An interesting experiment was published by the School of Veterinary Sciences in Bristol, U.K.. The paper involves a common, misunderstood and oft-undervalued animal. The experiment asked the question: Do chickens feel?
The lowly chicken is the focus of the study, which aimed to bring us all that much closer to the possible biological roots of emotion. This test is one of many others that take advantage of the development of better testing methods. As a result, we are constantly seeing animals encroach on the once exclusively human domain of emotion.
The chickens were tested to see if they could feel empathy. The theory behind the experiment postulated that empathy would have evolved relatively early in the animal kingdom, being an adaptive advantage for raising offspring.
An ingenious method was employed to test a mother’s response to distressed chicks. The Daily Telegraph explains: “When chicks were exposed to puffs of air, they showed signs of distress that were mirrored by their mothers. The hens’ heart rate increased, their eye temperature lowered — a recognized stress sign — and they became increasingly alert. Levels of preening were reduced, and the hens made more clucking noises directed at their chicks.”
Researcher Jo Edgar summarizes the findings: “We found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of ‘empathy,’ the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.” The scientists hope that their findings will influence the treatment of lab and farm animals.
The assumption that chickens do not possess the capacity for emotion might be a driving factor in the modern poultry farming industry, where chickens are treated like mechanical output and efficiency is the only goal.
Canada produces over 600 million chickens annually, while the U.S., home to the world’s largest poultry industry, produces over nine billion birds and over 90 billion eggs each year. The output is obtained through largely “inhumane” practices — maximal numbers of chicken per square foot, automated sorting and care processes.
These billions of kilograms of animal product, that are the desired output of industry, would be impossible to obtain without the factory farm, however. Though the experiment may have been straightforward and simple, it forces us to rethink the way we live our lives and reconsider some basic tenets of the world around us — as all good science should.