Chicken sentience

behavioralOur four rescued hens at home are a constant source of delight. Even when Hetty, Hope, Henna and Honey insist on rearranging the plants in our carefully-tended garden to suit their tastes. Each one has a distinct personality, which includes individual preferences. Hetty is in charge. The others look after themselves fine despite her bossiness. They are their own social community. Except for when we open the back door. Then, our worlds meet. Talk about cupboard love! I’m not saying our hens only rush over to see us because we feed them. Clearly, there are times when they know we have no treats but they still want to peck around us. They loiter around our feet, settling eventually to peck gently at our jeans and trousers. I like to think their fussing is a form of mutual appreciation. Their attention means the world to us.

Our life with hens also meant it didn’t come as any surprise when I read recently that researchers at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences “discovered chickens show a clear physiological and behavioural response when their chicks are mildly distressed”. I know from watching our hens, as well as observing thousands of chickens in commercial systems, that chickens are individuals with their own complex set of psychological and behavioural needs.

When I commented recently on Compassion’s website about the Bristol University study, several of you got in touch. “Yep. Animals have feelings shocker again,” one supporter wrote, “I see empathy in my chooks all the time, and other emotions too”. Another said, “I’m glad of the media coverage but stunned it took a study to get people to see what any poultry breeder worth their salt knows…. But as you say, if it leads to improved welfare then it’s all good in my book”.

Science is validating what we already know from our own observations of living with animals. This is an important process. It strengthens our hand in demanding positive change for how animals are farmed. By the way, I very much welcome hearing back from you; please keep in touch with your feedback!

Compassion has long been in the forefront of the campaign to secure scientific and political recognition for animals as sentient beings. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s we published important research on animal sentience, showing that they can feel pain and suffer. This included the scientific evidence on the suffering of pigs in narrow sow stalls and that which laying hens experience in battery cages. We also submitted a petition in 1991 to the European Parliament calling for animals to be recognised as sentient beings. Our initiative eventually led to the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty recognition of animal sentience in 2009. This significant accomplishment would not have been possible without the support of our stalwart supporters. Thank you!

Another important milestone was our conference, “From Darwin to Dawkins: The Science and Implications of Animal Sentience,” which my colleague, Joyce D’Silva, organised in 2005. An expanded version of the proceedings were published as Animals, Ethics and Trade.

The campaign for animal sentience is far from over, however. It is still vital that we lobby to ensure the EU bans the barren battery cage in 2012. Have you joined our campaign to Defend the Big Move? We cannot allow Poland to jeopardise this important victory.

Notwithstanding skirmishes like these, I’m confident that the groundswell of public opinion, scientific research and public policy is moving toward accepting animal sentiency as well as its public policy implications. Please make a point of visiting our companion website, Animal Sentience, to learn more about the fascinating lives of animals.

Finally, I want to recommend two respected authors who write engaging and authoritative books on animals. They are Jonathan Balcombe and Jeffrey Masson. To start with please read my blog on Jonathan’s informative book, Second Nature, and Jeffrey’s provocative book, The Face on Your Plate.

In the meantime, thanks for all your feedback recently, and keep it coming! And together, we can continue to raise important awareness about the lives of animals and how we can help end their suffering.

One Response to “Chicken sentience”

  1. Arvind says:

    Love it. I find it astounding that most people aren’t aware that animals are sentient as well, especially people who have pets.

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About Philip Lymbery

Philip Lymbery is Chief Executive Officer of Compassion in World Farming and co-author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. He is an internationally respected authority on the impact of industrial agriculture on people, animals and the planet.