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The World According to Intelligent and Emotional Chickens

Chickens are as cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex as many mammals.

Chickens are birds. I know most, if not all of you, already know this. However, on more than one occasion, I've mentioned to someone who's munching on a chicken sandwich, that they're eating a smart and emotional bird. Often, they look at me thinking something like, "I am? But I'm eating chicken."

Regardless, we've known for a while that chickens are very intelligent and feeling bird beings. And, so too, are many other birds. The excellent essays written for Psychology Today by bird experts John Marzluff and Tony Angell in their column called "Avian Einsteins" amply demonstrate this, and recently, I've written two essays about birds that also show just how smart, adaptive, and emotional they truly are (please see "Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence" and "Bird Minds: An Outstanding Book About Australian Natives"). The books these essays cover are outstanding, and Dr. Kaplan's has won many awards.

To quote Nicholas Kristof in To Kill a Chicken:

If you torture a single chicken and are caught, you’re likely to be arrested. If you scald thousands of chickens alive, you’re an industrialist who will be lauded for your acumen ... Workers grab the birds and shove their legs upside down into metal shackles on a conveyor belt. The chickens are then carried upside down to an electrified bath that is meant to knock them unconscious. The conveyor belt then carries them — at a pace of more than two chickens per second — to a circular saw that cuts open their necks so that they bleed to death before they are scalded in hot water and their feathers plucked.

The way in which chickens are treated on their way to human mouths is not at all a pleasant journey. I don't want to go into the gory details, and you can read all about it here.

The facts are simple and utterly sickening: "More than 9 billion chickens, along with half a billion turkeys, are slaughtered for food in the United States each year. This number represents more than 95 percent of the land animals killed for food in the country. Worldwide, more than 50 billion chickens are raised and slaughtered annually," writes Kristof.

He concludes: "Think about that. If a naughty boy pulls feathers out of a single chicken, he’s punished. But scald hundreds of thousands of chickens alive each year? That’s a business model."

Thinking chickens: A review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken

But, there's good news and let's hope that it's used on behalf of chickens and other birds who are served up as meals. Dr. Lori Marino, founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy Inc., has recently published a review article called "Thinking Chickens: A Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior in the Domestic Chicken." It appeared in the journal Animal Cognition and is available online. The abstract for Dr. Marino's review reads:

Domestic chickens are members of an order, Aves, which has been the focus of a revolution in our understanding of neuroanatomical, cognitive, and social complexity. At least some birds are now known to be on par with many mammals in terms of their level of intelligence, emotional sophistication, and social interaction. Yet, views of chickens have largely remained unrevised by this new evidence. In this paper, I examine the peer-reviewed scientific data on the leading edge of cognition, emotions, personality, and sociality in chickens, exploring such areas as self-awareness, cognitive bias, social learning and self-control, and comparing their abilities in these areas with other birds and other vertebrates, particularly mammals. My overall conclusion is that chickens are just as cognitively, emotionally and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas, and that there is a need for further noninvasive comparative behavioral research with chickens as well as a re-framing of current views about their intelligence.

In her essay, Dr. Marino covers a number of different areas of research including sensory abilities, visual cognition, spatial orientation, recognizing partly occluded objects, numerical abilities, time perception/anticipation of future events, episodic memory, reasoning and logical inference, self-awareness, different forms of communication, social cognition and complexity, social learning, fear, emotional contagion and empathy, personality, and much more. She concludes:

  1. Chickens possess a number of visual and spatial capacities, arguably dependent upon mental representation, such as some aspects of stage four object permanence and illusory contours, on a par with other birds and mammals.
  2. Chickens possess some understanding of numerosity and share some very basic arithmetic capacities with other animals.
  3. Chickens can demonstrate self-control and self-assessment, and these capacities may indicate self-awareness.
  4. Chickens 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. This capacity, if present in chickens, would be shared with other highly intelligent and social species, including primates.
  5. Chickens have the capacity to reason and make logical inferences. For example, chickens are capable of simple forms of transitive inference, a capability that humans develop at approximately the age of seven.
  6. Chickens perceive time intervals and may be able to anticipate future events.
  7. Chickens are behaviorally sophisticated, discriminating among individuals, exhibiting Machiavellian-like social interactions, and learning socially in complex ways that are similar to humans.
  8. 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.
  9. Chickens have distinct personalities, just like all animals who are cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally complex individuals.

There are numerous reviews of Dr. Marino's essay and I encourage you to read some of them. Her essay is an incredibly important one because it shows just how much we know about chickens (and other birds) from detailed comparative research, and it's not being "touchy/feely" or sentimental to argue that chickens experience enduring and deep suffering on their way to human mouths.

Would you do it to a dog? Bridging the empathy gap

Often, when I’m discussing some aspect of nonhuman animal (animal) abuse, I ask people, “Would you do it to your dog?” Across the board, people are incredulous when I ask this question, and I simply explain to them that dogs aren’t more sentient than food animals such as cows, pigs, or chickens, laboratory animals such as mice and rats, or entertainment animals such as elephants or orcas.

In another essay by Kristof called "Do You Care More About a Dog Than a Refugee?" he asks in his conclusion: "If we can rally on behalf of a frightened dog in Orlando, can’t we also muster concern for billions of farm animals — as well as the humans struggling to raise them?"

I wrote about his essay in a piece called "Valuing Dogs More Than War Victims: Bridging the Empathy Gap," in which I argued that we can and should use dogs to bridge the empathy gap we conveniently construct between ourselves and other animals and among the animals themselves.

Using dogs to connect us to other animals in this way asks people to recognize that we're often extremely inconsistent in how we view and treat other nonhuman animals compared to our canine, feline, and numerous other household companions. We also view and treat our companions with much more compassion and empathy than we do some groups of humans.

This also is a point that Jessica Pierce and I make in The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, namely that dogs can indeed bridge the empathy gap if we're open to this possibility. At the very least, it's essential to ask difficult questions and come to an understanding of why we hold the attitudes we do and how we can use our feelings about companion animals and extend compassion and empathy to other nonhumans and humans who truly need all the help they can get.

Dr. Pierce and I also argue that we simply must use what we know on the animals' behalf, because there is a huge division we call the "knowledge gap" between what we know and how we use it to protect other animals (please see, for example, "The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals" and "Homo Denialus: Mice Aren't Animals, Climate Change Is Real" and links therein).

I hope Dr. Marino's essay and at least the popular reviews receive the global attention they deserve, and that people do something with this knowledge. Chickens are sentient beings and we should stop torturing them by the billions for our meal plans. Providing them with "good welfare" is not good enough, and even if they receive what's called "a better life," it hardly borders on "a good life" compared to what we offer dogs and other animals.

Anonymous and ad hominem comments will not be accepted.

Here are two added tidbits along the lines of this essay: Please also see Paul Shapiro's "We Are Seeing Animals in a Different Light" and "Walruses Found Using Birds as Toys for First Time."

Two of Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), and Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation.

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