Recently my hometown of Lawrence, KS found itself in the midst of a battle over whether five chickens should be slaughtered for an art project to take place in the city. The project, by Amber Hansen, entitled “The Story of Chickens – A Revolution,” was to consist of a traveling chicken coop containing five heritage chickens that would be set up at various places in Lawrence. Townspeople would interact with and care for the chickens, and at the end of the project the chickens were to be publicly slaughtered and served at a potluck the next day.
The purpose of the project was, admittedly, a good one. Hansen wished to address the disappearance of the small farm and the disconnection most people have from the animals they eat. She wanted to “transform the contemporary view of chickens as merely “livestock” to the beautiful and unique creatures they are, while promoting alternative and healthy processes of caring for them.” The project hoped to allow the citizens of Lawrence to “visualize an urban landscape that is accommodating and accepting of the presence of animals.”
The project created a large amount of discussion with thoughtful people both advocating for, and opposing it (interspersed with a good number of people making snide comments). Those who advocated for it, including some who are very concerned about animal welfare, felt that the message was necessary and that people should, indeed, connect with the meat they choose to eat. Those opposed felt that there is no need, and no excuse, to kill living sentient beings in order to present a message. Various comments regarding the project can be seen here.
“Art projects” involving the death of animals have taken place in the past – see here, here, and here for a few examples. While these types of projects are often, though not always, the work of independent “artists” working on their own, Hansen’s project is funded by Rocket Grants, a program administered by the Charlotte Street Foundation and the University of Kansas’ Spencer Art Museum and, in turn, funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts. With such backing, the project had the acceptance of an established art community and could have created a dangerous standard for such work in the future.
Luckily for the animal world, the project instead worked to created a different precedent for such projects when the city of Lawrence informed Hansen that if she slaughtered the animals within city limits she would be guilty of animal cruelty under the city code. Among other things, the city code (Chapter 3) defines animal cruelty as willfully killing domesticated animals except in certain situations, “art” not being one. Lawrence’s Assistant City Attorney Chad Sublet stated that while freedom of expression was involved, he felt that under “our obligations to protect the health, safety and public welfare it is an activity we can regulate.” Sublet was also variously quoted as stating that animal cruelty is a “significant public interest,” and a “great interest.” Hansen does not plan to challenge the city’s interpretation, so we will not see at this time how a court would balance the public interest and the free speech issues involved, but it is heartening to see a city interpreting its need to protect animals as a significant interest.
Hansen has stated that she will comply with city regulations and will change her project so as to avoid the live chickens and slaughter. Instead, the empty coop will be shown and the project will involve community artwork and local chefs will prepare a meal. Speakers who have raised chickens will present and there will be an open discussion.
Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns, which, along with Animal Outreach of Kansas, advocated strongly against the project, hopes that this outcome will embolden national and local art galleries to establish a policy of “no animals in art.” If this does not happen, then hopefully Lawrence’s interpretation of its animal cruelty code can offer support for other communities faced with such projects to stand up for the right of living beings to not be killed in the name of “art.”