It seems we can’t get enough of funny animal videos. Indeed, it would be difficult to calculate the collective hours of our lives lost to (enriched by?) footage of cats in boxes, parrots dancing, crows sledding, and dogs, well, dogs being dogs. We are endlessly fascinated by animals at play. But an unusual thing happens within the genre of funny animal videos, which is that it’s one of the few forums focused on animal personalities in which farm animals are equally welcomed and celebrated. Case in point is the latest funny animal video to take the world by storm, “Chevres en Équilibre,”
Some people claim that supposedly smarter animals suffer more than supposedly dumber animals and that it’s okay to use the dumber individuals in all sorts of invasive and abusive ways. There are absolutely no sound scientific reasons to make this claim and indeed, the opposite might actually be the case, but we really don’t know. Lori Marino, founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, Inc., who also works on The Someone Project, says it well: “The point is not to rank these animals but to re-educate people about who they are. They are very sophisticated animals.” I’ve emphasized the word who because these animals are sentient beings, whos, not whats. So, it’s a matter of who we eat not what we eat when they wind up in our mouth.
Pescetarians—those who eschew eating all animals with the notable exceptional of fish—are commonly viewed as having fashioned diets that are more ethically focused than opportunistic omnivores. But could it be that the distinction they draw between, say, fish and pigs is as capricious as the one omnivores draw between dogs and pigs? In other words, might fish matter as much as the land animals to whom we grant moral consideration?
Like the will to live, the ability to experience pleasure is also not unique to humans. Animals exploited for food also seek pleasure, from chickens who purr, to sheep who (literally) jump for joy, from cows who play ball, to pigs who prefer to sleep snuggled up to one another. Animal behaviorist Jonathan Balcombe writes, “Pleasure adds intrinsic value to life— that is, value to the individual who feels it regardless of any perceived worth to anyone else. Pleasure seekers have wants, needs, desires, and lives worth living.”
There’s a lot of buzz in the animal protection movement about a new chicken intelligence study that, once again, maintains that chickens are even more intelligent than we once thought. Not surprising, of course, considering the absolutely abysmal and distorted perception our society perpetuates about chickens today. And yet the attitude of surprise that surrounds such studies and the reaction to them reveals a very powerful cultural distortion in itself — that chickens are essentially stupid.
This past weekend during a series of lectures I presented in Germany a number of people asked questions of the sort, “Isn’t it about time we accept that animals are sentient and that we know what they want and need, and stop bickering about whether they are conscious, feel pain, and experience many different emotions?” Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard these queries, and my answer is always a resounding “Yes, we do have ample detailed scientific facts to declare that nonhuman animals are sentient beings and there are fewer and fewer skeptics.”
I continually marvel at how chickens observe and sometimes follow what we do. On her third day with me, Edith the Cornish Rock chicken hen who was recently salvaged from a trash bag, comes to me when I gesture or call to her. But even more remarkable, Edith climbed her first flight of stairs to join me at the top, but only when I encouraged her to do so. On the other hand, when I did not call or gesture to her to climb the stairs, she remained below.
Danita displays a strong interest in protecting her flock. Her actions would seem to reflect that she has a sense of moral duty to her flock. But the way she acts to protect her flock is not based on instinct or the carrying out of a repetitive and thoughtless action. On the contrary, the way she responds to a perceived danger to the flock varies in each situation that she is presented with. It also varies based on her disposition that day. It seems reasonable to conclude that she is making executive decisions based on a variety of circumstances unique to each situation.
Chickens will readily form an emotional attachment with us. It’s not a question of “can they” but of “can we reciprocate?” Sleepy Doris, pictured here, looks up into my eyes for reassurance and recognition, just like a dog. Stroke her back and she has the reassurance she needs and will go back to nuzzling up against your side.
Among the many fascinating discoveries I’ve made in the process of raising a flock of adopted hens is the lovely and soothing sound of a chicken purr. Yes, you heard right. Chickens purr like cats when they’re happy. Well, at least one of the hens who loves to curl up on my lap and take a nap. In this video clip, I’ve recoded Doris the hen’s purring for you. Enjoy! And pass along to others!
Danita is a gorgeous Black Rock hen with thick and luxurious plumage full of iridescent blues and greens and large, dramatic Cleopatra eyes. She is a gentle and kind alpha female who is also quite assertive, independent and courageous. On a number of occasions, she has made her way to the highest point in the yard, on top of the patio table, to warn her flock of potential predators in their midst, putting herself at great risk.
To understand the complex suffering of turkeys raised for “food,” it helps to know that in nature, young turkey siblings stay close to their mother for four or five months after they are born. She is the center of their universe. Although turkeys raised commercially never see their mothers, the expectation of her is alive in their genes. In nature, when the maternal family is on a stroll, if one of her poults starts peeping distress, the mother bird clucks reassuringly and, if the peeping persists, she rushes to comfort her little one.
Sandye was an exceptionally quiet, stoic and peaceful hen. Her only vocalization was her characteristic soft squeal — a truly unusual and curious sound indeed and actually very pleasing to the ear. Sandye was nonetheless a deeply loyal companion of mine and would express the connection she felt for me in her typical stoic fashion. In the warmer months, I’d often sit outside on the patio, working on my laptop, and at some point, I’d look down and find her sitting at the base of the table by my feet. And there she would remain for long periods of time. I’d often pick her up and sit her in my lap. She was so very content to remain there as well.
Lovely and elegant Doris pictured here is one of four adopted hens. She had major surgery over a year ago to save her life. The surgery consisted of removing her oviduct and a mass of infected egg material that was blocked in her abdomen. One third of her body weight was removed during the surgery. It was successful. However, she never lost her desire to be a mother.
In a new study conducted by Andy Lamey of Monash University in Australia, researchers who studied chickens conclude that, contrary to earlier studies, chickens do possess “primitive self-consciousness” as identified in human newborns and higher primates. In this report, Lamey demonstrates how chickens respond to tests where they must learn the details of the tests first, hold them in memory for varying periods of time, and react on their memory of these learned behaviors by choosing an “optimal” reward, which requires practicing self control, i.e., “the ability to resist immediate gratification for a later benefit.”
A new study published in the quarterly, peer-reviewed journal, Anthrozoös, tests whether interaction with cows on a farm improves symptoms of clinical depression in people. One group of people spent two days on a farm for a 12 week period while another did not. Among the farm group, significant differences were found between the start of the study and the final week on measures of decreased depression and increased self-efficacy, indicating that interaction with farm animals may be a successful intervention for clinical depression.
It seems both silly and unscientific to believe that humans are unique in our capacity to feel and think, as if we didn’t evolve, along with other mammals, to have these capacities for a purpose. Such assumptions seem more the purview of those who deny the reality of evolution than those who embrace science.
While human behavior studies are generally conducted with the intention of improving human health and well being, van Reenan’s study of dairy cow temperament sets out to understand the specific “temperament” traits of individual dairy cows who react dramatically different to the same stimuli and situations. The goal of the study is to determine how we can use selective breeding technology to produce cows in the future that will have there “right” personality traits for optimal dairy production on large scale farms.
This morning I woke up at 4 am and had a startling observation about chickens. I think I realized that over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to understand what their true intentions are. To learn this, we must first shed our human bias that prevents us from really understanding their true nature. That means for a moment not seeing them as a source of eggs or meat or anything but an animal worthy of observing. Provide them with a safe and caring environment that is free from expectations of producing something for us and show a bit of interest in them and what begins to happen? They begin to seek our companionship.