The Death of a Chicken: Tragedy or Statistic

Catherine Besch
6 min readFeb 17, 2023

One death is a tragedy while a million is a statistic, the saying goes. While this quote has been attributed to Joseph Stalin, it’s likely he stole from other sources and adapted it to his own brand of sick and deliberate suffering inflicted on his own citizens. Under Stalin’s watch, a man who is universally considered to have been among the most morally bankrupt and murderous of all world leaders, it is estimated that 20 million (some even claim up to 60 million) of his own people died in prison camps, from famine, and by executions. This may seem irrelevant to the death of a chicken, but bear with me.

Louise, our recently deceased ten-year-old chicken and my best friend, belonged to the species of bird that is the most populous on the planet by a factor of around 46 compared to the next most populous avian species. There are a lot of these birds. Each one was bred into being and born specifically to be exploited for their eggs and killed for their flesh. Every single one. More than 70 billion of these birds are killed each year; 136 million a day globally. These numbers are just statistics though, just big numbers no human can truly conceptualize. We cannot fathom what the murder of 136 million chickens looked like today. We cannot see the truckloads of blood, feathers, and chopped-off heads with beaks agape and eyes vacant. We cannot envision how they got there with the fear in their eyes. We ignore the terror they experienced stuffed in various types of transport with limbs snapped, facing weather they have no protection from. We dismiss or the horrors of how they were bred and raised in conditions fit for no sentient beings, certainly not for any other species we consider close to humans such as dogs and cats.

Most of us have few personality traits in common with Stalin or any murderous dictator. Most of us think of ourselves as wholly unlike someone who could callously kill anyone, much less fully condone the murder of billions of total strangers. But the average person thinks little of the suffering they cannot see in front of them. We have other things to do, to worry about, to busy ourselves with. We buy the foods we are used to. We eat what people around us eat. We consume the products that are marketed to us with little thought for who or what was behind the production of that product. None of us think of the suffering of a bird when we take a bite of a once-living chicken whose wings are smothered in sauce while watching the Superbowl, but that plate of wings is the product of immeasurable suffering nonetheless.

We are all complicit. We are complicit in the extreme suffering of billions of sentient beings no different than a bird like Louise. Louise was not special, she just had the opportunity to be who she was, something denied to the 70 billion others like her. She was special to me because I knew her so deeply, but I, as her human caretaker, am not relevant in this scenario. My adoration of this perfect little being for a decade means nothing to how she valued her own life and how that alone was all that mattered in how we cared for her at our sanctuary. Each and every one of Stalin’s human victims along with each bird, fish, pig, cow, goat, lamb, duck, horse, rabbit, deer, kangaroo, or any species consumed by humans globally had an interest in staying alive and living a life free from harm. It is the most basic trait of a conscious, sentient being of any species. They are not numbers. None of them are numbers. Each is an individual. Each wanted to live, not be lumped into a statistic of millions like them murdered for no reason and ignored as a whole. Each of their deaths is an unnecessary tragedy.

To not live vegan, to ignore the suffering of trillions of land and sea animals in favor of your own convenience is just criminally insane. I’ve tried hard to find nicer ways to say this (a task I totally fail at after a tragic death like this), but having been a virulent anti-vegan for 33 years prior to meeting Louise and being permanently changed, I reserve the right to point fingers at my former self and those like me in a rather honest and brutal way. It is applicable and appropriate terminology for those who fundamentally have failed to give a damn about animal suffering and take the steps necessary to end it in their own lives if not society as a whole. To not be vegan means simply that you are part of the global problem not only of the horrendous abuse of animals inherent in all systems of animal use, but also of the destruction of our environment and the detrimental effect these systems have on global food security and public health. It is one thing to just hate animals, enjoying inflicting pain on individuals you kill, but to do so also to the detriment of the future of humanity on this planet is what makes non-vegans blindly cruel. To be non-vegan and have the audactity to claim you “love” animals is nothing but a farce.

To be clear, I am not calling non-vegans Stalin, Vlad the Impaler, or Idi Amin. Non-vegans are not Nazis or the Khmer Rouge. Non-vegans are just those who stick their heads in the sand when murders continue, choosing comfort and convenience over standing up against mass murder. We all have choices to make every day that affect sentient beings trapped in industrialized and normalized systems of torture and murder. We do not have to participate in them.

Losing Louise is not a tragedy like that of the nameless chicken on a farm in Australia, Slovenia, Madagascar, or Brazil after a couple of months of growing to an edible size. Unlike Louise, those all died seen only as unfeeling, inanimate objects, profit, and food, all without the luxury of 10 full years of life and love that we were able to give to Louise. I should be celebrating Louise’s life, not feeling suffocated by the void she left behind, but eventually this excruciating loss will give way to an inevitable easing of the pain and will make room for opportunities to make global change for those like her. Louise, along with every other bird we saved who died before her, had the luxury of making our sanctuary their home, even if they lacked access to the most basic vet care afforded to other species here. Her long life should be celebrated. These birds are my armor in a battle that will go on until I take my last breath.

I know within my lifetime I will not see a vegan world, but those 70 billion chickens a year plus the birds I knew personally deserve those of us who have seen that each life is precious to give all we have towards dismantling and replacing animal agriculture and the fishing industry. We owe it to them to arm ourselves against the injustice these species all are facing from the ignorance, greed, and intentional cruelty of humanity against our fellow earthlings. They all deserve better and we can give it to them if we work together towards the abolition of their unnecessary exploitation and suffering. Being vegan is a start, but it is far from the end of the work we must do.

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Catherine Besch

Cat Besch is a ferocious animal activist and pig, chicken, dog, and cat mom who is the founder and director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue-US.