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19 july 2012

The back cover of Annie Potts's Chicken says that "most of us have nothing to do with chickens as living creatures." I'm not sure how true that is. I'm a fairly ordinary suburban American, deeply embedded in the factory foodchain, and yet most days of the week I walk into my back garden, and the neighbors' hens, who have associated me in Pavlovian certainty with a handout of pecan pieces, rush over to the chainlink fence to beg for a treat. I doubt I'm so unrepresentative that such an experience is particularly rare.

But Gertrude and her two nameless underlings in the pecking order are not very representative of American chickens, of course. They aren't exactly dilettantes (they provide our neighbors with extremely delicious eggs, and they suppress the grub and mealworm populations in the vicinity). But they are not, as the poultry world goes, members of the proletariat.

The overwhelming majority of the world's chickens live in conditions that would make Upton Sinclair squirm. If you feel outrage at the way humans were science-fictionally harvested in The Matrix … well, let's think about that a minute. In dystopian fictions, humans are often portrayed as being cooped up in battery-hen conditions; but does this mean that we empathize with any being subjected to such conditions, or does it mean that we believe bio-assembly-line treatment of animals, to the extent of rendering them only technically "alive," is the natural lot of non-humans, and therefore the ultimate indignity for humans? It's a two-faced coin, and much of the fate of many species over the next century rests on which side we choose.

Not all that much of Annie Potts's Chicken is devoted to documenting the abuses that agribusiness foists on poultry, but it's enough to make you think very seriously about ordering the McNuggets. I eat a lot of chicken. For no great health reason, still less on any ethical principle; I just find it more digestible, and I like the way it lends itself to so many different flavorings, recipes, and cuisines. But I have to come to terms with the fact that I'm doing my part to keep a lot of birds suffering: that, or make some effort to buy much more expensive, humanely-sourced poultry.

Chickens are jungle birds of Asia, adapted very well to their pecking-and-scratching lifestyle. Many varieties still exist in the wild; they also become feral very easily. They also do fine as tame domestic animals, barnyard familiars, and even pets. Unfortunately, their adaptiveness is so great that they can even flourish – in the sense of at least minimal vitality – under conditions of extreme immurement and oppression, as in the broiler farms and egg factories of modern industrial nations. Like pigs, they have gone from being the smallholder's source of protein to being a quick way for the husbandry industry to turn feed into food.

Their proximity to humans has made chickens and eggs the source of much symbolism globally. Potts runs down fact after fact about chickens in mythology, lore, art, and literature. In the manner of many Reaktion Animal books, her catalog is both lavishly illustrated and sometimes haphazard in the reading. She's better on the science of chicken behavior – and the politics of our management of the species.

Potts, Annie. Chicken. London: Reaktion, 2012.