Do Chickens Have A Life? Or Are They Simply Food?

By Roy L Hales

A new study published in Poultry Science states that though modern hens are given half the food, 32% less water and yet producing 27% more eggs than their counterparts from 1960. Should we perceive this as an accomplishment of new technologies and increased efficiency? Or simply cruelty to animals?Do chickens have a life? Or are they simply food?

Are They Simply Food?

In their news release, the American Egg Board states that young hens now require 48 percent less food. They would have needed “78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans” to reach the same level of production in 1960.

“The U.S. egg industry has evolved remarkably over the past five decades by incorporating new technologies to protect natural resources,” said Hongwei Xin, agricultural and biosystems engineering and animal science professor at Iowa State University, director of the Egg Industry Center and the study’s lead researcher. “Egg farmers have improved their production practices, allowing them to provide an affordable source of high-quality protein while using fewer resources and producing less waste.”

Do Chickens Have A Life?

Chickens - Courtesy Farm Sanctuary
Chickens in Battery Cage  – Courtesy Farm Sanctuary

To which Bruce Friedrich, Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives with Farm Sanctuary, responded, “If animals can’t move, they will require less food and water. If they are bred for egg production, they will produce more eggs. In order to achieve these production gains, the industry has treated animals in ways that involve tremendous physical and mental suffering. The egg industry crams 5 to 11 hens into tiny cages where they can’t move for their entire lives. These is a morally loathsome industry, and if they treated dogs or cats the way they treat birds, they could be charged with felony cruelty. In short, they are bragging about abusing animals.”

Battery cages, in which 95% of US chickens are raised, have been outlawed in the European Union and condemned by condemned by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.

Friedrich explains that, “Battery cages are so small that not one hen can extend her wings, and yet there are three or more in each cage. The animals’ muscles and bones waste away from lack of use; by the time hens are removed from cages after about two years, they’ve suffered from severe bone loss and tens of millions suffer new broken bones as they’re ripped from their cages. Some birds’ skeletal systems become so weak that their spinal cords deteriorate and they become paralyzed; the animals then die from dehydration in their cages. This unimaginably horrid situation is so common that the industry has a term for it, “cage fatigue.” (Click here or here for documentation and video.)

Intelligence Similar To Primates

These reports have surfaced at a time when scientists believe that chickens possess an intelligence similar to that of primates.

Chicks looking out for the First time - Herbert T, Courtesy Wikipedia
Chicks looking out for the First time – Herbert T, Courtesy Wikipedia

According to Dr. Chris Evans, Professor of Psychology at Macquarie University, Australia, “Chickens exist in stable social groups. They can recognize each other by their facial features. They have 24 distinct cries that communicate a wealth of information to one other, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea. They are good at solving problems. As a trick at conferences I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys.”

A study undertaken by the Silsoe Research Institute, in England, demonstrated that chickens can anticipate future rewards. When chickens pecked at a button, they received an instant food reward, but the reward was larger if they waited for three seconds and became a real “jackpot” if they waited for 22 seconds. Much to the researcher’s surprise, 90% of the fowl were soon collecting the jackpot.

“Only the day-to-day changes in an enriched outdoor environment offer novelty to the extent that chickens and other animals need in order to satisfy the natural drive to investigate, manipulate, and interact daily with a variety of interesting stimuli,” Sara Shields and Ian J H Duncan wrote in A comparison of the Welfare of Hens in Battery Cages and Alternative Systems.

Behavioural Well Being

Bruce G. Friedrich, Senior Policy Director of Farm Sanctuary, with hen - Courtesy Farm Sanctuary
Bruce G. Friedrich, Senior Policy Director of Farm Sanctuary, with hen – Courtesy Farm Sanctuary

They concluded that, “it is impossible to provide for the behavioral well-being of a hen confined in a conventional battery cage, as she cannot lay her egg in a nest, perch, forage, dust bathe, scratch, freely stretch, engage in normal social behavior, explore her environment, hide, exercise, fly, jump, flap her wings, or even freely walk. Although all current commercial systems have welfare challenges, only cage-free systems provide for the behavioral freedom of the hen and have the potential to provide her with good physical well-being as well.”

Thus it would seem that chickens actually “have a life,”  though the vast majority spend it caged in an area smaller than the average piece of paper.

(Image at top of page: Chickens being transported in trucks, presumably for slaughter by ben via WIkipedia (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)