What One Rooster Taught Me About Anti-Speciesism
I thought I already knew everything as an activist — but Teddy was a wakeup call.
When I met Teddy, in February of 2018, I had already been vegan for three years, and a leader in Philadelphia’s grassroots animal rights movement. My organization, which grew from a small handful of members to over 200 in two years, was based on the principle of anti-speciesism: the ethical concept that it is immoral to exploit or harm animals just because they belong to a different species.
Anti-speciesism recognizes that, although there are differences between animal species, in the ways that matter, non-human animals are no different from humans. They have the ability to suffer, and therefore we have the moral imperative to reduce that suffering. This was the mindset that guided my activism, and I considered myself a pro at putting anti-speciesm into practice.
I led protests in grocery stores, declaring “It’s not meat, it’s violence!” to the shoppers in the Whole Foods butcher aisle. I took the Liberation Pledge, refusing to sit at tables where people were eating the bodies of animals (after all, I wouldn’t sit with someone eating a dog or a toddler). I organized vigils outside of slaughterhouses in the Philadelphia Italian Market, mourning the lives taken inside and counting their bodies as they came out. We stopped trucks and bore witness to the suffering. I even changed my language, saying things like, “I quit cold tofu!”
But it wasn’t until I met a rooster named Teddy that I realized just how much I still had to learn.
Teddy was rescued, along with a bunny named Ruby, from a slaughterhouse in the Italian Market during one of our monthly vigils. He was being kept in a cage so small he couldn’t stand up straight. Chickens were piled in so tightly that they didn’t have even an inch to move or turnaround, let alone spread their wings. The workers at the slaughterhouse would grab birds two at a time by their feet, holding them upside down while they cried out for help. Sometimes, if there was a large order to be filled, they would throw up to ten chickens straight into a garbage can and wheel the bin over to the kill floor.
We learned from the vet that Teddy had an infection that required antibiotics as well as severe damage to his feet because of the conditions in which he was kept. He had to have bandages on his feet for two weeks and receive daily doses of medication.
When we took Teddy out of there, I thought it was a one-way transaction: we were helping him. I had no idea how much he would teach me.
Roosters get a bad reputation
In our plan to rescue a chicken on Valentine’s Day of 2018, we had intended to grab a hen. Roosters, we were told, were too loud. They could be aggressive, and they were hard to find homes for. Luckily for Teddy, most of us had never really spent much time with chickens in real life, and the activist who picked him couldn’t tell the difference. To be fair, neither could the vet, who insisted he was female. A couple of weeks later, his morning crow proved them wrong.
He would lay beneath my desk while I worked, and even followed me straight into the shower a few times.
Rather than being the aggressive, mean bird we were led to expect, Teddy was social, sweet, and quickly became attached to me and my roommates. He followed me from room to room and always wanted to be where we were. He would lay beneath my desk while I worked, and even followed me straight into the shower a few times.
Teddy got along well in the other rescues in our house, including the bunny and two cats, and four rats. He would often stand in front of the rat cage and watch them scurry back and forth, trying to grab little bits of food they left behind. Teddy never tried to harm them.
Now, in his forever home at Chenoa Manor, a New Jersey farmed animal sanctuary, his sweet personality is still apparent. “He’s adapted so well to the flock,” said an assistant at Chenoa, “Doesn’t fight with any of the other roosters and gets along well with everyone. Still a very sweet and agreeable fellow.”
Chickens are unique individuals with their own personalities
Even though I had been telling people this for a long time in my vegan activism, actually befriending a chicken for the first time made it clear to me how truly unique each individual is. It can be hard for humans to relate to the personalities of chickens, fishes, and other farmed animals — especially those that aren’t mammals. Their faces, body language, and attitudes are very different from humans and the non-human companions we are used to, like dogs and cats. It takes time to learn how to interact with and get to know them, and most people don’t have that opportunity.
He ate vegan crabcake off of my fork and drank out of my water glass. He really knew how to make himself at home.
Teddy was sociable, curious, brave, goofy, and always hungry. He loved to hang out with me and my roommates for family dinner, including sitting on his own chair at the table and pecking away at his plate of veggies. He ate vegan crabcake off of my fork and drank out of my water glass. He really knew how to make himself at home.
For someone who had experienced immense violence and abuse at the hands of humans, Teddy was exceptionally resilient and brave.
He loved to explore, traversing every corner of our four-story South Philly row-home despite the bandages on his damaged feet. He loved to go outside on the deck and dig through my potted plants. He liked to jump and climb on everything.
After rescuing Teddy, we went on to rescue over 20 more chickens that year, and sadly I can say that not all chickens are able to overcome their trauma. One chicken I adopted, Angie (a former egg-laying hen), remained shy and scared her whole life after being rescued from a slaughterhouse. Her trust in humans was irreparably broken, and I was never able to really get through to her.
Teddy was different. Maybe it was because he was young when we rescued him, so he hadn’t had the years of abuse that egg-laying hens go through before they are sent to slaughter. Teddy was likely only a few months old when we met, and he seemed fearless. Despite being only moments away from death just days before, Teddy was ready to take on the world and make new friends. He loved to explore, traversing every corner of our four-story South Philly row-home despite the bandages on his damaged feet. He loved to go outside on the deck and dig through my potted plants. He liked to jump and climb on everything.
Chickens’ suffering is easily downplayed, even by vegans
I realized Teddy had changed my view on chickens the next time I went to the grocery store.
I imagined the feeling of holding him and running my fingers over the soft feathers that cover his chest. I couldn’t imagine someone ripping his body apart and eating him. The thought made me sick to my stomach.
While I had never felt comfortable in the meat aisle, for the first time I realized how disturbing the “chicken breasts” on sale truly were. I could picture exactly where these body parts would have come from on Teddy. I imagined the feeling of holding him and running my fingers over the soft feathers that cover his chest. I couldn’t imagine someone ripping his body apart and eating him. The thought made me sick to my stomach. How could someone do that to him?
Much like how Americans have a visceral response upon seeing footage of dogs or cats being eaten in other cultures, I finally felt that for chickens, three years after becoming vegan.
Pigs and cows were always easier for me to relate to — they were just like bigger dogs, and their body language of pain and joy was similar to other animals I understood. Despite being by far the largest victims of land farming, chickens are rarely considered sympathetic victims in our movement.
When we picture someone killing and eating a dog, most Americans have a dog (or multiple) who comes to mind, someone who they personally knew and loved. “How could they eat someone like Rover?” The idea of harming them is reprehensible. Yet, since most of us have never been friends with a chicken, we don’t have a personal connection to their suffering.
I thought I was an anti-speciest before we rescued Teddy, but I didn’t realize how much I still overlooked the suffering of chickens. Pigs and cows were always easier for me to relate to — they were just like bigger dogs, and their body language of pain and joy was similar to other animals I understood. Despite being by far the largest victims of land farming, chickens are rarely considered sympathetic victims in our movement.
During our next slaughterhouse vigil, I heard a rooster crow inside the truck as they were being unloaded to their death. For the first time in the many vigils I had attended and organized, I started to cry. The rooster’s crow was young and unsure — much like Teddy’s voice when he made his first crow with us. The idea of anyone hurting someone like Teddy was unbearable.
In a culture where we are both surrounded by their death and kept separate from their lives, it’s hard to truly emotionally connect with animals who are different from us, even if we have already logically accepted an anti-speciesist moral framework.
I realized then how desensitized even activists have become to the constant violence happening to non-human animals. In a culture where we are both surrounded by their death and kept separate from their lives, it’s hard to truly emotionally connect with animals who are different from us, even if we have already logically accepted an anti-speciesist moral framework.
Yet, as hard as it is, feeling that emotional connection is important. It forces us to see each victim as an individual rather than a number. It drives us to be better activists for them, louder advocates, and unwavering in our convictions. In this way, animals are great advocates for themselves. Teddy taught me more about true anti-speciesism than I ever thought possible. There was nothing “voiceless” about him.