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Not just a chicken

Earlier this year, a rather obscure gathering of scientists took place at the University of Prince Edward Island.  The “Poultry Welfare Conference September 2012” was never going to make big headlines but in its own small way it just might help alleviate the suffering of billions of animals.

As animal advocates will tell you, it’s hard to get the public to care about chickens.  To most people they are good for dinner and not much else.   Cats and dogs, zoo animals and wildlife all attract a degree of human empathy or sympathy, but farm animals, especially poultry just don’t rate. 

Perhaps it’s because people don’t think (or prefer not to think) of their drumsticks or nuggets as having once been a living, breathing animal.  And even if they do, well, it’s just a chicken.

But of course chickens are more than just food.  In fact, as scientists are discovering, they are not only smarter than anyone thought – they’re also capable of feelings such as frustration, distress and even empathy.

Dr. Ian Duncan, Canada’s foremost poultry welfare scientist, told the P.E.I. conference that there is now an acceptance that it is feelings that govern animal welfare and “therefore feelings that should be measured when assessing welfare.”  Duncan has designed experiments that “ask” animals how they feel by measuring how hard they are willing to work to obtain or avoid certain stimuli.

For example, he has shown that hens will work just as hard to find a secluded nesting place as they will to get food, suggesting that the frustration of being denied a nest is as powerful a feeling as hunger.  In Canada, 95 per cent of laying hens are kept in cages that deny them the opportunity to nest.  Science now supports the common sense contention that those caged hens, about 26 million of them, are suffering.

Duncan’s work is underpinned by a broader scientific rethink on animal intelligence and sentience.  In July of this year, a prominent group of neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess consciousness in human and non-human animals.  The result was the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which, among other things, declared that “Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought.”  In other words, birds think and feel more like us than we had supposed.

The declaration has moral and cultural implications, as Dr. Christof Koch, a renowned neuroscientist and signatory to the declaration made clear: “The belief in human exceptionalism, so strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of the world, flies in the face of all evidence for the structural and behavioural continuity between animals and people.”

Some specific studies on chickens have suggested that they possess “primitive self-consciousness.”  Others have found evidence that chickens have “one of the essential underpinning attributes of ‘empathy’; the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.”

Even the social behaviours of chickens (in natural settings) indicate they are perhaps not so different from “higher animals” as previously thought. One Australian study found that roosters who lost out to dominant males when it came to attracting hens found alternative routes to romantic success by “being nice” and finding food for hens.  (Human males who never made the football team but still wanted to get dates will be familiar with such strategies.)

But should chickens’ welfare depend on how intelligent or more “like us” they are?  Philosophical debates rage over granting animals moral consideration based on their levels of sentience, intelligence and self-consciousness.  Some would argue that the capacity of an animal to feel pain should be enough to make inflicting such pain morally wrong.

It could also be argued that having intelligence hasn’t saved millions of pigs suffering in factory farms, or whales who continue to be slaughtered, or dogs and primates still used in laboratory research.

Nevertheless, making science-based arguments when advocating compassion for animals does carry weight with those suspicious of mere sentimentalism (although one wonders why the simple concept of mercy isn’t morally persuasive enough).  Proving animals are more intelligent and emotionally capable will, in the long run, make it harder for industries and authorities to justify making them suffer or killing them for human benefit.

Even changing chickens’ image will help.  Science is showing that they are not “bird-brained” “dumb clucks” but sentient, clever birds with unique personalities and interesting social behaviours.  That’s who is suffering on factory farms.  That’s who is being slaughtered by the millions.  That’s who is on your plate – not “just a chicken.”