Chickens with plenty of room to strut and move about. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Julie Falk

Fish, fowl — and faith

At first glance I was a bit thrown off by the title of Jonathan Balcombe’s recent book, "What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins." When I eat at a seafood restaurant am I really partaking of the flesh of a member of my extended family?

But Balcombe isn’t asking us to get hung up on the “cousins” image. His real message is about the “inner lives” aspect. Fish engage in rituals. They form commitments. They even engage in fairly elaborate schemes of deception.

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We have been learning a lot in recent years about animal consciousness. Crows and ravens hold long-term grudges against individual people who shoo them away. Elephants mourn their dead. Porpoises seem to have sophisticated patterns of communication.

I have not been very active as an animal rights advocate. But I did once write a short piece about how chickens are raised. I got going on that subject after attending a meeting several decades ago of some farmers in western Canada. They were all Christians and they met frequently to talk about how their faith commitments should influence their farming practices. None of them was educated beyond high school, but they had obviously listened carefully to what they had been taught in church. They wanted Christian teachings to make a difference in how they went about their farming tasks.

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The subject of chickens came up in a short speech made by a farmer who raised chickens for egg production. He complained about the pressure he felt from “the industry.” People like him were supposed to coop hens up in very cramped areas. This was all about efficient production, he said, but it went against his Christian convictions. Chickens, he argued, are not just “hunks of meat,” defined simply by their market value. Nor, on the other hand, are they just like human beings. Then he said this with some passion: “Chickens are chickens!” God created each animal “after its own kind”—he was referring to Genesis 1:25—and then his memorable punch line: “This means that God wants each chicken to be able to strut its stuff in front of other chickens.”

I found theological wisdom in those remarks. The farmer did not want to reduce chickens to something less than they are. But neither did he want make them into something more. They are chickens, and that is a sufficient reason to treat them with some dignity—chicken dignity.

Free range meat chickens seek shade on a U.S. farm. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Geoffrey McKim

That Canadian farmer would have liked what the Humane Society in the United States has been doing lately. They have been urging—with considerable success—the companies that provide “broiler chickens” to our local super markets and food courts to adopt practices that give chickens adequate space to move around.

And the farmer would also be pleased that the Humane Society sees a religious aspect in this effort. Christine Gutleben, who heads of the Faith Outreach program of the Humane Society, tells me that evangelicals have been among the strong religious supporters of the initiative to give chickens the room to “strut.” The Southern Baptist Convention has given its endorsement and evangelical scholars have been providing evidence for precedents for animal rights advocacy by evangelical heroes of the past, such as Wilbert Wilberforce, Hannah More, Charles Spurgeon and C.S. Lewis.

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I doubt that the Canadian farmer has read any of those folks, but he certainly knew his Genesis. He would not have been deterred by warnings against “species egalitarianism,” wherein all life, human and other, is seen as of equal value. God’s creating animals “after their own kind” was enough for him. As was his obvious conviction that the Creator wants us to look out for the well-being of our non-human “cousins.”

To be sure, we humans are also “of our own kind” and the Jewish and Christian traditions have consistently made it clear that we are to treat every one of our fellow human beings with the dignity that is grounded in our common humanity. That is no trivial matter to emphasize these days. It is good to remember, though, that one of the many things we have in common is a shared obligation to care for the well-being of many other “kinds”—including the chickens!


  1. A well thought out piece which has as an underlying theme the responsibilities of stewardship enjoined on us by the Creator.

  2. Birds, fishes and other animals are like us in that they are sentient, able to experience fear and pain and pleasure, as science has shown. As sentient beings they deserve our respect and compassion. Humanely caring for animals in our charge is a matter of basic decency. This includes not killing them unless it is in their best interest to do so (e.g., euthanasia).

    Since all of the nutrients we need to thrive can be obtained from plant sources, needlessly harming animals for food or ‘fun’ or any other reason is animal abuse. No benevolent spirit would approve of it, nor should anyone else. There are marvelous vegan versions of virtually every type of food imaginable, including vegan seafood:

  3. May I respectfully share a reply regarding the notion of “stewardship enjoined on us by the Creator”?

    These few quotes are from author Derrick Jensen’s book “The Myth of Human Supremacy.” His comments are about “management,” but it is the idea of “stewardship” in action:

    You may come to believe that forests can’t manage themselves, but that you can manage forests…. You may come to believe that the world cannot survive without your interference, while the truth is that the world cannot survive your arrogant interference.

    It helps explain how an astronomer can say we need to explore Mars “to answer that most important question: are we all alone?” as this culture destroys life on this planet. It helps explain how so many foresters can continue to claim, as their “forestry” destroys forest after forest, that “forests need management.” It helps explain how people keep trying to “manage fisheries” as they wipe out species after species. It helps explain how even so many so-called environmentalists state explicitly that they are trying to save, not the planet, but civilization, which so many perceive as humanity’s–and thus the universe’s–most important creation.

    Perhaps the notion of humans attempting to manage the natural world reveals more than anything else the complete insanity of human supremacism, and this supremacism’s near-absolute invulnerability to counter-evidence. This culture has critically harmed or destroy EVERY single biome it has managed, and yet the managerial ethos gets stronger every day. Forests: managed to death. Yet still the managers claim to know what is best for forests. Wetlands: managed to death…. Rivers: managed to death…. Oceans: managed to death….

    If a doctor killed or injured every single patient he saw, would you trust your life to this doctor?

    ANOTHER BISON STORY…. A few decades ago an Indian nation in Montana wanted to conduct a traditional bison hunt. They were mandated to consult with federal managers, who came up with a plan: the Indians were to kill the old bulls, those who were past their sexual prime, and as such, useless in terms of passing on genetic material…. the bison herd doesn’t lose any necessary genetic materials (because the old bulls were too old to have sex ever again, the bison were, from a strict genetic perspective, already dead bulls walking)…. Nonetheless, the Indians said that this is not what their teachings suggested. They insisted that the bulls had a role as elders in the bison community. The managers were unswayed by this non-scientific argument. In a fight between “teachings” and the tools of scientific management (backed by the full power of the state) scientific management nearly always wins, and the world generally loses. The only way the Indians could ahve their traditional hunt is if they killed the animals as managers told them to. So they did.

    That winter the remaining bison starved. Life is way more complex than managers think it is…. It is more complex than we are capable of thinking. Montana winters are cold and the snow can be deep. Bison need to eat. How do they get through the snow to the vegetation beneath? It ends up that the old bulls are the only ones whose necks are strong enough to sweep away the heavy snow. They do this for their whole community.

    As usual, the managers make the decisions, and others pay the consequences.

    Derrick Jensen is an American author and radical environmentalist living in Crescent City, California. According to Democracy Now!, Jensen “has been called the poet-philosopher of the ecological movement.”

  4. Yes, this is a consideration of great importance, which has implications that could not be derived from the creation story in Genesis 1-2.4.

    E.g., about “getting hung up” about the term “cousins”: Cousins are individuals who have common ancestors further back than the generation of our parents. So a grandchild of our grandparents who is not also a child of our parents is a cousin of ours. But there are many degrees of “cousin,” and our ancestors stretch back to the origins of life on Earth. So it is quite accurate to say that we are “cousins” of all the Earth’s living creatures.

    And let’s hope with that realization comes also a sense of responsibility, and an encouragement to treat fellow sentient living creatures, our cousins, with meaningful moral regard.

  5. I have no argument with what you have posted, but I would add this caveat…to my way of thinking, stewardship cannot be construed as the same thing as management. It would be naïve to suppose that humans have the requisite discipline to sit back and not engage the environment around us. At the same time, all efforts of husbandry are not equally destructive. This is the distinction between stewardship and management. Absent the depletion of the human race to statistically insignificant numbers, the replenishment of other species seems unlikely. Would salmon stocks increase, perhaps even exponentially, if every dam or human impediment that bars or hinders their passage to their original spawning grounds were removed? Perhaps so. But the prospect is unlikely and will doubtless remain that way. Poet-philosophers may point to a better way, but they rarely have a truly effective plan to get there.

  6. “Meaningful moral regard.” I’m–and always will be–an animal-rights campaigner. Animal liberation. Empty cages, not bigger cages. Domestication is degrading. Because animal dignity matters, too! That’s how I see “meaningful moral regard.” Not more “animal welfare”.

    “Welfare” patronizes animals, yields to human interests to the point of overriding their interests. Animals are worse off today. Activists are frustrated with animal welfare. And I’ll tell you why:

    Animals are still property, and the property “owners” — whether scientists in a laboratory; agribusiness CEOs on the factory farm; or the management of rodeos, circuses, and zoos — have every right to do what they wish to animal bodies. The legal rationale are two-fold: any act causing animal suffering is acceptable so long as it is part of a “tradition” of animal exploitation and/or has some “rational” purpose such as making profit or “disciplining” an animal. Thus, while the burning or beating of a cat or dog is a felony crime in many states, this is so because it has no redeemable utilitarian function for society, not because it is intrinsically wrong. Where animals are property, the property rights of individual animal “owners” trump public moral concerns, such as voiced by animal advocacy groups, and many a just battle has been lost in the courts through an exploiter’s appeal to “ownership” rights over animals.

    Increasingly, courts are awarding animal guardians not only market “property value” for animals wrongfully injured or killed by another party, but also additional damages for loss of companionship or emotional distress, signaling a belief that animals are more than commodities. (Attorney Steve) Wise and others expect cases litigating the rights of great apes and other animals to be coming to courtrooms soon [see The Nonhuman Rights Project online, video “Unlocking the Cage”]. This augurs an intense struggle over social perceptions of nonhuman animals and fundamental changes in society as a whole as human beings increasingly will be able to represent the interests of exploited animals and sue on their behalf.

    We are today at a similar stage in moral debate as we were over a century ago with the moral and legal status of blacks. In both cases, there is a movement to expand moral boundaries, to abolish a form of slavery, and to overcome entrenched prejudices. The law always has changed with evolving social norms, and it currently is in the midst of dramatic transformation. Animal rights stands not only to liberate animals, but the human mind itself as it begins to enter the next stage in its moral evolution. Source: “Legally Blind: The Case For Granting Animals Rights” by Dr. Steven Best [not the entire essay]

    I’m no fan of religion. I’m the devil’s advocate. I was raised in the Catholic Church.

  7. No matter how “respectful” your farmer treats his hens, he values them solely as his “property.” When his “property” can no longer produce a product (eggs), the farmer sends them off to be killed, or takes their lives himself. “You are not human, so I will take your eggs. You are not human, so I will take your young” (male chicks are ground up alive in macerating machines at the hatchery because male birds don’t lay eggs). “Because you are not human, I feel entitled to take your life for any reason.”

    Consider the words of Wisconsin veterinarian Tony Bolen, who speaks in defense of “food” animal farms: “Most of the farmers, they’re treating them [animals] right. And the animals are pretty much happy, or the farmers aren’t making money.” This is a common, though never sufficiently proven, defense used by animal farmers–that their animals have to be treated well to ensure a quality “product.” They are still “things” used to meet human ends, as opposed to being ends in and of themselves.

    I regard other animals as equals, because I do not devalue them as “less than human,” and I will not alienate them from the circle of kinship. While sophisticated scientific studies advance knowledge of the complex inner lives and dignity of nonhuman animals–our evolutionary kin and fellow Earthlings–more and more nails are being driven into the “faith-based” coffin of “human exceptionalism.”

    And much of what is called “stewardship” is actually damage control–attempting to correct mistakes caused by human action. Climate change, for example.

  8. Those chickens are indeed property. No chicken is morally equivalent to a human being.

  9. When a pig composes a symphony, a cow designs a satellite, a rat designs a medical experiment or a chicken writes a novel I will consider them equivalent to us. Until then, not so much. In the meantime archer deer season starts next weekend and I am greatly looking forward to putting some of that healthy, antibiotic and steroid free meat in my freezer. I will also keep supporting the good people out there doing important scientific research using laboratory animals and I will keep on owning dogs.

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