May 4 is International Respect for Chickens Day, and since VINE Sanctuary has its roots in the Eastern Shore Chicken Sanctuary, we are naturally very committed to the idea of respect for chickens. We also find the choice of term to be striking: “respect” for chickens, as opposed to humane treatment for chickens, or rights for chickens. Why respect?
What’s impressive about the concept of respect is that it is applied almost exclusively to human concerns. People want respect as individuals. Groups of people want respect as well, generally those that have been oppressed and/or disenfranchised. Young people want respect, as do elderly people. Each of these groups tends to demand respect more overtly than, say, those who are members of the dominant classes of society, as respect tends to be given to them as due course. Interesting, given that most folks also tend to feel that respect if something that’s earned rather than automatically deserved.
Humans also occasionally give respect to members of other species. A dog who saves the lives of her human caretakers when their house is burning down. A cat who finds her way back to her people across 1,200 miles after being left behind when they moved. Hawks who can see a speck moving thousands of feet below them, or elephants who hold funerals for their loved ones. But this is a different kind of respect; one that certainly does not preclude the exploitation or abuse of dogs, cats, hawks or elephants. It’s definitely not the same kind of respect that we accord fellow humans whom we – um – respect.
So what would it mean to actually respect a non-human? Taking it one step further, what would it mean to respect a species that’s almost uniformly made fun of, maligned, sneered at, and seen as nothing more useful than whatever flesh, eggs, and feathers we take from it? For one thing, to respect a chicken would be to open the door to the possibility that chickens are not stupid. Every ten minutes, it seems, some article is published with the Shocking News that some bird species or other is intelligent. Crows, ravens, turkeys. How about adding chickens to the mix?
Chickens recognize each other. They form intricate societies based upon hierarchies that make sense to them. They know when the bird flying overhead is a vulture, or a hawk, or a duck, and respond differently to each one. They know how to find food by the time they’re a few days old, and when the human is usually out to give them more of it. If respect is given to intelligence, then we might wish to extend it to chickens who understand a lot more about living together, and living together in the moment, than we ever will.
Perhaps we could also throw away the notion that chickens are cowardly. Chickens (both male and female) will never back down from a tiff. Now, they will hide from a predator who will surely kill them otherwise, but I find that intelligent rather than cowardly. Roosters, though, will not hide until they are sure everyone else has taken cover when they sound the alarm, and I call that very brave. Layer hens who’ve been locked up in horrifically small places their entire lives will take one step, and then another, and never look back once they know there is no limit to their steps any longer. If respect is given to courage, then we might wish to extend it to chickens, who understand far more about the real meaning of bravery than any posturing, testosterone-soaked man.
Respect (if often grudgingly) is also given to people who are determined to make their own ways in the world, often flying in the face of convention, cultural mores, family rules, and other ties that bind most of us in our places. This is something that chickens do too. Most prefer to live within the boundaries of the larger chicken culture, but certain individuals always go off on their own path. Some hatch chicks and abandon them days later, having had enough of mommyhood. Some go to huge lengths to find pieces of ground they can call their own, often spending the vast majority of their lives completely alone, just within sight of the other chickens. Some hens like to pick fights with other hens far more often than usual. Let’s respect chickens who, like humans, seem to form societies that (in their ideal forms) provide a structure for the general order while birthing individuals who buck the rules.
Chickens deserve respect, if respect means we see them as a species comprised of intelligent, sociable, courageous individuals. They deserve the kind of respect that means we treat them as worthy of being left alone or, when that is not possible, being offered kindness instead of contempt. They deserve to not be forcibly born, or used for profit, or murdered for flesh. Respect chickens today and every day. It’s about time we all did.