ECHOES OF ABU GHRAIB IN CHICKEN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Sunday, July 25, 2004 -- Commentary, Page M5
By Peter Singer and Karen Dawn
Last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released
an undercover videotape made at the Pilgrim's Pride slaughterhouse,
which supplies KFC restaurants. It shows workers kicking and stomping
on chickens and smashing them against walls. PETA also supplied eyewitness
testimony: We were told of employees "ripping birds' beaks
off, spray-painting their faces, twisting their heads off, spitting
tobacco into their mouths and eyes and breaking them in half --
all while the birds are still alive."
The sickening images echo the snapshots and videotapes that found
their way out of another inhumane facility: Abu Ghraib prison in
In both Baghdad and Moorefield, W.Va., a simple cruel dynamic was
at work. When humans have unchecked power over those they see as
inferior, they may abuse it. Slaughterhouse workers do not expect
to be chastised for hurting animals. And the American soldiers at
Abu Ghraib clearly did not expect punishment, or they would not
have posed for photographs. In both instances, laws or treaties
that should have protected against the abuses were unknown or ignored.
That is not surprising: Where much abuse is allowed, the protections
that do exist are unlikely to be taken seriously.
The Department of Justice has considered in detail when prisoners
in the war on terror may be exempt from the humane protections of
the Geneva Convention. The government has long since made that leap
with animals. Chickens, for example, are exempt from the U.S. Humane
Methods of Slaughter Act. Though states have animal cruelty statutes
that should protect all animals against egregious abuse, those statutes
generally exempt "standard agricultural practices."
And what constitutes "standard" practice? Keeping the
birds conscious but paralyzed, hearts beating through most of the
slaughter process so that they "bleed out" efficiently.
After slaughter, the animals are de-feathered in tanks of scalding
water. Records acquired under the Freedom of Information Act tell
us that millions of chickens every year enter the scalding tanks
while still alive.
Throwing chickens against walls and stomping on them are not exempt
"standard" practices. But how does that abuse, captured
on the PETA tape, really differ from the legal abuse inflicted every
day? Only in that it has no economic justification. Where so much
abuse is sanctioned, it isn't surprising that the workers think
the chickens and the rules protecting them don't matter.
Something similar can be said about the American soldiers in Iraq.
In a place where American planes bomb residential areas in pursuit
of terrorists who may not have been there at all, and where children
are shot by American soldiers at checkpoints, "standard practices"
slide easily toward abuse. At Abu Ghraib, the humiliation of the
enemy started with what was apparently routine -- for example, hooding
Also common to both situations are issues of status and authority.
Slaughterhouse work is unpleasant and poorly paid, and the workers
are among society's powerless. At Abu Ghraib, the soldiers abusing
Iraqi prisoners were from the lower ranks of the Army. But both
the slaughterhouse workers and the soldiers could assert some power,
the power they had over their charges.
We know that some humans will seek superiority over others by dominating
and humiliating them. That should warn us that abuse is possible
whenever power is unchecked, especially in a system constructed
to inflict violence on beings seen as inferior. We look forward
to the day when countries don't go to war lightly and don't cover
up civilian casualties under the rubric of "collateral damage."
And we hope that, in countries where alternative foods are easily
available, animals will no longer be mass-produced to be killed
Until that day comes, let us at least acknowledge the human tendency
to mistreat those with less power and standing, particularly in
inherently violent circumstances. We must realize that we cannot
rely on the assurances of those who profit from abuse, whether in
war or at the slaughterhouse, when they tell us that the innocent
are being protected.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton. Karen Dawn
is the host of "Watchdog" on KPFK radio and runs the animal
advocacy group DawnWatch.com.