickens are arguably the most horribly treated animals on the entire planet. Every year, tens of billions of them are slaughtered after living miserable lives in intensive industrial confinement. Their numbers are large but they are endangered in any meaningful sense of the word. The are in danger of breaking their bones under the weight of their genetically manipulated bodies. They are in danger of being boiled alive. They in danger of being trampled to death. They are in danger of starvation, disease, and abuse. But who is there to tell their story? Are their lives expendable or meaningless just because there are so many of them? Why won’t the Audubon Society put a chicken on the cover of their magazine? Why do they care so much about grasshopper sparrows and so little about chickens? Why don’t we cry for them? It’s so easy for us to condemn people for eating shark fin soup and whale sushi. It’s so easy for us to bash poachers and smugglers. But to the chicken who never knew anything but suffering, we are all poachers. No, we are worse than poachers. At least poachers don’t torture animals for months before they kill them. If we truly care about animals as individuals, not just the “teams” they play on, then we should fight for domesticated animals with the same urgency and intensity that we do for endangered species.

For now, every time I see a chicken, I can hear them say: “Can I be an endangered species too?”


* Even if it is an inevitable fact of life, being eaten alive certainly isn’t something to be celebrated. What sort of message does it send when we rejoice for this suffering and death? As long as their torturous deaths are viewed with fascination instead of mourning, I will not be surprised that their interests are not taken seriously. Just imagine if the director was killed by a shark and everyone just talked about how awesome it was. It would be reasonable to assume that, most likely, nobody really cared about him and he had a pretty tough and dangerous life. And for everyone that likes appealing to nature, it’s just as natural for humans to be eaten by animals. If you sincerely believe that it is also “beautiful” and “majestic” for humans to be eaten alive, then I won’t bother to convince you otherwise. But if you aren’t willing to bite that bullet, then you’ll have to admit that “natural” suffering and death  in the wild is a tragedy. If you don’t, then you’re just blinded by speciesism.

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5 thoughts on “Chickens and Other Endangered Species

  1. I think the appeal of species-level existence is the idea that there’s an inherent value to experiential diversity. So imagine two types of worlds: in one, there’s a billion individuals who live in the same highly regimented society such that each individual’s life is very similar to each other individual (e.g. they watch all the same mass media, have similar family structures, careers, etc.). Contrast that with world where the billion individuals are divided into ten cultures which are each highly dissimilar from one another. To me there’s something valuable lost if you convert the second world into the first.

    To be fair this is partly a heuristic due to the instrumental value of diversity (hybrid vigor, resilience to various environmental changes, ecosystem effects etc.).

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    1. I understand valuing diversity for it’s own sake, but the question is how many lives you’re willing to sacrifice for it. I’m happy to opt for diversity, all else being equal. But in reality, all else isn’t equal and diversity is at odds with saving lives.

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      1. Also, I’d like to address the instrumental value of diversity another time. It’s a more interesting and challenging discussion. But I think that most of society’s focus on diversity isn’t actually motivated by these instrumental justifications. My thought is that I wanted to first dispense with the inherent value we place on diversity, so that we can then answer the more difficult question with clarity.

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  2. Awesome post, Jay! I agree with virtually everything you say. I wonder, though, what you would say with regard to certain types of animals, such as for example ants or bees, who seem to put great emphasis on the collective: do these animals have some sort of “team spirit” that questions the individualistic framework of your argument?

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    1. Thanks Raffael! For me, as a utilitarian, this is a factual question, not a moral one. I’m sadly not very informed about insect sentience. I know it’s common to this of ant and bee colonies like a “superorganism” rather than a collection of individuals organisms. But, my limited understanding is still that, when it comes down to it, individual ants feel suffering (if they feel anything at all), not ant colonies. So for me, the answer would be the same. But it’s an interesting question.

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