While researchers test for evidence of intelligence in animals, and scientists testify in front of USDA panels about why battery cages are cruel, I’ve been doing some of my own “field research”— in my own backyard, that is.
I have no medical or scientific credentials to back up my findings, just an open mind and a willingness to learn new things about, and from, my backyard hens. Of course, I praise the scientific and legal experts who are paving the way to greater protection for sentient beings, yet the findings from my research require little more than common sense and perhaps a shred of compassion.
I only hope to share the unexpected bond I have with my hens with all who would otherwise find it quite peculiar that anyone would want to have chickens as pets. “Do they lay eggs?” is the inevitable first question I get. Implicit in the question is that it only makes sense to raise chickens for egg production. When I tell people that I don’t care about eggs and don’t eat them, either, I’ve really lost them at this point. I see their puzzled expression and return it with a reassuring smile, explaining that like other animals hens have their own intrinsic value that has nothing to do with what they can produce.
I used to peruse the backyard chicken forums but grew weary of stories from frustrated novices threatening to cull their birds unless they started producing eggs. Anecdotes and tales from chicken owners abound. Most portray hens as mean and unwilling to give up their eggs. Somehow animal mothers protecting their eggs from a perceived threat from human mothers who claim to know something about motherhood, makes these hens mean. What a paradox.
Owners of larger flocks are even more prone to tell you how chickens are meaner than you can imagine, and deserve their fate. Crammed into large, filthy coops where they have to fight for food, space and privacy, it’s not hard to imagine why this would give them a foul disposition! When you begin to realize that you exist simply as a commodity, this tends to change your disposition—for the worse.
But I have only four hens. And they have plenty of room, food and attention. They are living out their lives as nature intended. So the only kind of experiences we share is companionship and a few good laughs each day. And I know how incensed this makes farmers who insist that they are simply property and nothing more. I call this the slave-holder mentality.
My response to this deep-seated belief is that some traditions, like bullfighting, are better left in the past. And if for a moment you remove the master-slave colored glasses to really see chickens’ lives as they are, you will discover a far deeper nature and an evolutionary intelligence that has been actively evolving since the age of the dinosaurs.
In fact, just like us, each bird has her own personality, and that’s what makes things interesting. Doris, the Rhode Island Red, likes to take naps in my lap (and, no, she never poops there, but respectfully holds it until a more opportune time arises). When spotting us, Sweet Pea, the sassy white Leghorn, becomes very jealous and comes running over to vie for attention. Today she jumped up into my lap and perched next to Doris, and the three of us whiled away the last rays of this late winter afternoon sun together.
The lesson from this experience is kind of a no-brainer. If you want hens who are affectionate and good-natured, then treat them in kind. If you mistreat them, you will raise their defenses and they will perceive you as a threat, rather than a caretaker. Just think of how you or your beloved cat or dog would react under such circumstances and you’re well on your way to understanding chickens also.
So the next time she pecks at your hand when you reach for her egg, ask yourself, what would you do in her shoes? And if the intention of that peck is to protect rather than harm, is that really a personality flaw?