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Chickens Can Be Therapy Animals

They're fun to watch.

Chicken. Did the word make you think of slippery pale pink slab? A roast in your oven? Bar-b-que?

Recently, on a trip to Vermont I happened to rent a room overnight in the home of a nurse who had a group of fluffy yellow chicks in a dark room under a heat lamp and adult chickens roaming her yard and on up to her porch where she’d put out some food. She also had left two egg boxes full of eggs, brown, white and pale green, from her own chickens. Green eggs, by the way, look normal inside, despite Dr. Seuss.

Her chickens were colorful—glossy red, and black-and white—and did things I didn’t know chickens do, such as jump up to grab a leaf on a tree and run, apparently just for fun. They made me laugh.

I wondered if chickens could make good pets. If you haven’t guessed, I’ve lived in or near a big city my entire life. It turns out that chickens are considered therapy animals by some. At a residential facility in Santa Barbara, patients get stipends to care for a pet chicken.

Chickens aren’t dull. They have more than 24 different types of vocalizations as well as visual displays, according to Carolynn L. Smith and Jane Johnson, animal researchers at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, communicating in ways that would surprise you in its sophistication.

Around the web, chicken-lovers report in detail on their pets' behavior. A mother hen “talks” to unborn chicks, clucking at her eggs. I read that the chicks chirp back to her and to each other through their shells. Chicks obey their mothers. One woman writes on Quora, “I am a teacher and even in 'lock down drill' it is difficult to make 32 children silent and still. But a hen, with 16 non stop excitably chattering chicks of different breeds ( I put the eggs under her) can silence them with one sound if she thinks there is a hawk about. They were silent for five minutes!”

They learn from each other, she reports: “I had a hen that led all hens to the green grass at the roadside at the front of the house. They always went the same way. Worried about traffic, I eventually closed the gate. She circumnavigated an alternative route on the other side of the house, where they never went, within minutes….If I have a new flock, it develops its own food and behavior culture: we like greens, we like scraps, and prefer grain vs we hate scraps, we don't care for some grains. Or we like to escape to the reserve vs. no, we just like it down here near the banana tree vs. we like to peck at the door and poop on the doorstep." (We can all learn something about empathy from this woman, I'd bet.)

They remember. “I have taken a hen with a health problem away from the flock. She lived at my mother-in-law’s for seven months. On her return, she knew all the places to go, without faltering: best food spot, best worm scratching spot, best sunbathing spot, best roosts. She had to remember this and she was only in her second year.

They have a social hierarchy and personalities: “The talker, the complainer, the bossy one and the placid and the dopey and the eagle eyed smarty pants.”

According to my friends who have actually raised or lived near chickens, they don’t get attached to their humans (or at least show affection in the ways we expect) but we can get attached to them.

They can make good therapy pets for people who live with a backyard because they cost much less than dogs. Care-taking is good for you, when it’s not overwhelming and a chicken can provide an “un-anxious example of how to live without worry,” says my friend Sylvia. They are “very humorous to watch and interact with, so they could be therapeutic in that sense,” says Samantha.

We like to justify eating chickens and cows on the ground that they aren’t as smart as we are or as smart as dogs, but we aren’t consistent, because pigs are plenty smart. In any case, that logic really doesn’t work. How smart is too smart to eat? Why does lack of intelligence justify cruelty? Should you be less kind to a less intelligent human?