Review of Chicken by Annie Potts

Review of Chicken by Annie Potts, Reaktion Books, 216 pp, pbk, 103 illustrations, 72 in colour; ISBN 978-1-86189-858-6, £9-99

“No creature has been subjected to such extremes of reverence and exploitation as the chicken”.  From a contemporary perspective it is hard to believe the first half of this claim, made on the back cover of Chicken, but there is no doubting the ruthless exploitation of a bird that seems to have been singled-out for the sustenance of the human race.

The statistics of global chicken farming are simply mind-boggling.  Here are just a few taken from chapter 6 of Chicken: worldwide, more than 50 billion broiler chickens are killed for meat each year, including 8-10 billion in the US and over 860 million in the UK; today’s broiler chicken averages 2.7 kg weight when killed at just 6 weeks of age (the natural lifespan of a chicken is anything up to 12 years); in 2007, 280 million US hens laid more than 77.3 billion eggs, an average of 275 eggs per hen (under natural conditions a hen will lay as few as 30 eggs per year); each year in the US alone more than 270 million male chicks, surplus to egg industry requirements, are destroyed by gassing, microwaving, suffocation or maceration.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, the complete genetic mapping of the chicken and the development of the genetically-modified featherless chicken (cynically dubbed ‘environmentally-friendly’ because no plucking is required) suggest that the broiler and egg industries are destined for ever greater intensification.  Set against this, the rise of chicken advocacy groups, the creation of chicken sanctuaries and the growing popularity of backyard and companion chickens and animal-assisted therapy chickens such as the celebrated “Mr Joy”, described in an epilogue, offers some hope for a better future for chickens.

Like other books in Reaktion’s Animal series, Chicken also covers the natural history and cultural significance of chickens, including their many appearances in art, film, literature and folklore.  A chapter entitled “Chicken Wisdom” describes the remarkable intelligence of chickens, proving that they are anything but ‘bird-brained’.  Given these insights into their lives, we must hope that chickens will eventually earn the respect and understanding they deserve and that the vast majority will be treated much more humanely than they are today.  In this excellent book, Annie Potts, Co-Director of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, makes an eloquent and impassioned plea for the chicken that should help us to redress the balance.

Paul Appleby

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