Earlier this year, Researcher Network member, Catherine Oliver discussed her vegan-related research in the area of history, feminism and friendship in Part 1 of a special three-part series. Last month, she continued this exploration within the context of present-day veganism in Part 2: Vegan presents; or embodied truth and contemporary veganism. In this final Part 3, she considers how veganism is a future-orientated belief and practice that aims to establish less violent spaces and relationships for humans and animals.
In my PhD thesis,I argue that veganism is a future-oriented belief and practice that has, since its inception, been imagined and practiced as an aim towards establishing less violent spaces and relationships for humans and animals. When interviewing British vegans for this research, it quickly became clear that for many of them, after becoming vegan, they were no longer able to find non-violent and non-exploitative multispecies spaces. Zoos, petting farms, aquariums, non-vegan sanctuaries and pet ownership become contested spaces of human-animal encounter that are also inherently spaces of animal exploitation. When people become vegan, they also refuse to enter these spaces and renegotiate their feelings towards the human-animal interactions occurring there. For those vegans who live in rural settings, the animals they meet are often destined for an untimely death. Highly sanitised urban areas and commutes remove the possibility of encounter with ‘wild’ animals. As such, it is easy for vegans to lose contact and relationships with actual animals, even as they imagine themselves as closer and more understanding of animals. Throughout my archival and interview research (mentioned in my last two pieces on The Vegan Society’s Research News blog), I was certainly distanced from my companion animals who live with my parents 100 miles away from me.
In 2017, six battery hens who were being moved from where they had been bred to a hen-laying farm came to live at my parents’ house. Lacey, Bluebell, Winnie, Olive, Cleo and Primrose came to live at my parents’ home in Lancashire, and unwittingly became part of a multispecies ethnography, where I documented our meeting, relationship, and the changing space as we lived together. At first, the hens were nervous of their new surroundings, having never been outside of a barn before. They arrived to live in their own space: a coop, a wire run, and access to a large gravelled and grassy area that was protected by chicken wire for daylight hours, when someone was around to ensure predator buzzards or foxes wouldn’t approach.
In her book The Chicken Chronicles (2013), American black feminist novelist, poet and activist Alice Walker wrote on beginning to live with chickens: “who knew what would happen next? Who could guess? That I would fall headlong into a mystery. That I would find myself pulled into the parallel universe all other animals exist in”. Similarly, I fell into a mysterious chicken-world. These strange creatures soon transformed my perspective on animals, disrupting my vegan reality of centring the ‘end of pain’ with the urgent realisation that these alternative worlds of less violence must be practiced already. Alongside any veganism, there must not only be a refusal, but also a rebuilding of multispecies space (see Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, 2015: Farmed animal sanctuaries: The heart of the movement), something that is often hard to foreground within the disturbing violent worlds of eating animals, especially for those of us living primarily in cities who rarely enter into sustained relationships with animals, especially food animals. In my field diary, I wrote of their past:
Chickens are awkward creatures, especially chickens like these, bred to grow fast and large for daily egg production. I pass the barns they were raised in when I take Charlie for a walk. I’ve seen them full and I’ve seen them empty. I don’t know what the cycle of chicks being raised is and I’m not sure that I want to. There are ten barns, maybe 100m long, maybe 200. I can’t really bear to look and anyway, I should be looking at the road. Each barn must have thousands of chicks in there for the first six months of their lives. Then these thousands of hens will be moved on to their next cage, their next life, their next death. Every day must be a death in this place: potentiality and possibility destroyed in the denial of the beyond, in the destruction of the future. The grief is overwhelming every time I think about the suffering now, then, here and there.
When I began living with chickens, by becoming closer to animals and seeking less violent interspecies relationships, my research became concerned with what worlds we are leaving behind and more with the future, and how we might transform these worlds through practicing new human-animal relationships as part of our veganism. It matters, then, that the relationships I focussed on were with six chickens, because societally and politically, chickens are not usually valued or cared for in life. Although being in the presence of chickens demanded that I be in the present, paying attention to their movements, affections and communications, there was always a pull towards the future, of what was possible. Being present with chickens traversed the past (of trauma) and future (of care). Simultaneously, those abstracted questions that many of us who have changed our relationships with animals by becoming vegan have, and which I reflected on in my field diary:
What does the world look like for someone else? What if that someone else is not a human, but a chicken? To share a bed of shavings with five others, bundled close together? To lay an egg every day, or thereabouts, then to have the egg taken away to an unknown elsewhere, never to be seen again? When I first started living with chickens, a friend gave me a book, ‘The Hen who Dreamed She Could Fly’ (Sun-Mi Hwang, 2013). Sprout, the hen, refuses to lay eggs that continue to disappear to she doesn’t know where and plans to escape, hatch an egg and raise her child. Sprout watches the ducks outside who fly and raise their young: the freedoms Sprout desires. But her coop was built on a slant, so that every day her egg rolled past a barrier out of reach. How far can we imagine the lives of chickens? When I bent over in the yard today, a chicken found her way onto my back (did she jump or was she lifted?). Now, bent to the ground, I am stuck at this angle until she decides to leave. I glance around. Rarely is my head a foot off the floor, but I can see now that I am closer to the remnants of corn, lettuce and mealworms invisible to humans. The gravel doesn’t look as uneven either. And, is that a hole in the chicken wire that I – I mean they – could escape through?
In the UK, backyard hen keeping is on the rise. Is it possible that others will also experience this mystery that is the human-chicken bond? In our distance from non-violent shared spaces with animals, people have lost their capacity to know, and thus care about, the animals who are being eaten. The rise of urban hen-keeping has the potential to reshape urban imaginaries (Blecha and Leitner, 2014) through renegotiations of everyday performances that disrupt industrial food systems, economies and social life. Hen-keeping foregrounds human-animal sociability, and has the potential to resist the agricultural industrial complex and disrupt the anthropocentric spaces. 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 of eating animals. Where chickens are distanced from humans in life and physically removed from human dwellings, the rise of hen keeping could hold promise in disrupting violent constructions of chickens that hold them at a distance, and value them only in death.