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.
Overall most animal protection advocates view the findings of this or any other study that elevates our understanding of chickens as a hopeful sign that attitudes about these birds are finally changing for the better which must eventually translate into better treatment. So what’s the problem here?
For one thing, consider the fact that the Happy Egg Co., which was the subject of a major VIVA undercover animal cruelty investigation, sponsored the University of Bristol Intelligent Hen Study (a very official-sounding title) to “inform range and enrichment design on its farms.” To me this strongly suggests that the overall intention of the study is narrowly focused on how to improve the welfare of hens already bred to produce eggs on commercial farms. Yet, by studying them under the very conditions that inhibit their ability to express their true nature, the study is flawed by its very design and completely ignores how the commodification of chickens sabotages any serious attempt to understand their intelligence.
Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at the University of Bristol, who co-authored the study with Robbie L’Anson-Price, said the findings point to “the importance of providing these amazing creatures with the environment that enables them to live out their natural instincts.” However, if this statement has any meaning whatsoever, it most certainly means that raising chickens for commercial purposes — a purpose that has nothing to do with expressing their natural inclinations — is in direct conflict with an “environment that enables them to live out their natural instincts” since even so-called humane farms systematically deny them all or most of the conditions under which they could perform their natural behavior.
Studying any animal in the narrow context of how they behave under the conditions where they are used as economic commodities will not result in anything meaningful or realistic. On the contrary, “it feeds into the culture that regards it as acceptable to exploit them,” says Sandra Higgins, director of Eden Farm Animal Sanctuary in Ireland.
For example, chicks hatched in an incubator and in the absence of the imprinting of their mothers have been robbed of the first and most vitally-important relationship of their lifetime. Mother hens begin communicating with their young as embryos inside of the egg and, once hatched, nurture and teach them a complex set of survival skills and social skills. Some studies even indicate that adult chickens who were hatched in artificial incubators develop behavioral problems as adults. Is that any surprise?
So what then would be a better model for studying domestic chickens? Imagine for a moment if the study was framed, say, to compare the behavior and intelligence of chickens living in a sanctuary setting as compared to a commercial egg farm where their value is based on the extent to which they serve as economic resources. Of course, even the Happy Egg Co., which claims to pasture-raise their hens, would never sponsor a study of this kind since it would compare the welfare of chickens — not against the worst case scenario of factory farms — but instead against the best possible conditions for domestic chickens.
While all domesticated animals have been bred and raised to be submissive and subservient to their human owners, certainly such a study would find the sanctuary chickens “happier” and more capable of expressing their complex natures. And let’s assume that unlike the Happy Egg Co. chickens, the sanctuary chickens were freed of the burden to produce eggs, free to roam, free to pick their friends, free to sunbathe, dustbathe and forage in the earth and engage in positive and loving interactions with their caretakers who valued them intrinsically rather than economically.
No doubt such a study would find the sanctuary chickens more healthy, happy and “intelligent” than those treated and regarded as economic resources.
Perhaps the most effective way to learn about and study true chicken intelligence would be to compare what we know about chickens that live in their natural rainforest habitat to domesticated chickens that have been bred for their eggs or flesh. Only then will we be able to understand, more objectively, just how great the gulf is between who they really are and what we’ve done to change them to serve our own ends.