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100,000 chickens were killed in a fire at a Connecticut farm a few weeks ago. Normally, I can compartmentalise the horrors of factory farming reasonably well. But this story was eating at me. I felt a visceral sense of pain just from thinking about it, and then a profound sense of sadness at the thought of 100,000 chickens essentially being a rounding error compared to the overall size of the factory farming industry.

I also felt disgusted at how flippant the world is to these sorts of tragedies — one article in particular noted that "no injuries were reported in the fire".

Rather than sit by uncomfortably, I wanted to try turning these feelings into something productive, so I wrote a short story about it. As a content warning, this story contains graphic descriptions of suffering. If this sort of thing (understandably) bothers you, I'd probably suggest not reading.

My hope is that purposefully writing as uncomfortable of a story as possible can help build intuition about how utterly repugnant factory farming is. I'm also curious if these kinds of short fictional stories might be helpful for spreading awareness of things like the harms of factory farming or the importance of protecting future generations.


No injuries were reported

The flames burned with primordial rage as they devoured the building’s wooden skeleton. She stared aimlessly at the smouldering walls as her breath came in searing gasps. All she felt in this moment was her drive to survive eclipsed by a sense of fear, all while a billowing plume of smoke enveloped her body. Heat and terror. Helplessness.

Through strained eyes, she saw other shapes staggering and flailing in a chaotic stupor. Cries of panic and pain blended into an encompassing wall of sound. She tried to rise but could not. She was in company, yet all alone.

No injuries were reported.

She wasn’t aware of it, but soon she would be melted to a pile of flesh. A burnt clump of matter. Nameless and faceless. None would be the wiser.

She did not have much of a sense of her place in the world. But she could feel, more than most would ever suspect. Millions of years of evolution attuned her nervous system to avoid pain, and to seek pleasure. In some senses, it was all she ever knew.

The fire seared through her nerves, causing excruciating pain to radiate through her body. In this moment, she hadn’t a desire in the world, other than a primal urge to escape her torturous environment. But she was confined, and her fate was sealed.

No injuries were reported.

Despite her feeling of isolation, she was not alone in any sense of the word. She was surrounded by a hundred thousand others, who similarly wrestled with their impending deaths. Somewhere in the crowd lurked her own faint cries, a scream amid the greater tide. Soon, heart by heart, the screams and flutterings faded until only the fire roared. For an omniscient observer, the void left by those silenced hearts would scream louder than the uncontrollable flames, a chasm of nothing where much had once been.

No injuries were reported.

Less than an hour after the flame ignited, the barn was reduced to rubble. A pile of burnt flesh, bones, feathers, and faeces. It was probably a malfunctioning heating device that caused the blaze that killed over a hundred thousand chickens. But by the time the fire crew arrived, it was too late.

The press soon began reaching out to the farm’s owners, in response to questions from the public of what caused the massive column of smoke to fill the winter air. “Rest assured for folks who are concerned”, said the owners, “nobody was hurt in the fire”. The workers had already left for the day, and the flames were confined to the barn.

Thankfully, no injuries were reported.

Comments10
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:57 AM

Thank you so much for writing this. It's terribly sad that the extreme suffering of farmed animals essentially goes unnoticed. It turns out that barn fires happen every year in the US. Last year, half a million chickens burned. The year before, nearly 700,000 burned. 

I recently published a YouTube video covering this story on my channel, inspired by Bentham's bulldog's post.

I liked this video. It does a really nice job of pointing out the callousness of the reporting.

Fai
1y19
5
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Strong upvote. I really admire this piece. Thank you for writing and posting it. I think literatures and arts played a significant (I don't mean major, certainly not sole) role in the moral circle expansion up to the point of all humans, as it was a great way for people to understand the circumstances and hardships of people with strikingly different cultural, linguistic, social, and economic backgrounds from them. Maybe it could work for nonhuman animals too.

I really wish (and I believe very possible) there will one day be an AI that can automatically animate a script so that great scripts like this can gain yet another powerful way of conveying important messages. Yes, the animation is going to be horrific, but it may also save lives. 

Also, I think it is beneficial that this kind of post occasionally appears on the forum.

I couldn't agree more with this. Part of why Frederick Douglass's first autobiography was so instrumental in changing minds to support abolitionism was because it awakened people from the default of ignoring the moral significance of the enslaved. Animals, sadly, are unable to write literature espousing their moral significance, which is part of why OP's work is so valuable.

I think this lack of ability to self-advocate is actually crucial to our failures to treat non-human animals with minimum decency. In fact that difference, and its arbitrariness, is one of my favorite alternatives to the argument from marginal cases:

"Say that you go through life neglecting, or even contributing to the suffering of factory farmed animals. One day, you meet someone, who tells you that she used to be a battery cage hen. She is, understandably, not pleased with how she was treated before magically transforming into a conversant agent who could confront you about it. How would you justify yourself to her?"

"This, I think, is importantly different from a closely related case, in which a rock you once kicked around, and which suffered from this, transforms and confronts you. In such a case, you could honestly say that you didn’t think you were hurting the rock at all, because you didn’t think the rock could be hurt. If this rock person was reasonable, and you could convince the rock that your extremely low credence in a scenario like this was reasonable, then it seems as though this would be a perfectly adequate excuse. There is no parallel between this reason and what you might say to the humanized hen, unless you were mistaken about the fact that as a hen she was suffering in her conditions. Perhaps you could instead say that you had, quite reasonable, very very low credence that she would ever be in a position to confront you about this treatment. Do you think she would accept this answer? Do you think she should? What differs between this case and the real world, in terms of what is right or wrong in your behavior, if we agree that your lack of credence that she would transform would be reasonable, but not a good enough answer? It is generally accepted that one should be held as blameworthy or blameless based on their actual beliefs. If these lead you astray in some act, it is a forgivable accident. Given that you are in the same subjective position in this world as you are in the real world, in terms of your credence that you actually will be confronted by a humanized hen, then it seems as though if you have adequate justification in the real world, then there is also something you could give as an adequate justification to this hen. Working backwards, if you have no adequate excuse you can tell the hen, you have no adequate excuse in the real world either."

Anyway, I think this is my favorite piece of Julian's so far!

I felt a [...] profound sense of sadness at the thought of 100,000 chickens essentially being a rounding error compared to the overall size of the factory farming industry.

Yes, about 9 billion chickens are killed each year in the US alone, or about 1 million per hour. So 100,000 chickens are killed every 6 minutes in the US (and every 45 seconds globally). Still, it's a huge tragedy.

 I've felt the same sense of rage and sadness at the casual portrayal of mass casualty events for farmed animals. Trucks with thousands of chickens flipping over on highways. Hurricane floods in North Carolina drowning tens of thousands of trapped pigs while the companies collect insurance money. The occasional barn fire that kills a hundred thousand but barely makes the news.

Every time. No injuries reported. 

This is a powerful and relatable piece. Thank you.

This is very well written. I think the line you singled out really gets to the heart of how we might misrepresent or just fail to represent the importance of animal suffering.

A very well written piece. 

Thank you for writing this beautiful piece! It really touched me. I am sad to admit I wasn’t even aware, there seems to be so many atrocities that consistently happen to animals it’s hard to keep up. Thank you for taking the time to write, acknowledge and inspire others!