Out in the country, the prospect of a chicken’s demise arouses little concern. Chicken mortality is commonplace, often brought about by ghastly means. Raccoons invade our chicken coup, leaving a wreckage of beheaded birds. Owls, hawks and even our own supposedly civilized dogs have committed barbaric acts upon these defenseless creatures. I must include myself in the roster of shame. I am known as “Chicken George” for my ability to devour vast quantities of fried chicken. But this sordid business is accepted as part of nature among us simple rural types.
The response was much livelier in Lawrence when an artist proposed “The Story of Chickens: A Revolution.” The idea was to display five chickens, slaughter them in public and feature them in a potluck dinner as a conscience-raising piece of performance art to “generate dialogue.” This premise provoked a collision between the ideals of “free expression” and animal rights. The exquisite sensibilities of earnest Lawrencians were on full display. Anguishing on behalf of the chickens, but careful not to step on the toes of artists, they fell all over one another with effusions of mutual respect.
A spokesperson for Lawrence’s Compassion for All Animals expressed fears that the chickens would be “stressed” by the experience, surely an understatement considering the grisly fate awaiting them. The director of the Spencer Museum of Art stood up for the artist and the importance of “innovative, conversation-driving works,” while recognizing the conundrums of food production. “These are very complex, contemporary issues,” she said. Lawrence’s children were not so temperate. According to reports, the idea of murdering chicken fomented anguish and outrage among the young. Communicating with the aid of Facebook, they issued a call to arms. It was a kind of “Arab Spring” awakening, focused on poultry rights.
One of the artist’s ideas was to familiarize people with the realities of the life cycle of chickens. But the problem was that the proposal personalized the five birds. They were no longer anonymous aggregations of feather-covered meat, but individuals with dignity and rights. Instantly, they achieved heroic status — “The Lawrence Five,” or the “Condemned of Larrytown.” For precisely this reason, we never name the chickens we intend to eat.
I must say that I never thought of my chicken-raising activities as potential “art.” But then, the boundaries of art have been expanded in our times to include a crucifix submerged in urine, a canvas covered with elephant dung, and an artist’s body smeared with chocolate pudding. A relevant art work displayed live goldfish in blenders which viewers were invited to turn on. A court ruled that the fish were not treated inhumanely as they were killed “instantly,” converted into goldfish puree.
It may also be relevant to consider that Tyson and Purdue practice chicken art on a staggering scale every day. Then again, the whole local story may be a hoax. I’ve often wondered if there’s not a shadowy Lawrence city official who dreams up this sort of thing — Breast Awareness Month, The Artificial Turf Scandal — just to get a rise out of the abnormally excitable citizens of Lawrence.
A city attorney has informed the artist that the proposed chicken slaughter would violate the city’s animal cruelty code. The artist plans to go forward with the project, with no live chickens. But will this mollify Lawrence’s children, preventing the formation of an “Occupy Barnyards” army and a march on City Hall? And do the children realize that a crusade for chickens might mean no more golden brown, honey-mustard dipped chicken nuggets?
I plan to lie low until the tempest blows over. But I wish to go on record that I have never sent a chicken into the wilderness to atone for my sins, or sacrificed one for religious purposes or practiced divination on chicken entrails, or sponsored any form of cockfighting, with or without wagers. I openly admit that fried chicken is my favorite dish. The “conversations” at our chicken dinners sound more like the growling and grunting of jackals and hyenas than high-minded dialogue. The Compassion for All Animals spokesperson suggested a vegan potluck using pictures of live chickens as a substitute for “The Story of Chickens” feast. Will a sack of 16 percent layer crumbles be on the menu? I respectfully decline to attend.
— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.