The Ethics of Chicken & the Power of the Consumer

Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks via Flickr

Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks via Flickr


Scientific American magazine (in the February 2014 issue, the print version) published an article on recent scientific studies revealing the surprisingly sophisticated level of the intelligence of chickens. (You can find the online version of the article here, but you can only access an excerpt of it unless you have an account with the website.) As the authors detail the experiments and their results, they make two points: first, that chickens are vastly more intelligent than we thought; second, how these findings can, and should, affect our feelings about the factory farm conditions in which the average chicken is placed before heading to market. They also talk about how this can, and should, influence our purchasing decisions when buying chicken at the grocers.

First, let’s discuss the research. One very surprising research result revealed that young chicks have the ability to distinguish numbers and use geometry! One study, for instance, showed that, when given a half-completed triangle, chicks can identify what the shape should look like with all its parts. Another experiment revealed a mother chicken’s ability to feel empathy. Mother hens watched as researchers delivered a harmless puff of air to their chicks. The chicks got startled and showed signs of stress such as increased heart rate. The crazy thing is that when the mother hens saw what was happening, they actually exhibited identical signs of stress, even though they were not given the puff of air, and even though their chicks were not injured by the experiment. This ability had previously been seen in only a few species other than humans, including ravens and squirrels (who knew ravens and squirrels felt empathy!?).

Other studies showed that male chickens display cunning behavior in response to other males, behaviors that suggest foresight and rivalry (typical men!). In one experiment, male chickens would decline to warn rival males of danger when seeing a hawk, a large, swooping predator of chickens, over head. But when male chickens were in the presence of a female, they gave out characteristic vocalizations used to warn of predators!

Now, we’ll discuss the authors’ second point: Why should we give a damn? Because chickens are exceedingly adorable. (Okay, that’s not what they said.) The authors say we should care because, being that chickens are more intelligent, and emotional, than we thought, we should reconsider our farming and eating habits. Factory farms usual have thousands of chickens holed up in very compact cages, one on top of the other, in endless rows as far as the eye can see. And, quite sadly, so called “cage-less” chickens are, on some farms, kept in cramped quarters as well, with the only difference being that they stand feather to feather so tightly in their “open” quarters that they can barely move. I agree that such conditions are awful, and are more awful when considering that these chickens are most likely able to experience confusion and suffering. They must, at least on some level, understand what’s happening to them. Picture a dog in the same setting- surely a dog would feel confused, scared, sad, and cooped up.

So what to do. The authors’ feelings are that we, as consumers, can do something about this new knowledge. They suggest a few things, and show how such efforts have already led to the beginnings of change and reform. In Europe and some states like California, new laws are being passed that require improved housing conditions for egg-laying chickens. In Australia, producers that use humane methods are now advertising these methods as part of their competition with other producers, betting that consumers will choose their product over less humanely raised chickens. These measures have happened because consumers are demanding it more and more.

The article doesn’t specifically say what consumers have done to drive this reform. But I’d imagine that there are a variety of things we can do to help out in this effort:

1) Get directly involved in influencing legislation by signing petitions, doing marches, writing to congressmen, joining activist groups, etc.

2) Change your eating habits. Do this by becoming a vegan, going vegetarian, or simply eating less chicken (or meat in general). For vegans and vegetarians, eating any amount of meat is tantamount to a crime, but I’m not going to tell you what to do. What I will say is that if you have a hard time cutting out meat and/or dairy products completely, you needn’t give them up completely to make a difference, in my opinion. I think it’s perfect logic that if every person in America decreased how much meat they ate by even half, the demand for meat would go down by half. And if the demand goes drastically down, the logical step would be for meat producers to decrease their production of meat. Why produce more of a product than what people will buy? That’s how economics works.

Even better, producers of badly treated chickens would get the message that people are sick and tired of this and change their ways!! Even if producers couldn’t give two craps about poor chickens (oh, us bleeding heart liberals!), they won’t want to lose their precious profits. Cut our meat consumption by more than half, as I’ve proudly done, and the effects will be even more dramatic.

3) Buy humane meat. I know that even “humanely raised” labelled meat is not always as humane as the label suggests (see what I wrote about cage-free chickens above), but if you do research on the brands you see in stores, you can often find specific info about how the meat is produced. For instance, some free-range meat is called free-range even if the animals only get a few hours a day of the outdoors.

Shopping locally can also help- small, local farms have more space for truly free-range animals (no cages, and the animals spend most their time outside). And they are usually more honest about their methods than bigger producers. These small, local farmers are also more likely to feed their animals what nature intended- grass and other real foods, as opposed to antibiotics, hormones, corn, and disgusting, ground up animal remains left over from what is not put in food for humans. Also, by buying locally, you’re buying food that was not shipped from thousands of miles away, and you are supporting humane farms.

The 30-minute documentary “Food” is a wonderful resource on all things food and how it is produced. It takes you into factory farms, as well as humane farms, and shows you the differences. It will disgust you, but also empower and inform you. I heard about it on the blog, “The Secular Jurist.” I very much encourage all to watch it.

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