Animal rights means that other animal species have moral claims on us based on their nature as expressed in behaviors, including their voices, that tell us who they are and what they desire to do and not do.
Animal rights means that the claims of other species, as fellow creatures with feelings, should be recognized in the form of laws that define and protect their interests and provide them with a vicarious voice in the form of legal representation.
The science of ethology, which studies animal behavior in natural and contrived settings, has produced a copious amount of literature and audiovisual material that, added to centuries of anecdotal observation, provides ample grounds for according legal rights to nonhuman animals.
As a (nonlegal) advocate for animals since the 1980s and founder of an organization that promotes compassionate and respectful treatment of chickens and other domestic fowl, I’m familiar with the arguments that are used to silence opposition to the cruelty imposed on birds in farming operations.
Ironically, we’re charged with “anthropomorphism” for saying the birds suffer, while simultaneously being told that only “happy” chickens lay tons of eggs and put on mountains of weight in enforced, sedentary confinement. In fact, they’re manipulated genetically and by other means to do abnormal biological things at the expense of their well-being.
For example, chickens bred for meat production go to slaughter lame and in pain, as demonstrated by numerous studies showing that their bones cannot support their growth rate and body weight. Chickens offered a choice of food mixed with pain-relieving medication choose it.
The fact that these chickens (and turkeys) develop heart ailments in their infancy, and suffer from a multitude of bizarre production diseases, shows that they are not happy or adapted to the conditions imposed on them.
As a sanctuary director for more than 25 years on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, one of the largest chicken-producing areas in the country, I know firsthand the abnormal and appalling suffering of these birds, bereft of legal protection.
By the same token, it is not complicated to know what a chicken needs and wants to do to be healthy and happy.
Visit our sanctuary in Virginia and you will see that chickens want to be out of their houses each morning and into their spacious yards and wooded areas to forage, sunbathe, dustbathe and socialize together. They want to roost up high together at night on perches, reflecting the fact that chickens evolved in the tropical forest and slept in trees, and still do. They want to run on their legs and flap their wings, nest and do all the things they evolved to do, as reflected in their overt behavior – unless their natural behavior is thwarted and distorted, as it is in crowded confinement situations with boring food, mutilated beaks, and no outlets for their time and energies.
The reason that even intelligent people insist we can’t know what an animal of another species wants to do is simple: What animals want to do conflicts with what we want to do with them, and to them, and how we want to use, misuse and abuse them.
Acknowledging that other animal species have interests, preferences, desires, dislikes, aversions, affinities and so forth would require moral obligations and radical changes in our behavior toward them. Let’s stop pretending we don’t know, or can’t know, what a chicken or a goat or a chimpanzee desires to do. I know what our chickens want to do because I watch them choose their daily activities in an environment that stimulates their interests.
For instance, chickens released from a long siege in a cage and placed on the ground almost invariably start making the tentative, increasingly vigorous gestures of taking a dustbath. They paddle and fling the dirt with their claws, rake in particles of earth with their beaks, fluff up their feathers, roll on their sides, pause with their eyes closed, and stretch out their legs in obvious relish at being able to bask luxuriously and satisfy their urge to clean themselves and to be clean, as well as engage in the highly social activity of dustbathing together.
Dustbathing is one of many examples I can give of knowing what chickens desire to do as demonstrated by what they choose to do. My knowledge fits that of the ages going back to Plutarch and other recorders of chickens’ behavior, in which genetic patterns combine with the birds’ learning abilities.
A question that confronts us as a society is whether we have the decency and courage to start codifying our accumulated knowledge of other animal species and proliferation of findings about them into laws that uphold animals’ dignity and protect their interests. By interests, I mean their bodily integrity, their biological and cognitive repertoires, and their habitats.
Karen Davis, Ph.D., is president and founder of United Poultry Concerns. She maintains a sanctuary for domestic fowl in Virginia.