In the first part of my interview with Dynestee Fields about her documentary “The Voice of the Chicken,” we discussed the origins of her research as well as her purpose in making the short film.
In this second part of the interview we cover the ramifications of Dynestee’s documentary, the history of chicken genetic modification, the odd place chickens occupy in the discussion of animal rights, how Hurricane Katrina gave chicken advocates unexpected information about chicken treatment, how female and male chickens differ, what happens when you show a documentary about chickens to a chicken, and which on-screen talking heads in “The Voice of the Chicken” have values that best match and clash with Dynestee’s own.
Dr. Sircy: What is one thing that you want everyone who watched the documentary to learn?
Dynestee Fields: I would definitely to learn the inner complexity of chickens so they don’t just think, “Oh, look there. How dumb!” or “How unworthy of consideration.” Because right now, chickens do not have much legal protection at all. They’re exempt from the Humane Slaughter act. They’re not even classified as animals under the Animal Welfare Act. You can pretty much do…
DS: Are cows protected under that?
DF: Well, they’re protected under the Humane Slaughter Act. Animals that are used for research and that kind of thing are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act. So really farm animals are exempt. Except cock fighting! Roosters that are used for that? It’s like, “Protect them.” So it seems to be animals that we can sweep underneath the rug like mice and birds? They’re not protected under the Animal Welfare Act either, despite the fact that they’re really the ones that are used for research. Go figure!
DS: Have you shown the documentary to chickens?
DF: I have not shown the documentaries, but there have been instances where chickens have been shown television to see how they would react. Some researchers in Sydney, Australia during the 90s put chickens in cages, surrounded the cages with TVs, and pretty much did this virtual reality experience where they tried to see how chickens would react to a hawk on the screen or maybe another chicken. That kind of thing. The chickens reacted pretty much like they would if there was a physical chicken right there.
DS: That’s fascinating.
DF: And while I was out filming the chickens, I recorded this rooster giving this ground predator call, and I was just going back through the footage and playing it just to see what it sounded like, and he heard it and came running out to help whatever chicken was being attacked. It was interesting.
DS: Cool. Can you understand chicken language?
DF: I can understand it a whole lot better now. There’s some stuff that’s confusing because different people have different things to say about it. The pre-laying call? One source I read was like, “This may be because hens don’t want to be harassed by roosters who want to mate, so they’re like, ‘I’m laying an egg, so this is not a good time to try and mate with me.’” And then another source said, “This is like a content sound. Chickens are happy when they’re saying this.” So what does it really mean?
DS: What is the sound you most love to hear? If you had to give your phone a ringtone from a chicken voice what sound would it make?
DF: The food call that a rooster gives for a hen. Definitely. Because it’s just so interesting. You saw the documentary. You heard that little sound. It’s just so interesting. When a rooster finds a place for a hen to nest and then he starts purring, I don’t know. It’s just pleasing to the ear.
DS: I was particularly taken by your use of the word “morsel.” I wanted to know if that was a scientific term for chicken food. That’s a good word! Will you continue to gain fluency in the voice of the chicken?
DF: Now I’m hooked so very likely. I’ll be looking at any sources that come out and shed more light on that.
DS: Okay. We got at this at the beginning, but I want to ask a little more pointedly: in what way has chicken language changed or remained unchanged through this process of domestication that you focus on? That is, as we tinker with chicken genetics, are we also tinkering with the voice of the chicken?
DF: Well not the vocal repertoire, but a lot with the visual displays that go along with it because now these chickens that they have created, they are not likely to go broody and sit on chicks to hatch them out and that sort of thing. One thing is they’re designed to live shorter lifespans. The broiler chickens, the commercial broiler, they’re not even going to be around long because they’re eventually going to outgrow what their body can handle so their joints are going to break down. So animal activists rescued some chickens that were left behind in Hurricane Katrina: unlike the chickens that are bred commercially and slaughtered, they got to see what happens to those chickens after they reached their age. They did not live very long. There were just a bunch of weird things. They were overly aggressive, like the roosters. They ate constantly. Even when they tried to limit food, the chickens were eating their own poop. So they can’t stop because they’re designed to grow that way.
DS: To borrow the title from human relationship book from the 90s, are male chickens from Mars and female chickens from Venus?
DF: That’s a mixed bag, but I would say so. Like humans, chickens also have similar interests: food, safety, reproduction. But then they each have different roles. The male is main is mainly the protector. He goes and fights off predators. He pretty much finds food for the hens. He’s a the center of the flock. Without a male, a dominant female will assume that position. But if a hen has chicks, and she remains with them, usually they go back to the flock they came from, one of her chicks will eventually assume command of the flock. So it’s interesting. In the red jungle fowl societies, you have a dominant rooster and a dominant hen, so that’s pretty much how it works for domestic chickens too. So I’m not really sure because they’re both territorial. The hens will keep other flock members in their place. If there’s a rooster around, he’s the one who’s in control of everything.
DS: At what point in human history did we start consuming chickens?
DF: Also a difficult question. People started domesticating them around 10000 years ago in India and 6000 BC in China: They were really using them for cockfighting at first.
DS: Really! Not food?
DF: Yes, cockfighting.
DS: So the first thing we did with chickens was to get them to fight each other?
DF: Yes, and there were some religious sacrifices so that was happening. Some people like the Romans and Egyptians were like, “We can breed these birds and have a supply of eggs.” So they were really involved with that. Eventually it seems like people were like,” Here’s a source of food that we could possibly eat that we could keep low maintenance and then just have something to eat when we needed it.” I’m not exactly sure when that happened. Sources don’t really give a clear indicator. This just kind of trickled in. Eventually, it became mainstream like in America especially around the 19th Century. Up until that point, really chickens were laying hens. They’re gonna lay an egg, and that’s what we really need. When they’re not laying eggs anymore, we can just eat them. Then people eventually decided, “Let’s just have an industry where we’re just raising chickens specifically for meat.”
DS: You’ve made me think of something. Let’s say that moment doesn’t happen: the industrialization of the broiler chicken, the chicken that’s designed to be eaten. Would having chickens to lay eggs of itself led to the same genetic bad mojo we’ve created in the past 100 years, or was the industry of collecting eggs a more peaceful way of domesticating chickens? Is using chickens for eggs inevitably going to lead to irreparable damage, or is that only a product of us wanting chickens as meat?
DF: The red jungle fowl laid five to six eggs per breeding season. That’s twice a year. Somehow now domestic chickens lay 300 eggs a year. Obviously, it went south in both directions. That’s one thing.
DS: You make that point in the documentary. The kinds of things you emphasize in terms of chicken mistreatment seem to be me the product of wanting them to be meat. Does it hurt a hen to lay 300 eggs a year? I’m wondering is the chicken being abused to get it 300 eggs.
DF: The way that they’re doing it, like the housing and everything, is what is really causing the chickens harm. Well, the bone structure thing too: the osteoporosis that hens develop from laying all these things. And the way they want to keep the eggs clean for human safety. They hide the chickens away, keeping them in that kind of environment. Even these cage-free facilities are big buildings where there are so many chickens they can’t even maneuver around, just a bunch of chickens crowded into one place. Plus, you know the egg industry? Every time the eggs hatch and there’s a male chick he’s going to go into the macerator or stuffed into a bag and suffocated. I think they’re against suffocating the chicks in the trash bags, but they’re fine with tossing them in the grinder. I think that next year or the year afterwards, they’re supposed to be implementing this new device where they cut a hole in the egg and use a tiny laser to determine if the chick is going to be male or female and then they’re going to destroy it which I think is still just as wasteful. And then the laying hens? They say, “You can’t provide us with any more eggs, and this whole thing is about money, so you’re going to have to be killed, usually by gassing.”
DS: Did you interview someone for your documentary film who voiced opinions that closely mirror your own? Is there someone on camera in “The Voice of the Chicken” that if were to have a longer conversation with them we’d hear views that line up with your own?
DF: Ms. Sandra Gray, the woman who owns Seneca Creek Organic Farm, her view of chickens I guess mirrors mine. She does let hers free-range, and they do get picked off by predators which is unfortunate, but if you’re going to do that with domestic chickens and let them have some freedom, you have to be wary of that. I guess her views more strongly align with mine.
But then I also interviewed Joe B. Winn, the one with the chickens who is out at the homestead. At first, I was just opposed to his thinking. At first, before the project became just about “have you seen chickens communicating?” and “what were they doing?”, it had a religious bent because that’s where the documentary was going at first. My lit review was divided into different sections: why do people think this way about chickens, and here’s the Christian view and here’s this view because people don’t think chickens have reason. So, I was asking him, “How does this influence your view of chickens, you being a Christian?” and the morality of eating meat. He pretty much said, “All animals communicate. God made them, so they have to communicate with each other. You just don’t try to get close to the animal because you know you’re gonna eat it.” That was just “Ugggh!” at first, but now that I think about it that actually makes a lot of sense. “Sure all animals communicate. There’s nothing special about that.” At first I thought, “People think chickens are stupid. If I can just prove that chickens are intelligent creatures people will stop giving them trouble and trying to kill them. “Here’s a new animal that we can recognize. They’re a higher-level being. We can just knock-off what we’re doing.” But people are more like, “So what?” That’s a really good thing, especially with animals and science. My view would never work in science, because the closer animals are to being like humans, it’s like, “Oh! That makes them excellent test subjects!”