Credit: Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

June 18, 2020   6 mins

Shortly after lockdown began, my husband announced he’d ordered an egg incubator and some fertilised chicken eggs to hatch. I was not at all convinced I wanted backyard chickens. But by the time two chicks emerged from their shells, like tiny wobbly dinosaurs, I was enthralled by their strangeness and the miracle of hatching.

Chickens are not particularly intelligent or expressive creatures. But Sunny and Flowery, as our three-year-old daughter named them, were surprisingly characterful nonetheless. Sunny: bold and friendly. Flowery: daft and a worrier, with one crooked toe, making loud distress calls the moment Sunny was out of eyeshot. Our daughter loved them, quickly learning to handle them gently and help look after them. For an only child, deprived of playmates by lockdown, they were desperately-needed friends.

They soon outgrew their brooder box, and we built them a large wire coop outside, taking care to secure it against foxes. We got used to the sound of cheeping on the back patio. Our daughter would play in the coop for an hour at a time, chatting to the chicks and laughing merrily as they gave themselves dust baths.

Then disaster struck. We went out for ‘chick check’ after tea to find a section of the wire pulled away from the frame, and no chicks. It turns out a hungry fox is stronger than you might think, and despite what we thought were thorough fox-proofing measures, we had failed to protect them. All that was left of Sunny and Flowery was a few grey feathers.

It felt like the heart was gone from our garden. The household mourned, and no one more than our daughter. She’d poured heart and soul into being ‘chicken mummy’, and losing them both so abruptly was devastating.

It also prompted an agonised debate between her parents. When she saw the hole in the fence our daughter said: “Maybe Sunny and Flowery escaped and went to visit their cousins?” We wondered: should we let her carry on believing this comforting, anthropomorphised lie? Or tell her the truth, that a predator broke into the chicken run and ate her pets?

Mulling this over, it struck me that our prevailing culture is methodical about hiding the real-world relation between predators and prey from small children. From birth onwards, products and media aimed at babies and children are covered in cute, anthropomorphised animals – all wholly divorced from any reference to their nature.

By this I don’t mean nursery books should contain scientific lectures about animal behaviour. But when I think of older folk tales with animal protagonists, their actions are generally rooted in some sense of what each type of animal might plausibly do.

In Aesop’s famous fable of the lion and the mouse, we know animals don’t really talk but both creatures are at least a bit lion-y and mouse-y in their behaviour. In The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer puts chivalric and literary allusions in the mouths (OK, beaks) of farmyard chickens, a comic absurdity. But anyone who’s ever met a rooster will recognise Chauntecleer’s mix of amour propre and foolishness, just as I (sadly) now recognise the wily determination of the hungry fox. Even the 1972 classic Watership Down is grounded in observation of rabbit behaviour. But this basic reference to animals’ nature is almost entirely missing from modern depictions of animals.

Contemporary retellings of the folk tale Henny Penny don’t end with the fox eating the birds. I’ve lost count of the preschool picture books I’ve read that depict species which in reality have a predator/prey relationship as friends. Whenever I see this part of me wants to stop reading and tell my daughter: “Of course, in real life this fox would chase this bunny and try to eat it.” Modern sensibilities retort: what kind of sociopath would say that to her pre-schooler at bedtime?

Similar examples on TV are legion, but the CBeebies animation ‘Hey Duggee’ serves to illustrate. The characters are all depicted as animals, but a crocodile is the same size as a mouse or a rhinoceros, and none of the characters’ personalities corresponds in any recognisable way to the animal they’re meant to be.

This matters, because children absorb stories as vital sources of knowledge about the world. And TV programmes in which a crocodile is waved off by his elephant mummy to attend playgroup with a mouse and an octopus do nothing to convey the truth that different animals have different natures. Or the fact that some animals, including humans, eat other animals. Instead, to spare our own squeamishness, we end up teaching our children a kind of wilful ignorance about animals’ relationship to one another, and about our own relationship to the natural world.

The livestock farmer John Lewis-Stempel wrote last week for UnHerd about humanely killing a terminally injured ewe, not realising the rest of the flock was watching. In the flock’s reaction to witnessing this, he experiences “a kaleidoscopic moment” of recognising that the flock was not just sentient but “composed of sub-groups based on friendship and family bonds.” The experience, he says, ended his “objectification of sheep”.

But, Lewis-Stempel says, while animals must not be objectified, it doesn’t follow that we should stop farming them. Rather, we should keep livestock in conditions that suit their nature, and accept humans’ role as both caretakers and respectful predators by slaughtering humanely toward the end of an animal’s natural life and eating ‘nose to tail’.

But this means accepting both that animals have natures, and also that humans are predators — facts we seem desperate to avoid imparting to our children. Instead, we condemn forms of animal cruelty asymmetrically, depending on what the cruelty implies about our relation to the suffering animals.

Compare public opposition to fox-hunting with the relative public indifference to factory farming. Both of these practices cause animals to suffer. But fox-hunting depends on a willingness to accept that humans are predators — and also that being a predator can be fun.

This is something we avert our gaze from in domestic cats, even as a sea of internet memes puts cutesy words in feline mouths. As for confronting the same blood-lust in humans, forget it. Never mind that a fox in a henhouse will carry on killing well beyond what it needs for food, the idea that it might be fun to chase a fox through the countryside on horseback implies something that horrifies modern sensibilities: that in fact, like the fox (or the cat currently purring on my knee), humans can enjoy hunting for pleasure as well as food.

In contrast, the industrial-scale cruelty of factory livestock farming is utilitarian, and founded in a willingness to treat livestock as things — a wholly different order of entity to us. We have no particular duty to take species-specific needs or behaviour into account, beyond the minimum needed for productivity.

And for the most part we shrug our shoulders at the fear, pain and misery this industry causes. According to Compassion in World Farming, 70% of livestock in the UK are kept indoors, in factory farming conditions — and this is with Britain’s vaunted high standards of farm animal welfare. In the less-regulated United States, it’s worse: if you’ve a strong stomach, this gives a sense of the situation for American livestock.

Paul Krause writes about the way utilitarian exploitation of the natural world has its roots in Francis Bacon’s vision of humanity as separate from and in opposition to nature:

As Bacon made clear, man would have to strip and unclothe the natural world, pin nature down and violate her, in order to learn nature’s innermost secrets, which would then inaugurate the “reign [and] empire of man.”

Krause argues that this antagonistic vision is central to our looming ecological crisis — an extractive relationship that sees humans as not on a continuum with plants and animals but as separate from and entitled to exploit and dominate them. This view seems both widespread and intractable. Campaigners can point out till they’re blue in the face how the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates that this is not sustainable, but to date this doesn’t seem to be having any impact on economic policy.

And many of the ‘save the earth’ campaigners are no better. They’ve just substituted a ‘saviour’ role for the ‘dominator’ one, while leaving unchallenged the belief in humans’ separateness and superiority, as well as the indifference to animals’ actual nature. Think of those activists who released thousands of mink from a Minnesota fur farm, whereupon they laid waste to local wildlife or simply starved.

On the surface, idealising animals to the point of ignoring their nature looks more empathetic than treating animals merely as ‘flesh robots’, in Lewis-Stempel’s phrase. But it’s still a way of refusing to see them as they are. It’s the cuddly version of the worldview that produces factory farming and ecological destruction on a planetary scale. We may wring our hands about human abuse of the natural world, but by raising our children to objectify animals — even sentimentally — we’re more or less guaranteeing that it continues.

So we decided to tell our daughter the truth: some animals eat other animals, foxes also have babies to feed, and that’s probably what happened to Sunny and Flowery. It’s a tough lesson for a pre-schooler, in a culture that feeds children battery-farmed chicken dippers while censoring any realistic depiction of carnivores in stories.

The experience has changed her. We were incubating a second clutch of eggs when the raid happened, and since they hatched — all six this time — I’ve noticed our daughter doesn’t treat them like she did Sunny and Flowery. While she’s still keen to help care for them, she’s less emotionally invested. Perhaps she’s still mourning her lost chicks. (I am, if I’m honest.) The new crowd seems less individual: six chicks is a little flock, which makes them harder to tell apart. In turn that makes it more difficult to project emotions onto them.

Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. If we’re to get out of this ecological mess, we need our kids to grow up understanding that animals are not just foils for our inner lives, or fuel for our economies. Rather, they have their own natures, and they are different to us. But not that different.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.