Animal Rights

Should Farm Animals Be Genetically Modified to Remove Their Capacity to Feel Pain?

Creating a "brainless chicken" opens up serious ethical questions.

Photo Credit: Oleksandr Lytvynenko/Shutterstock

On March 6, 2018, the University of Oxford announced that a student named Jonathan Latimer was awarded a prize in Practical Ethics for his essay, "Why We Should Genetically 'Disenhance' Animals Used in Factory Farms." Describing disenhancement as "a genetic modification that removes an animal's capacity to feel pain," Latimer defends the process by arguing that "disenhancement will significantly increase the quality of life for animals in factory farms."

Chickens, in particular, have been singled out for various forms of disenhancement over the years. In the early 1990s, engineer Robert Burruss predicted in "The Future of Eggs" in The Baltimore Sun that the future of chicken and egg production would come to resemble "industrial-scale versions of the heart-lung machines that brain-dead human beings need a court order to get unplugged from." He envisioned this future through the lens of industrialized chickens' "bleak lives.”

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Chick being debeaked. (image: United Poultry Concerns)

In 1981, James V. Craig, a poultry researcher, dismissed what he called the "emotion-laden word 'mutilation'" to describe "husbandry practices such as removing a portion of a hen's beak." Removal of certain bodily structures, although causing temporary pain to individuals, he wrote, "can be of much benefit to the welfare of the group"—the "group" in question being hens in battery-cages with no outlet for their natural pecking activities. (Domestic Animal Behavior, pp. 243-244)

Agribusiness philosopher Paul Thompson airily opined that if blind chickens "don't mind" being crowded together as much as chickens who can see, it would "improve animal welfare" to breed blind chickens. (Paul B. Thompson, "Welfare as an Ethical Issue: Are Blind Chickens the Answer?" in Bioethics Symposium, USDA, Jan. 23, 2007)

Likewise, a breeder of featherless chickens claimed "welfare" advantages for naked chickens on factory farms, even though feathers protect the birds' delicate skin from injuries and infections, which is all the more necessary in environments that are thick with pollution and fecal-soaked floors. Even de-winging has been defended as a "welfare" measure if winglessness would give hens more space in their cages. (In reality, more space in the cages would simply mean more hens per cage, and experimental removal of wings in chickens and turkeys has revealed that when the birds fall over, they cannot get back up without their wings for balance.)

White hens intree. (UPC sanctuary photo by Susan Rayfield)

Which brings us to the case for genetically desensitizing chickens. What if the elements of memory, sensation and emotion could be expunged, and a brainless chicken constructed? Asked if he would consider it ethical to engineer not only a wingless bird but a "brainless bird," philosopher Peter Singer said he would consider it "an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling."

But would it? In the U.K., an architecture student named Andre Ford proposed what he called the "Headless Chicken Solution." Removal of the chicken's cerebral cortex, he said, would inhibit the bird's sensory perceptions so that chickens could be mass-produced unaware of themselves or their situation. Like Singer, Ford equates removing the chicken's brain with the "removal of suffering."

I reject the idea that destroying an animal's ability to experience pain or other forms of consciousness in order to fit the animal into an abusive system is an ethical solution to the suffering engendered by that system. For one thing, suffering involves more than the ability to feel pain. Suffering refers to a wound, injury, trauma or harm sustained by a sentient being, whether or not the harm is experienced as pain per se. For example, a brain concussion or a malignant tumor may not be consciously experienced until the disease has progressed.

To de-brain and otherwise amputate and obliterate parts of an animal's very self for the purpose of adapting the animal to a morally indefensible system, and then seek to justify the excision as a welfare benefit, represents an ultimate lack of respect for the victim of an enterprise that few would embrace if, instead of chickens or other nonhumans, the "beneficiaries" were human. A further point to consider is the likely survival of memory in the mutilated individual of who he or she was before the mutilation, similar to phantom limb pain.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks described the persistence of what he called "emotional memory" in people suffering from amnesia who have lost their ability to connect and recall the daily events of their contemporary lives, but who nevertheless retain "deep emotional memories or associations ... in the limbic system and other regions of the brain where memories are represented."

Hens on the run. (UPC sanctuary photo by Davida G. Breier)

The consciousness of other animals including birds is similarly rooted in and shaped by emotional memory. Birds possess regions of the brain that give rise to experience in much the same way as the human cerebral cortex. Scientists cite neurological evidence that the amputated stump of a debeaked bird retains a "memory" of the missing beak part even after healing has occurred. They cite the persistence of "ancestral memories" in factory-farmed chickens who, though they have never felt the ground under their feet before, show the same drive, given the chance, to forage in the soil that motivates their jungle-fowl relatives. [For more on this, see the book Through Our Eyes Only?: The Search for Animal Consciousness]

Perhaps these deeply-structured memory formations and ineffable networks of knowledge in a factory-farmed chicken give rise to "phantom limbic memories"—to subjective, embodied experiences in which even dismembered and mutilated body parts awaken a distant memory of who he or she really is, or was. If this is true, are such memories of essential identity experienced as a compensation or a curse? We've become accustomed, through the environmental movement, to think of species extinction as the worst fate that can befall a sentient organism. However, the ceaseless proliferation of selves in hell, forever unable to stop being born, is, in a way, worse.

The poultry industry boasts that the "technology built into buildings and equipment is embodied genetically into the chicken itself." Taking this embodiment to the ultimate extreme of destroying the very being of a bird for "better welfare," and linking the destruction with "significantly increased quality of life," accords with the agribusiness view of animals as mere raw material to be manipulated at will. Disenhancement will never eliminate the suffering of chickens or reduce our relentless mistreatment of them. A whole different approach to our fellow creatures is required to stop the injustice and take away the pain.

 

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Karen Davis is the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities.