Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations
Feet…feet are on my mind. In a moment we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty, but for now, let’s just think about what our feet mean to us Homo sapiens.
We love ‘em. They carry us through life, take us to amazing places, enable us to dance. We adorn them, tattoo them, encase them in the ridiculous, the sublime, the magical. Even when we have nothing else, we find a way to protect them. When all you have are plastic bottles, everything looks like a sandal.
We hate ’em. They ache, they blister. Plantar warts, fallen arches, bunions, corns, Morton’s toe, pigeon toes. There’s a world of hurt in those 26 bones, 33 joints, and 100 ligaments–times two. Aye, there’s the rub: these relatively small platforms support up to two times our (sometimes considerable) weight on a leisurely stroll and up to five times our weight when we break into a run. The agony of de feet is more than clever wordplay. “My feet are killing me”–have you ever said that?!?
“Four legs good, two legs bad” I remind my canine companion as she bounds across the icy driveway or down a steep slope–while here’s me, creeping and tottering, visions of casts and crutches just one misstep away. Feets, don’t fail me now! From foot-washing in the Bible (19 mentions) to foot-binding in China, feet are a human obsession. It’s a safe bet that animals don’t obsess about or even think about their feet the way human animals do. But their feet carry them through life, too–however natural and satisfying or short and tormented those lives might be.
It was a photo–a pile of chicken feet in a slaughterhouse–that prompted an instantaneous, automatic association–the piles of shoes at Nazi death camps. It created an agitation that has lasted for days. Chicken feet–$400/U.S. per metric ton, “no broken bones, no bad smell.”
No bad smell. I think about the accounts I’ve read of conditions in factory farms where “broiler” chicks are raised for meat.
“I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe….There must have been thirty thousand chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn’t move, didn’t cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way.” —Michael Specter, New Yorker, April 14, 2003.
“I have seen the chickens blinded by the ammonia fumes that build up in the houses. I have had the ammonia burns on my arms from handling the chickens that were coated with ammonia. My exposure lasted only for a night’s work before I could wash it off. The chickens had to live that way.” Former factory farm employee, UPC newsletter
For the 42-45 days they are required to live and suffer before they end up in buckets, nuggets, Buffalo sauce and franks, broiler chicks stand in their own waste. Blinded by fumes and suffering respiratory ailments, they are also scalded by ammonia on body and feet.
Yankee ingenuity being what it is, though, burns on feet don’t need to cut into profits: “By removing blemishes on the paws caused by ammonia buildup, this new, value-enhancing trimming application creates an important opportunity for optimizing profits on an otherwise basic, low-margin product.”
Despair–I feel despair. Not for the chicks whose suffering has ended, not even so much for the hundreds of millions already taking their place, but for my own species. Despair that Homo sapiens–whose precious feet carry us through life and into the sun–can’t conceive, won’t acknowledge, or (the horror!) simply don’t care that our fellow sentient animals, given the choice, would also choose walking in the sun over standing immobile in caustic ammonia for the entire span of their painful, unnatural lives. Rather than tearing down the factory farms and ending the suffering, we find a way to remove the “blemishes” of suffering and optimize profits. Where, oh where is our humanity?
Go ahead, view the 49-second video, then tell me you don’t feel like you’ve peered into the heart of darkness.