Opinion Editorial

Chickens are birds, just like eagles, but they get no respect

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

It seems the world loves chicken but not chickens.

When KFC in the United Kingdom recently ran out of chicken, there was near panic, with customers complaining to their members of parliament and even calling the police. During this year’s Super Bowl, football fans reportedly consumed a record 1.35 billion wings and McDonald’s is reportedly planning to become a “credible chicken player” in the fast-food market. In 2016, Canadians ate about 32.5 kilograms of chicken per capita, the highest consumption ever.

All this reflects a trend away from red-meat consumption, which has likely been fuelled by concerns over its negative impacts on health, the environment, and animal welfare. But the downsides of chicken consumption and production have not attracted the same level of public attention, especially when it comes to animal-welfare concerns.

Most people think of chicken in terms of nuggets, not birds. When those Super Bowl fans are gnawing on wings, they are not thinking of the feathered appendages used to shelter chicks or to escape from danger. (Yes, chickens can fly.)

Although we admire the majesty of eagles or show affection for our pet budgies, most of us accord chickens rock-bottom status in the animal world. Some birds are feathered friends. Chickens are, forever, food.

Yet the science is clear that chickens are birds—and they share many of the same behaviours and abilities as other birds. Although we put labels such as “wildlife”, “pet”, or “livestock” on animals, the animals themselves only think and feel as individuals, each with their own needs and desires, oblivious to human categorization. The rooster crowing at sunrise may feel like an eagle, regardless of our perceptions.

A recent review of the scientific data on the cognition, emotion, and behaviour of chickens concluded that they “are just as cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas” and that they “have distinct personalities, just like all animals who are cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally complex individuals”.

The review, by neuroscientist Lori Marino, found that chickens:

  • have complex negative and positive emotions, as well as a shared psychology with humans and other ethologically complex animals. They exhibit emotional contagion and some evidence for empathy.
  • possess a number of visual and spatial capacities on a par with other birds and mammals.
  • share some very basic arithmetic capacities with other animals.
  • can demonstrate self-control and self-assessment, and these capacities may indicate self-awareness.
  • communicate in complex ways, including through referential communication, which may depend upon some level of self-awareness and the ability to take the perspective of another animal.
  • have the capacity to reason and make logical inferences.
  • perceive time intervals and may be able to anticipate future events.

Marino concluded: “These capacities are, compellingly, similar to what we see in other animals regarded as highly intelligent.”

It’s clear that chickens don’t deserve their low status in the animal kingdom, but should that even matter when it comes to how they are treated? The real ethical question should be about their capacity to suffer. In modern poultry production, there is no doubt that they do.

Chickens raised for meat are bred to grow so fast they are crippled by their own weight, leading to heart disease, skeletal disorders, and lameness. They are transported to slaughterhouses in cramped, unheated trucks with limited ventilation in all weathers, during which time they can legally be deprived of water, food, and rest for up to 36 hours. After short, miserable lives of deprivation, stress, and pain, more than 600 million chickens in Canada are shackled upside-down and slaughtered each year.

Aside from obvious animal-welfare issues, the overuse of antibiotics in poultry production has been cited as a cause of antimicrobial resistance, threatening the effectiveness of antibiotics for human use. Large poultry farms have also been identified as sources of air and water pollution. (A proposed poultry operation in Alberta, which would house 130,000 chickens, is meeting fierce opposition from local residents over environmental concerns.)

One answer to these problems is for consumers to avoid eating chicken altogether, but given its near universal popularity, how likely is that? Yet new developments in the plant-based-food sector suggest that finding a competitive alternative to chicken may not be as improbable as it seems.

number of plant-based chicken substitutes have successfully entered the market (not all available in Canada), but they have yet to make much of a dent in the poultry industry’s dominance. However, plant-based and “clean meat” start-ups continue to improve their products and attract investment. One small company making headlines is New Zealand’s Sunfed Meats, whose  Chicken Free Chicken consistently sells out in its home country and reportedly tastes very close to the real thing. After attracting significant international interest, the company says it plans to go global.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea that “fake chicken” might one day replace the animal flesh so popular today. But consider what’s happening in the dairy industry. Between 1996 and 2015, per-capita consumption of milk in Canada decreased by 21.5 percent. Meanwhile, the global market for plant-based dairy-alternative drinks is forecast to top $16.3 billion dollars this year—up significantly from $7.4 billion in 2010. The emerging plant-based sector is not going away and could be the “disruptor” that brings dramatic change to the food industry and our diets.

If such change is coming to confront poultry producers, it can’t come too soon for the billions of chickens that suffer to provide nuggets and wings to consumers whose appetites may be greater than their capacity for empathy.