I’ve been a meat eater for 52 years. That’s the way my parents raised me. Chicken, pork, beef, lamb—I ate it all, never giving much thought to where my food actually came from. But something happened to me recently that changed all of that. I witnessed something so incredible, so profound, that I can truly say my relationship with food will never be the same.
I have come to the realization that eating animals is unethical following an encounter with a chicken that has the remarkable ability to play tic-tac-toe.
Last weekend, I attended the Van Buren County Fair expecting the festivities to be like any other year. I’d go on a few rides, play a few games, perhaps enjoy a funnel cake. But then I came across the Bird Brain Challenge. It was a booth that allowed visitors to play tic-tac-toe against a chicken, and it was one of the most amazing—and revelatory—sights I have ever beheld.
As the chicken took turns with its opponents, pecking at a little metal box, I perceived in its gaze an unmistakable intelligence and dignity. I began to realize these birds possessed wisdom, memory, and self-awareness. I no longer viewed them as “just animals,” but as cognizant, complex entities capable of reason and choice. Suddenly, the idea of a carnivorous diet began to seem like a barbaric, grotesque relic of the past. Watching that chicken contemplate where to place its next O, I was forever transformed.
At that moment, I knew I would never again raise a forkful of animal flesh to my mouth.
Here was a creature that, just like us, could play a game of tic-tac-toe. Just like us, it could think strategically about whether to go for the center box or one of the corner ones. So how could caging, slaughtering, and consuming it possibly be moral? When I made the connection between the animals I often grilled in my backyard and the animal before me able to score three in a row vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, it shook me to my very core.
Over the years, I’d seen PETA commercials and news reports on factory farming, but those arguments for vegetarianism had never won me over. It didn’t click for me until I looked at that chicken and realized there was a soul in there, one that had hopes, dreams, and a firm understanding of how to limit your opponent’s options by making a strong opening move. These birds aren’t something to be put in a can of soup or on a plate with blue cheese and buffalo sauce. They are sentient beings that can think, emote, and make the judgment to play things safe and aim for a draw after realizing a win is infeasible given the current layout of Xs.
I have always believed our ability to play a three-by-three grid strategy game was part of what made us unique as humans. Now, I have been forced to discard this conviction. I have seen a chicken abandon a diagonal approach and instead make a play for the left-hand vertical line, a move so cunning it would never have occurred to me. Chickens know how to plan ahead in order to lure their opponent into an unwise move—I have witnessed it myself. Would you eat me? Of course not. Then why eat an animal that can consistently outmaneuver me at tic-tac-toe?
Even if I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to eat meat again. After I left the fair’s tic-tac-toe booth, my stomach turned at the sight of those around me mindlessly chomping on their turkey legs. Now, every time I pass a KFC, my mind flashes back to Clucky the Bird Genius, as complex and sensitive a creature as I have ever known.
The sign advertising the attraction prompted fairgoers with the question, “Are you smarter than a chicken?” What it should have asked is, “Are you more human than one?”
What I saw that fateful day was a wake-up call to treat animals with dignity and respect. If everyone could experience such a powerful testament to the fundamental connection between all living things, then perhaps, one day, true harmony could be restored to our planet.
Until I see a salmon play Connect Four, however, I will continue eating fish.