Transcript

85:

Poultry Slam 1997
Transcript

Originally aired 12.05.1997

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/85

Prologue.

Ira Glass

The argument is simple. Why have an eagle as your national bird? The eagle is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. He sits on the tree branch, watches other birds swoop down for fish. Once they grab the fish, the eagle chases them, steals the fish. Also, he's a coward. At least that is the argument that Benjamin Franklin lays out in a letter dated January 26, 1784.

"It would be far better if the symbol of the new United States of America were a turkey," Franklin writes. Quote, "The turkey is, in comparison, a much more respectable, and withal a true, original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but turkey was peculiar to ours. He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on."

A modern American reads this and thinks, bird of courage?

Jack Hitt

Well the wild turkey of the 18th century was very different from the butterball turkey of Thanksgiving day dinner.

Ira Glass

That's Jack Hitt. He is one of contributing editors here at This American Life. He has written about the Benjamin Franklin papers in The New York Times. He writes about history, biology and pretty much anything else he wants to in various national magazines. And he offered to explain this turkey mystery.

Jack Hitt

If you look at the label of a Wild Turkey bottle, you're probably closer to Ben Franklin's turkey than the one in the grocery store. It's all leg. It's fast. It's speedy. It's an athletic bird. It has almost no breast whatsoever. And if you've hunted them, they're incredibly quick and smart, whereas over the centuries, the turkey was eventually bred into this enormous walking piece of breast meat.

The turkey itself is so front-heavy-- I think in some cases, they even have trouble walking towards the end.

Ira Glass

You're saying that we as a nation have altered the turkey from a smart, fast cunning animal into a stupid, heavy one.

Jack Hitt

What we've done really is hybridize it to the point where it's just basically a living dinner waiting to get on the table. There's really nothing about the turkey from its birth until its death that is about anything except being a meal.

Ira Glass

And is the thing about poultry, that probably more than any other animal, we've turned birds, chicken, turkey, into what we want them to be. Which means that chickens and turkeys, more than other animals, are a mirror of ourselves, of our desires, of our needs. When we tell stories about poultry, we're telling stories about ourselves. And given this, and given the history of the turkey in America, maybe Benjamin Franklin was right. Maybe it should be the symbol of our nation.

Ira Glass

In a way it begs the metaphor. I mean he's saying that this should be the symbol of our country. And I wonder if maybe it should, depending on what you think of the United States of America.

Jack Hitt

You're saying that if we had chosen it 200 years ago, it would have neatly tracked our national growth. Are you saying that now, we're more like the contemporary turkey than we were like Ben Franklin's turkey?

Ira Glass

I guess I am saying that.

Jack Hitt

That we're fat and out of shape and lazy and somewhat retarded?

Ira Glass

I mean I admit, it's a little post-Vietnam syndrome. I'm going to suggest this. A little unfashionably, post-Vietnam syndrome.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International. It is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And we, all of us, we stand at this moment poised between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We are in the weeks during the year when Americans consume more poultry than at any other time, which means it's time for This American Life's annual Poultry Slam. Stories about chickens, turkeys, ducks, fowl all kinds, and their mysterious hold over us.

Ira Glass

Now Jack, although you're happily, and at our bidding, discussing Ben Franklin and turkeys, that is not the reason why you're here with us today, is it?

Jack Hitt

No, actually I'm here for another poultry-related subject.

Ira Glass

Let me just ask you to just give us a little hint. Just drop a phrase or two.

Jack Hitt

Two words Ira, Chicken Little.

Ira Glass

Chicken Little. Adults all over America are turning off their radios. You think chicken little is that much of a draw?

Jack Hitt

Let me try that again. Two words Ira. Avian supernumeraries.

Ira Glass

Well, Act One of our program today, Chicken Diva, in which we hear the story of yes, avian supernumeraries.

Act Two, Headless Chicken in Topless Bar. Actually, there is no topless bar in that act. We just like the sound of that. But there is a headless chicken and a question. What does the headless chicken say about us?

Act Three, Duck Warrior. Michael Lewis explains the natural way to hunt duck and his family's way.

Act Four, Trying to Respect the Chicken, the story of one woman's quest to give chicken the honor and dignity they are rarely accorded, even though the chickens resist her efforts. Stay with us.

Act One. Chicken Diva.

Ira Glass

Act One, Chicken Diva. Chickens are what we make of them. For further evidence of this, we have this story from our contributing editor, Jack Hitt.

Jack Hitt

Oddly enough, it wasn't Susan who was obsessed with chickens. It was Kenny, a pal who worked backstage at the 92 Street Y in New York. His house was filled with chicken cups, chicken masks, porcelain chickens. He got the whole staff onto chickens, including Susan. For a time there in the '80's, poultry-related jokes and references became the fast way to get a laugh at the Y. I guess most of us are condemned to see nothing more than the easy comedy of chickens, but Susan Vitucci saw something else, their potential greatness, their hidden beauty, their grandeur.

One day, she glued together some finger puppets for a 10-minute rendition of the Chicken Little story for her nephew. That was 14 years ago. Today, it is a full-length opera, enjoyed by a cult following whenever it goes up in a workshop or cafe or small theater. It's still performed with finger puppets, but now it has a complete score written by a noted composer, Henry Krieger, who did Dreamgirls, and this season has a hit on Broadway, a musical called Side Show. The Chicken Little opera he wrote with Susan Vitucci is called Love's Fowl. Needless to say, that's F-O-W-L.

Henry Krieger

Well, we were going to start with the opening, [SPEAKING ITALIAN] We are the Clothespin Repertory Theater. And we have a special singing guest for you, which I don't know--

Jack Hitt

Susan and I are sitting at Henry's baby grand piano. Henry's guest is his Maltese terrier named Toby.

Henry Krieger

Perhaps Toby would be kind enough to join me over here.

Jack Hitt

Yeah, would she sit on your lap for this?

Henry Krieger

Yeah, let's see what we can do.

Jack Hitt

OK, listen carefully because once Toby gets going, he actually harmonizes with Henry and Susan.

[MUSIC - LOVE'S FOWL] [DOG BARKING]

You may have noticed that this libretto is an Italian, just like a real opera.

Susan Vitucci

Before, it was just a bunch of puppets and a box, with a good idea. And then suddenly, since it went into Italian, it became something bigger than what it had been. And it's because when it's in English, we all know it, and it's really not that interesting. It's like, yeah, yeah, yeah. As soon as it's in Italian, it gives us enough distance that we can come in. It makes us-- it's like the lover who doesn't want you. You don't want anybody more than you want the one who doesn't want you. Right? And it's sort of the same thing.

[MUSIC - LOVE'S FOWL]

Jack Hitt

You may recall that when you last heard of Little, back in kindergarten, she was just an average, barn door fowl who had an acorn drop on our head, which she mistakenly understood to be the sky falling. Her alarms excited her friends, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, and Ducky Lucky. And they join her for a journey to the King to tell him the important news. On the way, they meet up with Sly Fox. Little's pals eagerly accept his invitation for dinner, literally as it turns out. Fortunately for Little, hunger is not enough to distract her from her mission, and she treks on.

When she meets the King, he tells her that the sky is not falling. It's just an acorn. So the enlightened Chicken Little returns to her coop, and that's where the story ends. Like Goldilocks and so many children's fables, the actual meaning of the story is obscure. What are we to take away from Little's experience? I like to think that Little is rewarded with life precisely because she went off on this Quixotic mission, totally in the grip of a wrong idea. By clinging to that belief, however crazy, she managed to free herself from the ugly Darwinian world of the barnyard and of its mandate, eat or be eaten.

[MUSIC - LOVE'S FOWL]

The children's fable barely figures into the story. It's just one small episode in the life of Chicken Little, now known as La Pulcina Piccola. After the acorn incident, she goes on to become an internationally renowned figure in almost every field imaginable, a diva of politics, academe, theater, art, derring-do.

Like Venus, she arrives from some other world, transported on a scallop shell. But the triumphs of her life begin after a youthful love affair with a fighting cock ends bitterly. And she consoles herself, as we all do at some point in our lives, by plunging into Shakespeare. She becomes an overnight sensation as an actress, celebrated all over the world for one role. Juliet? Cleopatra? Ophelia?

Susan Vitucci

The company then performs an excerpt, a recreation of her signature role, which is Richard III. [LAUGHTER] Well, I mean Sarah Bernhardt did Hamlet.

Jack Hitt

Well, there's a great tradition of women playing the men's roles in Shakespeare, but I think Richard III is one of the more rare roles to be played by a woman.

Susan Vitucci

Well, that's how adventuresome an actress this chicken was.

Jack Hitt

I can assure you, there's nothing like watching a four-inch tall finger puppet crying out, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse" in Italian. Not to mention that that puppet is a chicken, surrounded by a whole supporting cast of poultry and other avian supernumeraries. Susan says that, artistically, there's something special about chickens.

Susan Vitucci

They're a clean slate in a way. I mean they're actually very dirty birds. But you can put anything on them. You can project anything to them because it's not like they have, to me at least, a very strong personality. I have a cat. I live with this cat. I know he has a very strong personality. He's a real creature. I mean he has a persona. Whereas the chickens are a group, and they have a personality as a group, but not individually.

Jack Hitt

Except for La Pulcina. In the opera, she moves into the field of archaeology, masters it, needless to say, and makes a great discovery, the last tomb of [? Gallopatra. ?] But not before she sails the seven seas, is ship wrecked, gets rescued, but it's by pirates, and then she meets the pirate king.

Susan Vitucci

As soon as he meets her, he falls in love with because of her sweet spirit. Because she comes in, and she says, "Here you see a little chicken who, although I'm dripping wet, I'm proud and yellow."

Jack Hitt

Let me repeat that lyric for you in a purer translation. "Although I stand before you, a chicken who is dripping wet, I am proud, and I am yellow." OK, back to Susan.

Susan Vitucci

"And although I've loved and I have lost, I have learned to follow the call of adventure. So let's sail on."

[MUSIC - LOVE'S FOWL]

Jack Hitt

Keep in mind that all of the action, like everything that occurs in every Susan Vitucci production, ever since the first one for her nephew and continuing to this day, occurs among characters created by sticking a small, painted Styrofoam ball onto to a larger painted Styrofoam ball, poking on two map tacks for eyes, gluing on a tiny, felt beak, and then impaling the whole thing on top of one of those really old-fashioned clothespins that a '40's cartoon figure would clamp to his nose around a chunk of Limburger cheese.

[MUSIC - LOVE'S FOWL]

And I could go on. She takes a cowboy lover on the American frontier while on the lecture tour. Then there's an affair with an Italian professor modeled on a real 15th century naturalist who wrote a treatise on chickens. There's always another adventure, even outside the opera. Susan has written, or as she puts it, translated La Pulcina Piccola's diaries, which detail the other adventures that happen in between those in the opera. There are 60 pages so far, excerpts of which have appeared in Clothelines, the official fan club newsletter of the opera. Its masthead lists every category of donor.

Jack Hitt

Zealot, fanatic, worshiper, admirer. A zealot has to give $250, a fanatic $100. Do you have any zealots?

Susan Vitucci

Oh yeah, in fact actually, you can just give however much you want and call yourself whatever you want. So that we have people called [SPEAKING ITALIAN], which mean fine-feathered friends. We have a couple of those. And we have lovers. We have a couple of lovers.

Jack Hitt

I'm not joking when I tell you that the high end donation is $500. People take this campy finger puppet opera quite seriously. When I was talking to Henry Krieger, he recalled the night he first saw a bare bones production of it at The West Bank Cafe in New York. And it was Krieger who approached Vitucci begging to write music for it.

Love's Fowl has this strange effect on people. I didn't understand until Susan loaned me a videotape of one performance. To be honest, I thought I would be annoyed at the intentional irony and hokiness of the puppets. I only agreed to watch it because I thought I would need the material to put together some wacky piece about poultry for This American Life. But there I was with my three-year-old daughter, who loved the show, watching a plastic bird pantomime one of the simplest human moments, but also one of the most profound, the confession of a great love. In this case, with a cock robin.

Susan Vitucci

The song that she sings as she enters goes, "I am a chicken and ready for love. My heart is as fragile as the egg from which I was born. Treat me gently, and so will I treat you. Together from earthly love, we will reach for the divine." And then she sings, "I'm a chicken, and I can't fly without love. My heart, it is as strong as the egg from which I was born." And so forth. And so it is only with Cock Robin that she flies.

[MUSIC - LOVE'S FOWL]

Jack Hitt

And after they have agreed to fly together, and they are soaring in the air, Cock Robin is shot and killed, murdered by a jealous sparrow. I couldn't believe it, but I was getting choked up, especially when Cock Robin appeared on the stage, his Styrofoam body spray-painted black for the lament, his little Magic Marker eyes drawn as X's.

I gathered my daughter in my arms and held on tight as I was helplessly drawn into an expression of the grief and suffering of this little, sad bird. In this era of slick special effects, there was something unexpectedly liberating in the marriage of this crude medium, painted styrofoam balls bobbing up and down behind a cardboard box, and the high melodramatic art of Italian opera. Picture it.

[MUSIC - LOVE'S FOWL]

I want a subscription to that newsletter.

Jack Hitt

Are you going to do this? I mean are you going to be working with Pulcina Piccola, you think, for the rest of your life?

Susan Vitucci

It's possible, and I like working with her because I can create an entire world. And I think that's what's the charm of it for me. I get to go into a world that's inhabited by a very sweet spirit and play with the mechanics of the world. And because it's very small-- I could never have afforded to produce this show with people. But I could afford to do it with clothespins. So I can do as big a production as I want with clothespins. I can have stuff fly in and out and come in from traps. And I can have all kinds of fancy, flashy stuff that costs millions of dollars to do on Broadway. And it costs me $200 because I had to buy lots and lots and lots of Styrofoam and clothespins and stuff and all this and a new table maybe. And I get to do whatever I want.

[MUSIC - LOVE'S FOWL]

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt's a writer who lives in New Haven.

Act Two. Headless Chicken In Topless Bar.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Headless Chicken in Topless Bar. Lloyd grew up in rural Virginia. His parents were city people who moved to the farm, people who decided that they'd raise goats, pigs, about 100 chickens. They would slaughter the birds by chopping off their heads with an axe. Now, we're going to get a little explicit here, so just be warned.

Lloyd Natoff

It's a little nerve wracking because as soon as you cut the head off, a second or two will elapse, and then chicken explodes and starts to spazz out. And sometimes, they'll just lie on the ground, jerking and moving, but other times, they'll actually run and hop. And it's quite a sight because they're headless. Blood is coming out of the top of their neck. And I mean if you have 30 of these to do, they're going to disperse over a pretty large area. And I can remember chasing them, and frequently they would do evasive maneuvers. When you would try to reach down and grab them, they would jump to one side. And it seemed almost as if they could tell that you were there, which they couldn't. They didn't have a head.

We tried a lot of different techniques to deal with this messy situation. And I can remember one time we decided we'd cut the head off, and we'd throw them into a 55 gallon drum. But that was a mess, and it was really noisy because they bang around. And you can only put so many in there, and the blood starts to collect. And so that was really-- that didn't work.

I remember one time, my uncle, Louis, came, and he was helping us do this. And he had heard that if you break the chicken's neck, as opposed to cutting it off, that somehow circumvents this reaction. And they don't spazz out. So he felt that the way to do that would be to grab the chicken by the head and swing it around his head. And he picked one up and swung it around his head a few times. And sure enough, the animal was dead, and it didn't go into this reaction.

And so he stepped back, and my father picked up a chicken and did the same thing. And as he's swinging it around, I looked over at Louis, and I noticed that there was this line of chicken [BLEEP] that was going across his glasses because the bird had gone to the bathroom while my dad was swinging it around. And so we didn't really try that anymore, and we went back to the fence method.

Ira Glass

If you spend enough time around chickens, and you are a halfway empathetic or observant person, I think it's inevitable that at certain times, in certain ways, the boundary between the human world and the chicken world will get blurred. That happened to Lloyd.

Lloyd Natoff

Chickens are very hierarchical, and the higher chickens-- well, the chickens want to get to the highest part of the roost. And so there'd be constant fighting to get to the top, chickens damaging each other, pecking each other. But there would always be one or two chickens that had very few feathers. And because they were always being picked on, henpecked, they were the bottom of the pecking order. And these chickens, I felt sorry for them because it looked very uncomfortable, and I didn't like to see them suffering.

But I also felt-- they evoked a bit of anger in me because they were always hanging out in the corner or under foot. And they didn't go out in the yard usually. They would just hang out inside the house. And frequently, I think they just brought out the bully in a 10-year-old boy.

I had some anger that I would-- and I'm ashamed to admit, these henpecked animals would bring it out in me. And I would kick them them away if they were under foot and stuff like that. It was a mixture of feeling sorry for them and feeling derision.

Ira Glass

One way to look at the world is this. There's a life continuum. One one side, at the extreme end, you have plants and insects and stuff that most of us feel no remorse about killing or mistreating. On the other side of the continuum, at the other extreme, you have dogs and cats and baby seals and human beings, animals we do not feel free to just kill or eat or be cruel to. And the question is, where are chickens located on this continuum?

At different points during our conversation, Lloyd put chickens at different places on the continuum. Sometimes he said that he felt their pain. He empathized with their pain. Sometimes he went on these long tirades about how stupid chickens are.

Lloyd Natoff

The thing about chickens is they like eating eggs, but they don't know that the things they're laying are eggs. You get the occasional chicken that will eat eggs from the areas where they lay them, but by and large, that's not that common. But if you take an egg and throw it on the floor, all the chickens will run over and eat it.

Ira Glass

That's horrifying.

Lloyd Natoff

I'm feeling some anguish about how I treated some of these chickens, chickens that are long gone, chickens that were only with me for a year.

Ira Glass

Chickens that didn't have names.

Lloyd Natoff

Chickens that individually meant nothing to me. You're going to make me out to be repentant.

Ira Glass

No I'm not. I'm just going to follow the interview where it goes. Well, you sound weirdly repentant.

Lloyd Natoff

It's the weirdest thing, thinking about those poor, dumb chickens.

Ira Glass

Of course, the ultimate test of where you place a living thing on the life continuum is whether or not you're willing to put whatever it is into your mouth and eat it.

Lloyd Natoff

I still eat chicken.

Ira Glass

Lloyd Natoff designs and builds custom furniture for a living here in Chicago. Coming up, the Trojan goose, chicken portraiture and other stories about birds that say more about us than they do about the birds in our annual Poultry Slam. In a minute from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Duck Warrior.

Michael Lewis

Every other year or so during Christmas vacation, I stuff myself into the camouflage suit of goose down and rubber and strike out with my father and a few of his friends into the swamps of southwestern Louisiana. For nearly 20 years now, I have followed him into the darkness, as blindly as Isaac followed Abraham, to stalk waterfowl through a gauntlet of pricker bushes, sawgrass, quick mud, snakes, mosquitoes, wild dogs, alligators and even the odd hostile cow.

Because everything in the Louisiana swamp seems slightly unhinged and unpredictable, it seems almost natural there that, for example, the common cow would charge an armed man as fiercely as the rabbit charged Jimmy Carter. And force him to choose between humiliating death and the indignity of shooting a cow in self-defense.

But of all the life in the swamp, nothing is quite so transformed by the place as the otherwise intelligent human being in pursuit of the elusive waterfowl. I suppose I should say that I see nothing immoral in this, though I often have sensed mild disapproval in people who do not hunt of people who do. As they slice deeply into the flesh of what was once an adorable little lamb, and then tear it greedily with their back teeth, these people will say something like, "How can you kill a cute little duck?" The honest answer is, sadly, that I don't.

Looking back on it now, I believe we began two decades ago with the ambition of one day becoming purists. The hunting purist is able to make himself think and feel like a duck or a goose. He enters the swap at 5:00 in the morning with 10 shotgun shells and returns three hours later with his legal limit of three ducks and seven geese. He can carve wooden ducks so similar to live ducks that even ducks don't notice the difference. And make noises with his mouth that sound so much like a female duck on the make that male ducks flock to him like sailors to a brothel.

I confess there was a time when this seemed important to us, and some of my earliest memories are of my father sitting on our back porch imitating for hours a tape recording of duck mating calls. But over the years, it became clear that no matter how long we practiced this inter-species flirtation, we would never score. As this truth dawned, we began busily to fill the gap between our ambitions and our talents with the latest in hunting technology.

Unable to speak with the birds, we communicated instead with each other. We carried Walkie Talkies so that we might fan out in the swamp and relay to each other various duck data. We carried flares to better see each other in the dark. And then there were the more adventurous techniques. In the late 1970's, it was widely believed, for example, that to a goose flying high in the sky, a balled up newspaper resembled a sitting goose. For several years, we spread The Wall Street Journal across the Louisiana wetlands, fully believing that a goose would spot the stock quotes, or perhaps an opera review, and dive down for a closer look.

After a while, when we had nothing to show for this but a soggy mess, we moved on from newspapers to life-sized, plastic replicas of geese. When these also failed, another theory soon made the rounds. Geese lacked size perception. A goose the size of the World Trade Center looked, to a goose, like just another goose. And so, for the next several years, our plastic replicas of the geese swelled to three or four times the size of a live goose. The added size did not help as far as I could see.

Only now do I understand that our many beliefs about geese would lead us inevitably to embrace the Trojan goose. The Trojan goose was advertised by one of the many companies that specialize in supplying frustrated hunters with high technology. It was, as it sounds, a hollowed out replica of a goose, complete with eye holes and large enough for two hunters to stand comfortably inside of it. It was meant to be erected in the middle of a goose feeding ground. One wing disguised a kind of trap door.

The idea was that once the geese gathered around their gargantuan cousin, the hunters might throw open the trap door, storm out into their unsuspecting midst and visit death and destruction upon many wild beasts. Just moments before we purchased the Trojan goose, however, something happened. I'm not sure what, perhaps some combination of self-revulsion and self-examination. At heart, we realized, we were not technologists. We were spiritualists.

The spiritualist is the hunter who has learned to shift the emphasis of the hunting away from the killing. He knows he can shiver ducklessly for hours behind a clump of marsh grass, expertly imitating a pintail's whistle or a mallard drake's quack with a textbook, perfect semicircle of decoys at his front and the wind and the sunrise at his back. Then, the moment he deserts his position to answer a call of nature, the ducks will descend like Japanese zeros. Looking like a cross between a flasher and an advertisement for the National Rifle Association, he will lurch for his gun and go down with a small splash as the ducks exit safely, chuckling lightly.

We have come very far in these 20 years. A few weeks ago, my father set off one morning on foot through the swamp. He came through a clearing and walked into several acres of ducks and geese feeding on the ground. They continued to feed while he watched. It was the largest collection of potential victims ever to sit quietly within the range of a Lewis gun. He might have murdered a flock had he been that sort of hunter. Instead, he stood in awe and watched until they all flew away.

Ira Glass

Michael Lewis is the author of Trail Fever and other books.

Act Four. Trying To Respect A Chicken.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Trying to Respect a Chicken. Sure, it's one thing to take a fictional character like Chicken Little and make her a star. Try doing it with a real chicken, just try.

Tamara Staples

Well, these are photographs of chickens. The first one here is a Silver Laced Wyandotte. It's a black and white bird, essentially, but the tail feathers have a lot of iridescent green coloring.

Ira Glass

In a world where chickens get no respect, Tamara Staples treats them the way that humans treat those we revere the most. She takes their portraits, lovingly. Her shots are like fashion photographs, beautifully lit, color backdrops. They're beautiful.

Ira Glass

So now, the first one looked regal, but now you've just turned to one where it almost looks like a clown. It looks comic.

Tamara Staples

It's a Mottled Houdan, which I always call the Phyllis Diller chicken.

Ira Glass

Oh my god, that chicken does look like Phyllis Diller.

Tamara Staples

It does. It's the hat. It got this huge feathered hat thing and a strange body shape.

Ira Glass

In a way, it's Tamra Staples is running an odd little cross-species science experiment, one that asks this question. What happens when you try to treat a chicken the way we treat humans, even if it's just for the length of a photo shoot? What happens, it turns out, is that you learn just where the thin line is that divides human beings from birds. All right, maybe it's not such a thin line, but it's definitely a line. And, like most city people, I had never thought about it, about where it lies, about what it might be, what it might consist of, until Tamara headed out to a farm.

[CHICKENS CROWING]

Paul

I think that is the best one.

Tamara Staples

Yeah, we have to get him. We don't want him to get dirty or anything, do we? Or does it matter?

Paul

She runs loose every day.

Tamara Staples

Can we find her?

Paul

Yeah, we can fake her out.

Tamara Staples

We're going to wrangle him.

Ira Glass

We're at the Davidson's dairy farm, about an hour and a half northwest of Chicago. Family members present-- Paul, who's helping Tamara choose a bird photograph, his sister Laura, who's studying photography at a nearby university. Their grandfather George Cairns, a veteran breeder. Their father Dick, who seems the most skeptical of this whole project, but who patiently shows Tamara and her assistant Dennis the milking barn as a possible place to set up and shoot.

Dick

What kind of an area are you looking for?

Tamara Staples

Well, maybe it could be a little wider, don't you think? And if could be from here to there, and from that pole to that pole.

Dick

For what? I don't understand.

Tamara Staples

Well, we are setting-- maybe this is a good time to pull out the portfolio. Do you want to grab it? It's a study of the birds, but it's an isolated study so people aren't necessarily associating it with the farm and something to eat.

Ira Glass

Tamara takes us all outside the barn so dust won't get on her photos and shows them her shots, name dropping the names of some big chicken people, people whose birds she's photographed, including Bob Wullf editor of The Poultry Press. Dick notices that a bird in one photo has crooked toes.

Dick

Probably on a a higher surface and he turned.

Ira Glass

What do you guys think of the pictures?

Dick

Well, the pictures are nice and sharp. I mean there's nothing wrong with the pictures. If there's anything to find fault with, it's the birds. They aren't posing the way they should, some of them.

Ira Glass

The fact is, most city people usually go nuts when they see Tamara's pictures. A lot of chicken breeders don't like them. And to understand why, to fully comprehend this little culture clash here in America, we have to leave the barnyard and flash back to something happened back at Tamara's apartment in the city.

Tamara showed me this old, red book from the turn of the century, this book with the seal of the American Poultry Association in gold on the front. And then, right there in gold letters--

Tamara Staples

Standard of perfection. The standard of perfection is really the Bible of poultry standards. What birds are--

Ira Glass

Tamara flipped past the engravings and illustrations of chickens of all types and breeds. These were show chickens, standing the way that chickens stand in competitions. Then Tamara pulled out one of her own photos to compare, to show me how her poses do not meet the standard in the book.

Tamara Staples

The tail needs to be higher. Her feet are not erect standing. Chest isn't out. Head needs to be up more. And it shows. I mean you can see the shape of the chicken much better in the standard of perfection pose.

Ira Glass

See to me, what's so interesting though is that the standard of perfection doesn't include a personality.

Tamara Staples

Right, because it's not about personality. It's about breeding.

Ira Glass

So is that a pose that the owners would want to own a photo of?

Tamara Staples

They are very particular about-- they want to see their bird in the standard of perfection pose, definitely. Because that's what they've been taught from 4H, when they were kids, to do.

Ira Glass

That's for them. For herself, for her city customers, she chooses the others. OK, back to the barnyard. Tamara and the Davidsons decide to set up the photo session in a room that's usually used to store feed for the cows. It takes about 45 minutes to set this up. That 45 minutes includes dismantling and moving a wall of hay that is probably 10 feet high and 15 feet long. This takes five people. Then, in comes the power and the fancy lights and the cloth backdrop that gets hung from the steel pole. The backdrop is ironed first with an iron and ironing board brought from the city just for that purpose.

Tamara Staples

11.5, 11, and an 8.5.

Dennis

Yeah, 11.5. Your test is going to be at 11.5, 11 and 8.5. You'll shoot your film at 11.

Ira Glass

It was cold, well below freezing, so cold that the Polaroid film that Tamara uses for lighting tests would not fully develop.

Paul

You ready for bird?

Tamara Staples

We're close. I just want to commune with the bird. I just want to make you pretty. Look how sweet, aren't you? You know what? I'm going to photograph you. My name is Tamara. I'll you photographer for today.

Ira Glass

Our first bird is a White Cornish, a show bird who belongs to George. This show bird is used to being picked up and handled. Part of preparing chicken for shows involves handling them a lot so they'll be calm with the judges.

Tamara Staples

If you could just nudge his head up a little bit, he's perfect. He's got his chest up. OK, now he's got his face in. OK, yeah, you know what we want. Great, George. He's got a feather on his back here.

Ira Glass

Tamara has the Cornish stand up on a stack of little red, antique books, kind of unsteady. Things go well for a while. She get a half dozen good shots of the bird, expressive shots, more personality than standard of perfection, George tells me. The bird's chest isn't high enough. Its body is not turned correctly to the camera. And then, the bird stops cooperating. He gets tired. Paul has a suggestion.

Paul

Bring in a pullet?

Tamara Staples

You know what? You know that works.

Ira Glass

Maybe you should explain what that is. What does that mean to bring in a pullet?

Dick

Thinks maybe a female will perk him up.

Ira Glass

Laura grabs a hen and waves it at the flaccid cock. The cock does not rise. I can say that on the radio, right?

Paul

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] probably would have better to get the one from the other pen that he's not used to.

Tamara Staples

Fresh blood. Bring him around a little bit so his-- [INTERPOSING VOICES]

Ira Glass

For real, the rooster will show off more for a hen that it doesn't know?

Paul

Yes. If you put a new hen in with him or pen him with a group of new hens, he will really show off.

Ira Glass

They try this and that, nothing with much success. And finally, with one shot left, Paul suggests putting a hen into the picture with the rooster.

Tamara Staples

Get the girl to-- she looks like her feet are so far apart. She's really struggling to stand.

Dick

That's the way they stand though.

Tamara Staples

That's all right. Oh, did you see that? All right. we got it.

Ira Glass

Why? What did she just do? Describe.

Tamara Staples

She looked up at him very sweetly, like that, with her head cocked. The male bird was posing, and she was posing also but had a personality of just being like the sweet, doting mother.

Ira Glass

But not standard of perfection?

Tamara Staples

But not standard of perfection. So we're done with this background and--

Ira Glass

Not standard of perfection. Even these perfectly bred Cornishes could not achieve standard of perfection today. And even in this goofy, un-birdlike situation, an hour of watching them makes clear just how hard it is ever to get birds to hit the standard.

Which is to say, not only do we completely dominate every aspect of the lives of chickens, their births, their feed, their eggs, their slaughter. Not only have we bred them to human specifications to meet human needs, but we've created a standard of what it means to be chicken that most chickens can never meet. That's what the standard means. We judge them as chickens, and we find them lacking. If they had the brains to understand this, they would be right to feel indignant.

But of course, this is a city person's perspective. And that means it is completely wrongheaded from the point of view of anybody who actually raises birds. Standing in the cold feed room, I had a long, long talk with George about this. George is 80 years old. He's been raising birds since, I guess, the Calvin Coolidge administration. And he says the whole fun of raising birds is raising them to the standard.

George

Well, like for instance, if your birds lack bone. OK, you go out and buy a bird as nearly like them as you can with better bone. But when you mate them together, you might get long-legged birds or too short. I mean you don't get what you want just by mating. It takes four, five years to gradually get it up. And by that time, they're inbred and you need new ones.

Ira Glass

George tells me that when he's breeding a new batch of birds, he'll hatch 65 of them, and only one or two will be anywhere near the standard of perfection. That's how hard it is.

Ira Glass

Do you get frustrated with the standard of perfection sometimes?

George

No, we get frustrated with the judges because every judge has his own idea what the standard should be.

Ira Glass

But I thought that's the whole point of a standard is that the judge doesn't--

George

That is, but one judge will want it this way, and another another. Today, if you bred your birds to the standard of protection, weight and everything, and took them to the show, you probably wouldn't get anywhere. You have to breed to the fads.

Ira Glass

That's right, the fads, like Cornishes these days are supposed to have shorter legs than the real standard of perfection. Vertical tail feathers are out and all sorts of breeds that really should have them. In the country, among the chicken breeders, they think about a lot of things you never get to in the city.

Ira Glass

And when you're raising these birds, with any of these birds, do you have a close relationship with a bird the way somebody would have with a pet?

George

I don't have time. I have too many things to do. A few years ago, I almost died of cancer. And the good Lord told me how to cure myself, and so I've been working with that a lot the last three years. I've helped people and put it it papers. Now, it's getting all over the United States.

Ira Glass

What did you do?

George

You use the root of a dandelion. Simple as can be, but there's something in that that builds up your blood and your immune system.

Ira Glass

Wait a a senior. You're saying that you were diagnosed with cancer, and this is the only treatment you had, and it cured you?

George

Yeah, and I've given it to to other people when the medical world has told them that there's nothing more they can do. And they've gotten well too, but not all of them. If they're too far gone, it won't help them.

Ira Glass

And you make it into tea or something like that?

George

We just put it in a little water, a little milk, Kool-Aid. You can put it on a sandwich, anything that isn't hot.

Ira Glass

George gives me a pamphlet that he's written up. No doctor has actually checked him out to prove the cancer is gone from his body. He's actually got no hard, scientific proof that this really works, but he says God told him that this is the way he should be spending his time. And it has cut into his bird breeding a bit.

George leaves, off on other business. Tamara has finished hanging and lighting the next backdrop. And the rest of us begin with the second bird, a bird called a Brahma with elaborately patterned brown and white feather.

Ira Glass

She is a big. This is a chicken the size of a dog.

Paul

Not that big. A small dog.

Ira Glass

Our second bird demonstrates the great distance between bird instinct and intelligence and the demands of modern fashion photography, which is to say, of civilization. Called upon to do human tasks, even rather passive ones, a bird remains a bird. Paul carries the huge hen onto the fragile little set Tamara has built.

Tamara Staples

She's a beauty? What are you eating there buddy? Oh, it slapped me.

Ira Glass

"I'm scared of this one," she says quietly as she adjusts her camera. The chicken is so big, nine pounds, the size of a small consumer turkey, that she has to pull the camera back. Then there are the props. She's trying an experiment, putting a little toy horse in the picture with the chicken, a tiny wagon. This does not seem to help things. The Davidsons are looking at her skeptically. Paul asks pointedly if she's ever shot a bird this big.

Tamara Staples

We have to figure out where the-- [CHICKEN SOUNDS]

Paul

That's the sound of a frightened chicken.

Ira Glass

Imagine this please from the point of view of the chicken. OK, you're surrounded by powerful creatures five times your height. They crowd in at you. They leer at you. You are standing on a surface, Tamara's set, where it is impossible to get decent footing. There is a three foot tall strobe light, a strobe light twice your height, just a wing's length away from your beaky little face.

Paul

She just--

Tamara Staples

She needs a few minutes just to relax. Hello bird, are you going to slap me in the face again?

Paul

She tends to jump right in your face.

Tamara Staples

You know why you're here? Let's talk. We need you to be beautiful. Here's your moment. OK? There are more where you came from, buddy. You better act up here.

Ira Glass

This combination of coddling and threats might motivate and aspiring supermodel or an eager puppy, but this, after all, is a chicken. Forget standard of perfection, this chicken does not even stand up straight. It sags. It slouches. Laura tries to lure it up with a handful of corn.

Tamara Staples

Is she standing?

Paul

We put corn where she's trying to get it, but she has to stand up high for it.

Laura

Is that where you want her to stand?

Paul

We'd like her to stand up.

Tamara Staples

Pretty much.

Ira Glass

Somewhere during this ordeal, a funny thing happens. All the Davidsons, who all started off skeptical, they are completely engaged. Dick suggests a pose that is pure art concept, a pose that could not be further from standard of perfection. Laura lures the bird with corn. Paul smooths feathers. Dick and Ella and Gary, two other relatives-- the had all been standing back at the edges of the feed room. Now, they all lean in right next to Tamara. And when the bird quivers or moves a wing, three people jump in to fix it back up.

Tamara Staples

There are some feathers on the breast a little bit fluffy. She's not real clean down there. That looks good. She's a little farther. You guys are a great team. I'm going to hire you to come with me. Oops. I've got a hand in there. That's right. Move the hand. Move the hand. Move the hand. OK great.

Ira Glass

It wasn't until this point that I realized that I came into this expecting the bird to be more-- well, more human, partly, I think, because I had never really thought about this one way or the other. But partly because Tamara's photos make chickens seem so thoughtful.

Paul

Over here. Look at the camera.

Tamara Staples

Now she's completely out of frame.

Ira Glass

Those photos are a lie.

Tamara Staples

[COAXING CHICKEN] Hello. Hey. She's kneeling right now. She's not standing as well as she could.

Ira Glass

As the day continues and Tamara shoots other birds, it becomes clear. The glimpse of personality that she's able to capture on film, these are just momentary. These are fleeting. A bird turns its head for an instant at a certain angle, or a bird squints its eyes at the camera. And for a moment, through the camera lens, to a human, it looks like recognizable personality, emotion. But really, it's just a chicken.

And watching, I think I begin to understand why the people who breed birds have no interest in photos that show chickens' true personalities. It's because that in their true personalities, chickens are kind of a pain in the ass.

Paul

I think you're going to have a one-shot opportunity here. It's going to be when I let go. [CHICKEN NOISES] Jeez, I didn't even let go. I just started to let up, and he yanked it right out of my hand.

Ira Glass

Fact is, you try to give chickens respect. You can try to treat them with dignity and photograph them the way you'd photograph anything or anyone that's serious. But the chickens will not care. You can make them look dignified, but it is a brainless, bird-like dignity. And it is ephemeral?

Ira Glass

Do you feel like your relationship with chickens has changed because of this?

Tamara Staples

No, not at all.

Ira Glass

How could that not be so?

Tamara Staples

I order the chicken when I'm at the show. I eat it right in front of the chickens.

Ira Glass

You eat chicken while you're standing there with a chicken?

Tamara Staples

Yes. Is it wrong? I'm hungry.

Ira Glass

Well, no wonder they won't sit still.

Tamara Staples

Yeah.

[CHICKEN CRYING]

Ira Glass

We pack up our gear and move the massive wall of hay back into place. As we do this, chickens hop by, Brahmas, Ameraucana, mixed breeds. They seem utterly uninterested in us. They cluck at each other. There's feed to eat, hay to nestle in. They have better things to do with their time. And you know, there's nothing that makes you realize just how inhuman chickens are than spending a day trying to make them seem human.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder, senior editor Paul Tough, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margie Rockland and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Rachel Howard and Alex Blumberg. [ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you want to buy a tape of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago. That phone number, 312-832-3380. Again, 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who has found a perfect way to create a new radio host.

Jack Hitt

By sticking in small, painted Styrofoam ball onto a larger painted Styrofoam ball, poking in two map tacks for eyes--

Ira Glass

Oh, you get the idea. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life. (HOST) ANNOUNCER: PRI, Public Radio International.