“Yo, birdbrain!” “Hey, what are ya, a chicken?” Rather than taking offense to these common put-downs, I’m going to take them as compliments. Birds–let’s focus on chickens here–are smart. Social. Brave. They think and feel. In a lot of ways, they’re a lot like us. But it’s easy to forget that–if, indeed, we ever thought about it at all. Let’s think about it now.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011 is International Respect for Chickens Day, and the entire month of May is dedicated to growing greater respect for this much-abused, intensively factory farmed bird. Launched in 2005 by United Poultry Concerns (UPC), the day is designed “…to celebrate chickens and protest against the bleakness of their lives in farming operations.”
So how smart, social, and individual are chickens?
“Contrary to what one may hear from the industry, chickens are not mindless, simple automata but are complex behaviorally, do quite well in learning, show a rich social organization, and have a diverse repertoire of calls. Anyone who has kept barnyard chickens also recognizes their significant differences in personality.” ~ Dr. Bernard Rollin, professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University.
And this, from Dr. Chris Evans, professor of psychology at Macquarie University in Australia:
“Chickens exist in stable social groups. They can recognize each other by their facial features. They have 24 distinct cries that communicate a wealth of information to one other, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is travelling by land or sea. They are good at solving problems. As a trick at conferences I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys.”
“Perhaps most persuasive is the chicken’s intriguing ability to understand that an object, when taken away and hidden, nevertheless continues to exist. This is beyond the capacity of small children.”
This is bad news for industrial growers, who bank on us (literally and figuratively) seeing chickens as dumb, unthinking, unfeeling and, ultimately, meaningless as individuals. Times eight billion-plus.
It’s not wise to get too hung-up on intelligence, though (or that we share traits in common), when it’s actually sentience alone that matters. And chickens, unlike, say, chickpea plants, are sentient. New research shows that they display signs of empathy.
Let’s forego the litany of horrors endured by “layers” and “broilers” in factory farms. Most folks who are regulars at animals rights websites have the hateful facts seared into brains and hearts. But if you are new to exploring what you believe about the rights of animals, check here and here for details on the so-called life of an egg layer; for the painful, short life of a meat chicken, look here and here. If you prefer straight-forward narrative, try this and this.
When chickens were domesticated from jungle fowl, no one divined the modern factory farm of 8000 years hence. Those early southeast Asian wild fowl lived the good life, as nature intended: in a social setting arranged in a hierarchy (pecking order), scratching about in the sun, hunting insects, perching in leaves, dust bathing and just squawkin’ around. Mothers fearlessly protected precious chicks from predators. Today’s domestic chickens behave that way, too–when given the chance. But oh how slim that chance has become.
“I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe….There must have been thirty thousand chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn’t move, didn’t cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way.” —Michael Specter, New Yorker, April 14, 2003.
Dr. John Webster, author of Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden, calls the treatment of chickens raised for food “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.” And we haven’t even mentioned the quarter billion male chicks ground up alive every year–worthless to the egg industry.
I entered “chicken wings” in a search engine and was nine pages in before I found a hit that didn’t pertain to eating (and it dealt with a lab experiment. Imagine having your body so thoroughly hijacked!) That little exercise drove home another point–about how corporate agendas shape our lives and rely on our continued, mindless participation to support their bottom line. To this end, and illustrating a perverse coupling of human appetites, I learned that an NFL lockout will “devastate” the wing industry. Bring it on!
A Chicken Liberation Manifesto for May 4th and beyond: Wings are for flapping! “De-beaking” is a word that should not exist. The ability to stand up straight, stretch out, and breathe fresh air are rights not to be withheld from any sentient creature–chicken, human, or otherwise. Empty the battery cages! Consign factory farming to a sad footnote in the human story. The question for our species should not be, “Breast or thigh?” but, “Suffering or compassion?”
7 substitutes for eggs in baking: video here!
Update: The NFL lockout has been resolved.
This post also appears at animal law blog, Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.