One of the chickens who died recently was Valerie, a companion of one of my friends. Valerie’d been foraging just outside her small coop at the back of a long, long driveway, beside the garage, when a wandering golden retriever caught wind of her and decided to retrieve. A neighbor was able to extract Valerie from the doggie‘s jaws, but by that time one wing was broken and internal damage seemed likely.
When I heard the news of Valerie’s death a few days later, I called my friend and said that I was sorry. I was sorry, but my sorrow was tempered with hypocrisy: As I spoke with my friend I was simultaneously digesting the flesh of an anonymous chicken, one whose head and claws and feathers I‘d never seen, one whose fate as lunch had been largely determined by Wall Street and conveyer belts.
I told my friend about the bird flesh in my belly, and she said ”Yeah . . .“ in such a way that I gathered that she’d been ruminating on her own not-so-distantly past lunches (she stopped eating chickens older than eggs less than a year ago), and that she‘d been fielding similar phone calls from other bird-eating well-wishers, each offering his own similar mix of sympathy and hypocrisy.
By all accounts, Valerie was an affectionate chicken. Sat on my friend’s lap. Carried on well with her dogs. Provided fresh offspring (non-fertile) daily.
Valerie is survived by her coopmate Lucy, three dogs and two kittens.
Chickens have always meant a great deal to me. As an art student at UCLA and then CalArts and for a few years thereafter as a wandering mess, I made a series of short videos, wide paintings and semiautomatic drawings that featured chickens. Between 1983 and 1991, I drew hundreds of near-identical cartoon chickens — my young nephew thought they looked like Big Bird, but I insisted that the recipe called for six parts Mickey Dolenz, five parts Sandy Duncan — in the sketch pads I lugged around in an ancient old dilapidated briefcase donated to me by Maurice Hart, Esquire, for just this purpose. One of these terribly important paintings — now rolled up in a friend‘s garage somewhere, possibly — featured a thick-’n‘-goopy, cadmium-yellow chicken, based on the cartoons, standing on a human-style bathroom sink, looking into the mirror, preparing to shave her face with a Gillette Trac II™ razor. It wasn’t my intention for the chicken‘s facial expression to resemble that of Saturn in Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children (1819–1823); it just turned out that way. In another piece, a video called On Visiting Rons, an egg cracked open on the edge of a toilet bursts into flames as it‘s tossed into the bowl.
(And so on.)
Later, as I phased out visual art in favor of writing, I wrote a short story about a character named Jim Chicken. It was about this chicken, Jim, born to human parents who raised him as a sort of Cinderella-Smerdyakov hybrid. Not a very good story, but nicely illustrated in a notebook somewhere, possibly the friend’s garage.
Yes, chickens have meant an awful lot to me, but I can‘t say I fully understand the awful, awful lot. I consume them, but I appreciate that one day I too will be consumed by something to which I am a chicken: Time. Cancer. Wall Street. Trauma to the neck. I appreciate this in that at the same time I consider killing a chicken a barbaric act, it is one that I am apparently barbarian enough to commit. If I were foodless and moneyless and was presented with a happy, lively chicken, I sure might murder and eat it.
Being just as bovine and hypocritical as the consummate American consumer is expected to be — ever-so-slightly more addicted to convenience than to guilt or logic — I’ve eaten my weight in Valeries, many, many times over. When I finish eating a Valerie, or part of one or several and there‘s no one else around, I might say, out loud, as I did earlier tonight, ”Thank you, chicken,“ and sigh, and then dump the bones in the trash. Probably not much consolation to the chicken, but it allows me to continue rationalizing my savagery. For we, the lords of chicken, are (ir)responsible for all apparatus in this factory of unflying birds we’ve made: There‘s no way Gallus gallus would have survived this long without our programming, without our forcing them to live to die for us. One would think we could show more appreciation than one square foot of space in an unventilated factory.
Even if you could read, this letter could not possibly begin to rationalize or apologize for the suffering, torture and murder to which my species and I — as well as plenty of other species — have subjected you and yours, nor could it for the savagery yet to come.
Still: Sorry about the factories where you sit immobilized, declawed and beakless, decapitation your only escape. Sorry we’re aroused by the scent of your broiling flesh, your unborn offspring frying in butter and served with toast and jam.
Sorry to have fucked with your evolutionary path. If Charles Dickens has anything to say about it, after I die my shackled spirit will roam this Earth draped in a chain of chickens, who, given the sentient wherewithal, will peck the fuck out of me.
Incubation and Embryology Project at University of Illinois Extension (www.urbanext.uiuc.edueggsindex.html)
How To Get a Head in Fast Food Without Really Trying(www.breakthechain.orgexclusivesmcchicken.html)
The Chicken Factory Farm(www.hsus.orgace11528)