Does ‘Headless’ Chicken Breeding Eliminate Issues of Animal Cruelty?



There’s a plan going around farming circles to breed ‘headless’ chickens.
The idea is to remove the cerebral cortex of the chicken while keeping the body alive through an arterial system that pumps food, water, and oxygen through the ‘living meat’ and pumps waste directly out of its digestive tract. The brain stem of the chicken is left intact to continue to regulate the metabolic systems involved in muscle growth, but the chicken is blind, unconscious, and has no sensory perceptions.

The chickens are oblivious to their surroundings and feel no pain. Unnecessary body parts like beaks and feet and wing tips can be trimmed off to save on space, and the birds can be densely packed and stacked like firewood. The ‘farms’ would make good neighbors even in urban and suburban areas because the chickens are completely silent, sanitary, and odor-free with all of the messy in- and outflows contained in tubes and tanks.

Is it humane to farm the unconscious?
Consider the current state of animal welfare.
Billions of chickens—fully 99% of the 7+ billion raised each year in this country—are currently living the entirety of their miserable lives in confinement. They’re crammed together in filthy sheds and cages where hundreds of millions of them have broken limbs and can die from stress and dehydration, unable to reach the water nozzles, and another hundred million are deemed unfit for meat and are tossed into bags to suffocate or ground up alive.

These are social animals with the intelligence of cats, dogs, and even some primates. Yet there are no federal regulations governing chicken welfare, and except for cockfighting prohibitions, they’re ignored by most states. Chickens are even excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act that protects every other land animal.

Is ‘headless’ chicken production an act of humanity?
The blind, footless, lobotomized chickens are no longer sentient beings. They’re merely an agricultural crop like vegetables that we ready for harvest. Proponents argue that removing the chickens’ higher cognitive abilities is a kindness in an agricultural system that currently disregards them.

The Chicken Matrix?
There are obvious comparisons to The Matrix. In the movie, humans are kept alive in power plants where their brains are plugged into a simulated reality while their bodies are being harvested for bioelectrical energy to power the machines that dominate the Earth. A few rebels are given a choice: a blue pill allows them to stay in the safety and comfort of the simulation while a red pill releases their brains into the harsh, post-apocalyptic reality of the physical world. The hero Neo opts to live and die authentically, but the choice is not so clear-cut. The rebel Cypher regrets the trade-off telling the leader Morpheus: If you’d told us the truth, we would’ve told you to shove that red pill right up your ass. 

While chickens might not suffer from the existential crises of free will, they also don’t exist in a world of red and blue pills. We don’t provide adequate welfare for agricultural animals, but it doesn’t mean we can’t. Ignorance for chickens might be more blissful than the current horrors of factory farming, but it’s not a kindness.

Our dominion over animals means we bear a responsibility to care for them humanely. It means stewardship, not exploitation. ‘Headless’ chicken production tries to circumvent that responsibility by rendering compassion irrelevant to the process. In doing so, it diminishes our humanity.


4 Responses to Does ‘Headless’ Chicken Breeding Eliminate Issues of Animal Cruelty?

  1. Janice says:

    Metrics? Empirical evidence? You forget that we’re masters at rationalization. I think ultimately the emotional appeals will win, especially if there is the added persuasion of some self interest (health or high prices or safety should do it).

    Add me to the subscriber list when the blog is launched. Until then, free to commandeer all you want.


  2. BG Sharpe says:

    Janice- I agree completely. But, (oh yeah, there’s always a but!) while such dilemmas might seem to require practical compromises to appease the ignorant for the short or long-term; I believe that delivering real metrics and empirical evidence of factory farming and health concerns will help encourage more epiphanies than simply mitigating suffering. Perhaps headless chickens could be an interim step on the road to animal freedom, but it would only exacerbate the issue of human hubris. There’s barely enough time in life to gather data and report the root of this issue…let alone to pursue compromise. I applaud you for creating dialogue though and your blog is a great vehicle for such truths. So… I should probably have my own instead of commandeering yours! 🙂

  3. Janice says:

    I agree that it none of this gets at the real issues of meat-eating. With headless chickens, some of the environmental impacts are diminished by the containment of waste and wastewater, but they’re still using land and food resources inefficiently when grain is used to create animal protein, and there’s still a lot of greenhouse gases produced. While it might be better for our health and the health of the planet if we gave up meat production entirely, that isn’t realistically in our near futures. Until that day arrives, animal welfare, to me, is at the heart of the matter.

    I do love your organ-harvesting analogy, one that hadn’t occurred to me while writing this. Obviously the ‘higher species’ thing is especially troubling, but I hate to see it extended to arguments against stem cell and abortion. No easy answers.

  4. BG Sharpe says:

    The definition of “humane” in this context appears to ignore the premise and assume inevitability. If I asked whether the same procedure should apply to growing anencephalic human babies as organ and tissue donors, most people would be repulsed. Why? The children are unaware and not in pain, right? They’re sustainable and easily replaced, right? The end justifies the means…thousands die daily awaiting organs, right? Oh… so this would deprive a being of their natural right to exist and flourish? And helpless animals don’t have the same natural,(God-given?)rights as humans? The only real flaw in this analogy is not the priority of species, but rather the utility. The humane and healthy alternative here is to avoid animal fat and protein in our diet altogether. See “Forks Over Knives” first before dismissing this. If we can agrees that it is ethical for a sick child to wait for an organ donor, then it is easily more ethical to avoid something with no real necessity.

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