"Why Did The Chicken Cross The World?"--A Book by Andrew Lawler

To be completely honest, while the hipster hens liked the book, they loved the scratch grain in front of the book.

Why Did The Chicken Cross The World?  The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization
Andrew Lawler
Atria Books

In the fall of 2014 author Andrew Lawler lectured in the Twin Cities to promote “Why Did The Chicken Cross The World?”  While a few of my friends attended this lecture I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to go due to a conflict.  But I was excited about the approaching December publication date.  I’d been waiting for a book that dealt with the history of chickens, since before this book there was no single book that dealt with the domestication of chickens, their spread throughout the world, their impact on civilization, and civilization’s impact on them.  You can be sure that this book was at the top of my Christmas list in 2014.  You can also be sure that I started reading the book on Christmas Day.  It not only lived up to my expectations but I continue to pull it off the bookshelf frequently as a reference to all things chicken. 

Andrew Lawler has been writing for thirty years on topics as diverse as space, politics, and archeology for publications ranging from The Futurist to Science Magazine.  He has written extensively on Middle-Eastern archeology, and when he heard that archeologists working on a beach on the Arabian Peninsula had discovered evidence that Indian-Arabian trade routes across the Indian Ocean existed as early as 4000 years ago, he pitched the idea for an article to a magazine.  When he mentioned to the magazine editor that the various items the archeology team had excavated from their dig site at the beach included an apparent chicken bone, the editor was intrigued.  That, he felt, was the story.  Chickens were first domesticated in Asia, so was this an indicator of the one of the earliest movements of chickens to other cultures?  Lawler did some research on the domestication of the chicken and its movement around the world, then flew to Oman to meet with the team of archeologists.  “The chicken bone?” the dig director told him, “Oh…We think it was misidentified. It probably came from one of our workmen’s lunches.”

But by this point, Lawler had become captivated by the history of the chicken and aware of the dearth of information on the subject.  Archeologists, anthropologists and historians tend to focus major attention on big animals—horses, oxen, and swine have all had their research and publications.  Chickens, not so much.  The ubiquitous domestic chicken has been taken for granted.  And Andrew Lawler has done much to rectify the situation by writing this book.

Having discovered his topic, Lawler writes like a kid in a candy store, rushing from one compelling chicken related topic to the next.  He discusses the wild jungle fowl of Asia and its role as the progenitor of the domestic chicken, then segues into the chicken’s place in ancient societies and the movement of the fowl across the Pacific.  Then he momentarily touches on cockfighting in the Philippines before shifting gears to talk about the popularity of domestic chicken keeping in Victorian England and the advent of poultry science there.  From there he moves to Charles Darwin’s research into the taxonomy of chickens and how it influenced his thinking on evolution before finally settling down in the last third of his book for a discussion of the industrialization of chicken husbandry and the huge impact that has had on both humans and chickens. 

Today over twenty billion chickens inhabit our planet at any given moment–three for every human.  Most of them live in dismal, overcrowded, anonymous buildings at the edge of human population centers.  Modern chickens are identified by “model numbers” rather than breed names, are overbred into grotesque monsters in order to promote rapid growth and ungainly meaty breast muscles, are fed a constant diet of vitamins and antibiotics and are kept in tiny indoor spaces until the day they are slaughtered. Then their bodies are often turned into anatomically unidentifiable bits of meat nuggets that are sold to the consumer.  “You don’t have to be vegan to wonder if it is right to put another entire species in perpetual pain in order to satisfy a craving for chicken salad and deviled eggs,” Lawler asserts.  After visiting large scale chicken operations in Delaware, Lawler drives south to Virginia to a “chicken rescue” operation run by an animal rights activist named Karen Davis.  Her back yard is filled with the wretched refuse of the modern chicken industry—rescued factory chickens with their grotesque breast muscles and commercial egg-lying hens with the ends of their beaks cut off to prevent them from pecking each other in their confined battery cages who are now trying pathetically to spear worms with their amputated beaks.  “Chickens are doomed,” Davis says, “It is the doom of proliferation, not extinction.  I think it is a doom worse than extinction.  I think chickens are in hell and are not going to get out.  They are already in hell and there are just going to be more of them.”

Finally, Lawler visits Joyce Farms in North Carolina.  Like a growing number of farmers, Ron Joyce is proving that chicken farming can still be both humane and economically viable.  Smaller flocks, better feed, and a longer growing time means that Joyce Farms chickens sell for twice the price of a factory farm raised bird, but they are chickens that consumers can enjoy for their markedly better flavor and can eat with a clear conscience. 

While I value this book for the story it tells about the domestication and dispersal of chickens, I also appreciate it for telling the story of the sins of modern industrial chicken farming.  Telling the story, ultimately, will be the best way to get the poultry industry to change.  As the humane chicken farmer, Ron Joyce, points out, “People vote with their pocket books.”  It is consumer apathy more than corporate greed that is fueling this modern poultry travesty.  As more people begin to learn that cheap chicken and cheap eggs come at a price, then it will be these very consumers who will institute a change.

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