The Gestapo of the Human Spirit
By Karen Davis, PhD, founder & President, United Poultry Concerns
This article appears in the February 2006 issue of SATYA magazine – The Chicken Issue (www.satyamag.com)
Despite opposition by many, I believe that significant parallels can be drawn between the institutionalized abuse of human beings and the institutionalized abuse of nonhuman animals, and that there are lessons to be learned by viewing each of these evils through the bleak lens of the other. I believe there are similarities between the mentality of the Third Reich and the mentality of "food" animal production and that the terrains of hidden suffering are not occupied by human victims alone. I am not alone in my thinking.
In his essay "At the Gates of Hell," in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Maxwell Schnurer explains how his initial discomfort, as a Jew, with placing the animal rights movement "in the shadow of the Holocaust" was revised to the point where he would subsequently write sympathetically about animal liberators and their affinity with Holocaust resistance fighters. What convinced Schnurer of the validity of comparing the atrocities was his trip to Krakow, Poland, in October 2002, where he visited the concentration camps and death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. At Birkenau, especially, an awareness emerged of which he writes:
What I could see at Birkenau were the artifacts of a system of destruction that was massive in scale. I had never realized the size of the infrastructure that was needed to control, enslave, and exterminate that many people. There were hundreds of barracks covering square miles of ground fanning out from my gaze, with nothing but desolate wind between them. Long views of barracks juxtaposed against barbed wire were my only guides as I walked across the concentration camp. At the far end of the camp were the remains of the gas chambers and incinerators. These gas chambers were far away from the public – with a wide zone of exclusion around these two death camps, citizens would never be exposed to the horrors of the camps unless they worked there or were entering to be killed. At this point I began to think about the geographical position of slaughterhouses in America. Kept far away from the public view, the institutions of slaughter in America are equally massive and hidden from sight.
However, sometimes one gets a glimpse of these places. As you drive down Route 13 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland into Virginia, as I frequently do, you pass two gigantic chicken slaughter plant operations on your right: first the Tyson processing complex, followed several miles down the road by the Perdue processing plant. Each of these plants sits discreetly back from the highway with a corporate-window front facing the road and a neutral corporate sign posted in the lawn leading up to the complex. Each is flanked by other buildings and a big, car-filled parking lot. All day long, trucks carrying thousands of baby chickens, packed visibly in crates and cages stacked high on the flatbeds, lumber up and down Route 13, turn into these complexes, drive back out with rickety empty containers, and return with a fresh heaving load of victims. One morning I stood outside the Perdue plant along the highway, and happening to look down at my feet I saw, beaten into the dirt, hundreds of little chicken faces, small decapitated heads and impressions of previous little faces that must have toppled out of the dump trucks as the driver turned the corner to bear these waste objects off to a landfill or rendering plant somewhere.
On a late February afternoon, on impulse, I swerve off Route 13 onto the road leading into the Tyson complex, pass the turnstile, and sit in my car with the windows up, gazing at the scene around back. It is an ugly, dirty, desolate sight, the Gestapo of the human spirit engraved on the landscape. A truckload of chickens sits alone on the dock next to the building where the people inside will kill them, and it will not be a humane death. Apart from some scuttling rubbish and a few seagulls here and there, nothing from where I sit appears to move. The chickens appear silent and still, and no human beings are visible in this moment of understanding, for the umpteenth time, the presumption of being a witness with something to say about another soul’s experience of being in hell.
To conceive of a world such as this, in which indifference to animal suffering is as normal as apple pie, is to understand something of how the Nazis could have "happened" in Germany, how, at Birkenau, for example, with similar impassiveness, people could watch their human victims being gassed to death. "Gestapo men stood in a position which enabled them to watch in gas masks the death of the masses of victims," load the corpses (perhaps not all of them corpses yet) and take them outside Auschwitz "by means of huge shovels," bury the lot, and return for the next batch, as Richard Breitman writes in his book, Official Secrets.
Like the rise of animal factories out of traditional farming practices in the twentieth century, the Nazi Holocaust arose as an unprecedented event, yet also as one deeply rooted in age-old attitudes and practices of cruelty and abuse. And just as both events may be seen, in part, as outgrowths of the Depression of the 1930s – as government responses to the devastated national economies that prevailed between World War One and World War Two, brought on by the governments themselves – so both may be seen in part as expressions of the Western mania for mechanization and industrial technology extended into virtually every sphere of life, from the Chicago stockyards to Ford motor cars to Auschwitz, and beyond.
As the new year begins, I’ve been haunted by images and thoughts of human-inflicted suffering. I’m bedeviled by the black holes that open up briefly on TV, of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, executions by lethal injection, live birds being tied up in plastic bags and buried alive to "save" us from terror, crime, the flu – conditions that we, through our practices and policies, have by and large created. At such times, I do not feel comfort and joy; I do not feel "safe." As always, I wonder whether there will ever be peace on earth, and whether as the poet Matthew Arnold pondered, there really is, beneath our illusions, a joy whose grounds are true. I wonder whether, as a species, we truly are evolving, or have we, in the words of an old show tune, "gone about as far as we can go"? Presumably the labor of animal, earth, and human rights activists will help us find out.
United Poultry Concerns promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. This article is derived from Karen Davis’ book The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. To order send check or money order to: United Poultry Concerns, PO Box 150, Machipongo, VA 23405, or order online at www.upc-online.org. $20 includes shipping.