cooking with vegans
Chickens feel empathy! Are we surprised, and does it matter?
Check out this article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8370301/Chickens-are-capable-of-feeling-empathy-scientists-believe.html
Now, while this will be almost unbelievable news to many people, the fact is, it’s not news to those of us who have spent a long time hanging around with chickens. In fact, it’s a no-brainer.
What’s also true is that not all chickens feel this kind of feeling toward their off-spring, making them even more — dare I say it? — “human” than this article might suggest. We’ve known hens who’ve walked away from their chicks, even when there was only one of them, sometimes when the babies were as young as two weeks old. No reason we could see — they just didn’t feel like raising them. Such deviations from monolithic perceptions of non-humans are important to note, for otherwise we tend to see other species as devoid of individuality.
However, while all of this is interesting, does it matter? Many folks feel that it’s wrong to impose cruelty upon species who can feel emotions or reason to some extent, and of course I agree. But why only those creatures? Let’s pretend that chickens couldn’t care less about each other, or their off-spring, or anything else for that matter. Should that give us liberty to take over complete control of their entire lives, from beginning to end, and impart massive pain upon them in the process?
It’s a slippery slope, justifying our opposition to the infliction of suffering by saying the creature who suffers is empathic, or smart, or seemingly Just Like Humans in other ways. This slope leads to things like experimenting upon mentally retarded humans because — well — they aren’t as smart as non-mentally retarded humans. It leads to things like labeling some humans as not quite human so we can enslave them or wipe them out entirely if we like.
Ultimately, of course, this slope leads us right back to where we began this insanity: the supposition that if a creature is human (as defined by the powers that be, of course) it deserves some sort of baseline respect, and if it is not human, or at least human-like, we can do whatever the hell we want to it.
Do we like that slope? I sure don’t. How about we smash the slope and just stop being cruel to everyone else? HOW HARD IS THAT? And why is it so terribly unthinkable to almost all of the humans on this planet?
Last time around, Miriam shared her reactions to the “news” that chickens feel empathy. Pattrice here, with a few more words on the subject of bird feelings, and the brains that generate them.
My first reaction to the news story was a flood of memories. The sanctuary’s original site was on a country road shared by several factory farms. Often, open-sided trucks stacked with crates of young chickens headed for the slaughterhouse rumbled down that road, only a few feet from the yards where the birds who had found sanctuary with us foraged and socialized. When that happened, all of the birds would freeze for a moment, silence hanging in the air in the wake of the departing monstrosity.
This did not happen when other big trucks rumbled past the yard. It seemed clear enough to me that the chickens were sensing and responding to what must have been a deluge of feeling flooding from the terrified youngsters in the trucks.
Chickens express empathy? Oh yes, I saw so many instances in my years at the sanctuary. Once, early on, we didn’t even realize that one bird was blind until the hen who had been her friend, guide, and protector died.
Altruism. That’s another trait that we people like to attribute only to ourselves. Consciousness. Tool making. Self-awareness. Each of these and so many other characteristics have fallen by the wayside in the wake of proof—as if any were needed—that other animals have them too.
Including birds. Especially birds. Like us, birds are social animals whose brains evolved consciousness and intelligence in response to the taxing cognitive demands of collective survival in ever-changing circumstances. Empathy is one of the most essential skills for any social animal. Too bad our own capacities in that realm have become so atrophied.
Speaking of science and chicken empathy, the story of a particularly empathic chicken at the sanctuary appears in an article I recently wrote for the psychology journal Spring. You can read all about a little rooster called Heartbeat, and learn a lot about bird brains, here.