Urban Chickens and Enmeshed Multispecies Lives Talk, December 2020.

A recording of a talk first given at the University of Cambridge Department of Geography Vital Geographies Research Group Seminar in December 2020 is now available on YouTube. In it, I discuss the ideas and research I will be doing on the next three years of Dr. Maan Barua’s European Research Council Funded ‘Urban Ecologies’ project. Underneath the video is a transcript of the talk! Please watch, comment, share and let me know what you think!

Transcript for Vital Geographies Talk. Catherine Oliver. 3rd December 2020

Introduction Slide: I am a geographer interested broadly in beyond-human research. I have worked on historical and contemporary veganism and animal activism; the ethics and politics of interspecies friendship; and multispecies ethnographic research, primarily working with ex-farmed laying chickens. I finished my PhD on veganism and multispecies worlds earlier this year which drew together archival research, activist interviews, and chicken ethnographies to explore the pasts, presents and potential futures of veganism in Britain. My previous ‘multispecies ethnography’ with rehomed chickens, you will see pictured in this presentation, this is Olive. Further afield, I work on feminist geographies, researching the academic conference as a site of (dis-)belonging, and the role of friendship in (resisting) the neoliberal academy. My work here at Cambridge will be with chickens, and specifically “backyard” chickens in London. I am going to share a broad overview of this with you today.

Overview slide: Chicken-keeping might be understood as a transformative personal, collective and worldly endeavour that foregrounds human-animal sociability, resists the agricultural industrial complex and has the potential to disrupt the anthropocentric flows of the city. There are two kinds of backyard hens: re-homed ex-farm hens who have been diverted away from slaughter and into domestic hen-keeping space, and specialist breeds of hens. I’ve so far been particularly interested in the former.

From 2005-2012, 200,000 hens were rehomed in the UK, and 5% of these were in London (Karabozhilova, 2012). The practice of backyard hen keeping has only grown in the face of ecological and environmental crises and increasing scrutiny of the ethics and implications of eating industrialized animals. In the contemporary British urban space, chickens are usually distanced from humans in life and physically removed from the city, but the rise of hen keeping disrupts constructions of chickens that hold them at a distance and value them only in death. In their ordinariness, chickens as alive, lively co-constitutors have much to offer in not only expanding the urban to attend to nonhumans but refiguring the urban from more than human perspectives.

The urban lives of chickens are entangled with complex care for and controls of nature, that are implicated beyond the urban space itself in flows into and out of the city.

In my research, I am primarily looking at rehomed chickens, the people who facilitate rehomings between farms/factories, and the people who rehome these chickens. Ethnographies with chickens in London will take place across two different scenarios. The first is in collectivities such as urban gardens, allotments, and schools and the second is in domestic private spaces. I’m interested in pursuing a kind of ‘follow the being’ ethnography: beginning either at the re-homers, or even the farms if possible, to trace the journeys of chickens from farm, to and through re-homing centres, and into the city, as well as around the urban space (e.g. the informal economies of their eggs). I’m interested in the motivations, flows and logics – as well as the practicalities – of the hen re-homing process to understand what chickens mean and how they live in the city.

Why chickens? slide: Alongside this, I am engaging with archival sources and secondary data (which is what I’m doing at the moment) to ask what kinds of scientific, veterinary, and vernacular knowledges we have about chickens. Following the practical ethics and philosophy of thinkers like Mary Midgley, I hope to attend with sensitivity to and learn with care from ethology, biology, environmentalists, artists, writers, activists, rehomers, and chickens themselves, to ‘ensure that [this work] is rooted in, and responsive to, the real world’ (Kidd and McKinnell, Science and the Self, 2015, 2).

This begs the question of course, and this is one of the overarching questions of my project: ‘why chickens?’ Alice Walker, in the opening to The Chicken Chronicles, recalls noticing ‘as if for the first time, a chicken and her brood crossing the path in front of me. She was industrious and quick, focused and determined … I was stopped in my tracks, as if I had never seen a chicken before … But had those chickens been like this one? Why hadn’t I noticed? Had I noticed?’ (1-2). Walker chronicles her bond, joy, and transforming world when she returns to live with chickens in her adult life, after growing up keeping and killing chickens as a child in the Deep South of America. How is it that this moment of encounter lingered with Walker? What are the socio-cultural, political, and spatial qualities of particular interspecies encounters that remain with us, and pull us ‘into the parallel universe that all the other animals exist in’? (ibid, 5).

Having lived with and researched chickens before, I recognise and have shared these feelings of connection with chickens. As I’m going to talk about at the end of this presentation, chicken-keeping in domestic and urban space has increased and this was further sped up through the lockdown earlier this year. Which really invites questions such as those I am trying to ask in this project: Why chickens? What is it about these birds that enchants humans? And how is this entangled with not only production, but imaginaries of nature and the urban? What are the histories of chickens and humans in urban space, especially London? What are the scales that we can think with and of the urban chicken through, from the cellular to the industrial? What kinds of methodological ethnographic practices can rethink geographical approaches beyond the human?

Chicken-human histories slide: Chickens as massified labourers have a long history integrated with human society and development. Gallus gallus domesticus, the domestic fowl, are thought to have multiple origins: the Java, the Ceylon, the Jungle Grey and the Jungle Red (Morepark, in Smith and Daniel, 1975) rather than just from the Jungle Red as Darwin proposed. it is likely that northern China was one of several regions of chicken domestication as early as 10,000 years ago (Xiang et al., 2014, 17564) and chickens were domesticated in India around 3000 BC.

In the fourth century BC, Egypt was home to ‘a mass society which mastered the technology of large-scale [egg] incubation’ Smith and Daniel argue that ‘undoubtedly there was a relationship between the huge labor force and the organization and mass production of food’ (Smith and Daniel, 1975, 14). Incubators were built of clay brick over fires adjusted by attendants who turned eggs and maintained the correct heat, allowing for ten or fifteen thousand eggs to be incubated at once. The urban assemblage of exploitation, labour, technology, and chickens sought to remove the chicken from part of this re/productive process in order that they be freed up to lay eggs, rather than hatching her chicks: ‘since the productive period of egg laying for a hen is not much more than two years, to allow a hen to set and hatch her own chicks would be to use up a substantial portion of her productive life’ (ibid., 238).

Traditionally, egg production took most of the gross chicken income in the United States. In 1975, broiler chickens overtook eggs (50% broilers, 48% eggs) in industry and by the end of the 20th Century, broiler business was a $22billion industry, with the egg industry around $3billion (Bell and Weaver 2002). Egg consumption dropped from the 1960s to 90s with fears over salmonella, while consumption of chickens rose ‘from 23 percent to 43 percent of the meat Americans are now eating, mainly in the form of chicken breasts’ (Davis 2009, p.98).

Britain’s food production system has a global and colonial history and in contemporary Britain, Brexit has brought industrial chicken farming into the spotlight, with the new agriculture bill offering no guarantees to prevent what are being termed ‘cheap low-welfare imports.’ Particularly gaining airtime is the potential import of chlorinated chicken meat from the US, with concerns over chlorine-washing of chickens doesn’t kill disease, but rather makes it undetectable in lab testing. So, while chicken meat has been the focus of much discussion, both academic and public, the egg laying chicken has somewhat faded into the background. Often hidden under the guise of “happy eggs,” the contemporary laying hen has a distinct history and contemporary life of confinement, labour, and post-productive ‘use.’ So, the laying hen’s endgame isn’t to be eaten, but to continually lay ‘byproducts,’ or eggs, when the ‘highly efficient machine’ slows down, as she will, the chicken poses a problem to capital.

Contemporary chickens slide: The Red Jungle Fowl, from which some domestic hens descend, lay 10 to 15 eggs a year in clutches of 4-6 chicks (Capps, 2014). It is only with long-term human selective breeding interventions that hens have transformed into egg production machines. Where domesticated species are supposedly thriving because humans ‘have entered into a social contract with these species, based on our supposed mutual advantage; we provide and care for them, and in return they feed our soil and give us their flesh’ (Taylor, 2011, 208), but this is a relation of physical and psychological turmoil for industrialized chickens.

The broiler and the layer are each the result of long histories of ‘fowl-breeding’ and importing according to ‘standards of excellence’, as noted in this quote here from Smith and Daniel. Through biotechnological and genetic manipulation, farmers were contending with the market, increasing productivity whilst providing the cheapest, most nutrient dense food, controlling weight and mortality rates. Where the broiler chickens’ body converts feed into flesh, which is itself food, the laying chickens’ body becomes the waste or byproduct of the egg industry. Their bodies have little economic value, not being as ‘fleshy’ as broilers, and traditionally they are ground up and either buried or used for ‘spent hen meal’ which is fed back to chickens, used in this cheap human and animal food.

However, there are new ‘utilizations’ of ground spent hens emerging, notably as biofuel (Safder et al, 2019), which is desirable because they are cheap and would divert waste from landfill playing into this imaginary of a circular efficient system of industrialized farming. Where spent hens have previously had little value, the making of hens into multiple byproducts ekes capital from what has traditionally been a waste product (Gillespie, 2014).

In her 1964 book Animal Machines, Ruth Harrison takes on the industrialization of chickens, where the absorption into commercial farming turns ‘purely to efficiency and material progress … Life is cheap to the factory farmer … Chickens can be turned out in their millions and are therefore considered a more expendable commodity than larger and more expensive forms of livestock’ (p.36). Where for the broiler hen, metabolic intensification has led to a significantly foreshortened life span, reaching their slaughter weight twice as fast as 50 years ago, for the layer hen, this metabolic/capitalist churn has put demands upon them as labourers, commodities and capital to produce efficiently and lay at least daily. As Alex Blanchette writes on pigs, ‘agribusiness magnifies some evolutionary behaviour—such as reproductive instincts—only to radically deny others … each type of hog [or I would say chicken] is being refined to do only one thing with increasing intensity’ (126).

City chickens slide:

So, when the hen comes to the end of her ‘productive’ industrial life, This is where re-homers intervene and I’m interested in understanding why farmers choose this option, and what work organisations are doing to convince farmers this has ‘value’ and to trace these flows.

At Fresh Start for Hens, they describe the rehoming process as being done through ‘a Farm Team – trusted volunteers who go to the farms and transfer hens safely from the cages/barns into poultry crates ready for transportation to the many collection points. Drivers and their Driver’s Mates are included in the Farm Team and assist with loading of hens.’ Then, there are local ‘distribution centres’ where people collect hens. In order to rehome a hen, you have to apply with pictures of your land and set-up, provide details about who lives with you and where you live, and make a donation which pays the farmer and transportation costs. The British Hen Welfare Trust collect from the farm and rehome on the same day, so it’s quite a quick transition time from the industrial farm into the urban space.

What has interested me in particular about the rise of urban hen-keeping is (at least) threefold. First, how the city is cultivated and reshaped to accommodate these birds. This is entangled with imaginaries of the city, the ‘urban barnyard,’ and a reclamation of ‘nature,’ which I see as interwoven with questions of the housing crisis, climate crisis and “The Anthropocene”. Second, how the expectation of labour continues to be put upon these chickens, to continue to lay eggs to ‘earn their keep’ and participate in new exchange relationships (food and shelter for eggs), and whether this is a change in intensity rather than a change in kind. Finally, I am interested in thinking about what Osborne calls ‘still possible cities’ (Osborne, 2019) that are located in “ruins”, to think about how urban theory and urban strategy might be informed by nonhumans, which in turn raises the issue of raced, classed, gendered, able-bodied access or dis-belonging to ‘multispecies’ space. To give a kind of example of this, I’m going to just talk to you a little bit about what has happened with chickens this year, in the face of Covid-19.

Covid-19 and chicken crises slide: Through the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, humans have been exposed to the threat that the exploitation and eating of animals poses to humanity and public health. It has also become obvious that animals want to and are willing to take up more space (Taylor 2020). In the midst of all this, something perhaps unexpected given the zoonotic nature of Covid-19 has happened: people have chosen to live with chickens (and other animals) in numbers greater than ever before.

Since the beginning of lockdown, the British Hen Welfare Trust who typically rehome 60,000 hens annually, have received unprecedented numbers of rehoming requests. The reasons behind this surge are assumed to be twofold by founder, Jane Howarth: (1) people who have been interested in hen-keeping now have the time to do so, and (2) they presume they will have access to a supply of fresh eggs in the face of supermarket shortages.

However, Fresh Start for Hens, another non-profit rehoming organisation, rehomes ex-laying hens as pets and ‘cannot guarantee any one hen will continue to lay’ and rather call for safe homes for chicken retirement. And this idea of pets obviously has all sorts of other stuff going on.

Prior to 2020, there was already a rise in backyard hen-keeping in Britain, of both ex-laying hens and specialised breeds. This rise of rehoming might be understood to constitute a shift in the multispecies politics of urban space. Might the rise of chicken-keeping reveal a desire for human reconnection with animals and the natural world? What this growth in popularity also raises, however, is questions of how these spaces are reproducing or transforming the chicken-human relationship by demanding still that chickens undertake different kinds of labour (reproductive or affective) to “earn their keep.”

In the slowed ‘turnover time’ of capitalism during lockdown, conversations have opened about what is desirable and possible for ecological and environmental recovery after the pandemic. The lockdown has in some respects built on and perhaps expedited pre-existing trends in chicken-human relationships. Whilst these spatial and behavioural changes might allow the building of more equitable and sustainable worlds, they also demand we engage critically with these spaces, asking questions of urban chickens, such as How do and could we relate to animals as food providers? But also, What kind of governance is being exerted over nonhuman animals and their welfare in urban spaces? And, how might the inclusion of chickens in urban multispecies communities ask different questions of urban space and theory?

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