When groups of chickens get together, they have a tendency to peck at each other. It's their way of establishing a social hierarchy within their flock. Sometimes this pecking order goes too far and occasionally, a bird will get pecked to death. Behaviorally learned from watching other chickens do it, overcrowding, poor nutrition, and even boredom exacerbate "feather pulling, feather eating, and cannibalism," which is also made worse by the fact that chickens go wild at the sight of blood. If left to their own devices, a group of chickens might eventually peck another bird's asshole incessantly until its internal organs protrude out of it's now horribly gaping wound—and then the bird dies. Pass the fried chicken, please.
When thousands upon thousands of chickens are thrown together, particularly in large-scale commercial egg laying operations, this tendency to kill each other is intensified to the extreme. Considered by industry experts as the ultimate chicken vice, poultry cannibalism can amount to up to a 25 percent mortality rate in some flocks. A perennial issue in the history of keeping chickens, growers have attempted various methods to stem the tide of bird-on-bird violence, the most fashionable of which was—and will be forever—chicken eyewear.
The first patent for chicken glasses was filed in 1903 by one Mr. Andrew Jackson, Jr. of Munich, Tennessee. Officially called the "Eye-Protector for Chickens," as described by the Spokane Daily Chronicle in 1910, these spectacles were "designed to prevent chickens from pecking out each other's eyes." While grand in purpose, the glasses were simple in design, with rounded frames, "the nose rest being enlarged to go over the chicken's head, while the ear hooks …joined in the back." Although the few chickens that wore them were probably really hip and misunderstood and spent all their time discussing Foucault, the inventor's attempt to make the use of these frames mandatory for all Kansas farmers failed, causing decades of stagnation in the bespectacling of chickens.
In the late 30s, during the post-Great Depression poultry-growing boom, chicken sunglasses made a marked resurgence, but with a daring crimson tint this time around. Riffing off the sheets of metal that some farmers used as blinders on their birds, in 1939, the founder National Band & Tag Company invented what he called "Anti-Pix." These red plastic lenses on a hinged frame promised to "make a 'sissy' of your toughest bird," providing "a rose colored world for straight ahead viewing" while swinging upwards when a bird bowed its head to allow "the chicken to see its food & water normally." Given the propensity of chickens to go ape-shit at the sight of blood, these red lenses "effectively cause red to disappear, thereby reducing cannibalism" and also thereby making the birds more fabulous. According to a salesman from the National Farm Equipment Company of Brooklyn, by 1955 his company sold two to three million pairs of these glasses a year to America's egg layers.
But glasses can be difficult to maintain in proper working order, especially when worn by chickens that don't really want to be wearing glasses. The next stage in the saga of chicken eyewear was therefore to move from external frames to plastering a colored piece of plastic right onto a chicken's eye. Now an often used case study for the one percent at business schools, the story goes that in the 60s a medical supply salesman was inspired to make vision-impairing lenses for birds after meeting several chickens with cataracts who behaved much less violently than their well-seeing compatriots. Although his company, Vision Control Inc., did its small part to reduce the plague of chicken murders sweeping the nation, the state of polymer and lens technologies were not advanced enough and the company fell into financial chicken shit, much like most of their ill-fitting lenses.
But some ideas cannot be crushed by bankruptcy and the dream of providing lenses to all of America's hens was carried on by the son of one of Vision Control Inc.'s founders, a young Mr. Randall Wise. Wise, a Harvard Business school graduate and former nautical shipping consultant, used the millions he made from selling his software company to establish Animalens, Inc. in 1989. Like his father's corporation before him, Animalens, Inc. was in the chicken contact lens business, a concept that Wise claimed would "add up to a quadrupling of chicken-ranch profit margins." According to company-funded poultry studies, the lenses—now red to obscure the sight of blood—caused a dramatic shift in the bird's behavior: "The chickens are calmer, less prone to pecking and cannibalism; the mortality rate is lower. For a variety of reasons, some not fully understood, they also tend to eat less feed while producing, on average, the same size and number of eggs as other chickens (even a bit more)."
While the arguments for the lenses were promising, the lenses themselves made "the already miserable life of a chicken more depressing." Instead of pecking at each other (success!), the hens were now pecking at the air, rubbing their eyes repeatedly on their wings, and suffering from corneal ulcers and ruptured eyes. With almost no ranchers purchasing these tiny red pieces of plastic, the $24 million company, Wise, envisioned instead became public enemy number one of America's chicken rights groups and eventually folded.
Without a viable way to make their birds see a rose colored world (chicken houses with only red lights are virtually impossible for humans to work in), large-scale commercial farmers instead turned to today's most popular form of cannibalism control, debeaking, the method of using a hot knife to cut off the end of a chicken's beak. Resulting in intense pain, eating difficulty, and low-body weight, the life of a chicken, with or without eye-dissolving eyewear, still pretty much sucks.
At least when it's all over, they still taste like chicken.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2014.