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.
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.
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.
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.
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!