Violated Expectations in the Experience of Factory-Farmed Chickens

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

Do Chickens “Know” What They are Missing?

“Every time I photograph laying hens on factory farms, especially those in cage systems, I wonder, what is their level of acceptance of the environment that we created for them; how strong is their will to fight, their imposed tolerance for other randomly chosen members of a group, all of that while living in a tiny cage. This agreed on, monotonous and dull life is limited by eating and laying eggs. The series of photographs that are taken in those places are mostly metal bars, leaned out necks, which are very often featherless, and eggs, labeled as a product with number 3.”
Three hens caged in egg laying factory looking into the camera.
Photography by Andrew Skowron
“This place was one of few that really took away my will to do anything for a while. The amount of suffering was too overwhelming for me to grab my camera and do my job. I wasn’t alone in these feelings: my partner reacted the same way. Maybe this place doesn’t exist? Maybe it was just a bad dream? We took a moment to collect ourselves. After a minute, the nightmare was still as real as before.” – Andrew Skowron. “A Story about Three Tough and Resilient Laying Hens”

Do chickens in factory-farming operations have any conscious or sensory awareness of what is missing in their lives on the factory-farm? If overcrowding, filth, imprisonment, and brutal handling are all that they have ever known, do they miss having personal space, cleanliness, fresh air, sunshine, and other elements they would normally experience outside of their enforced captivity? Do they know they are suffering?

The type of suffering I am speaking of here is what has been called “unnatural suffering,” that is, suffering that has no basis or counterpart or equivalence in the natural evolution of the species in question.

I raise this question because agribusiness and its proponents like to portray chickens and other farmed animals as “happy” and “content” in the squalor, crowding, confinement, and darkness of their factory-farm environment. They insist that since these conditions are all that the chickens as individuals have ever known, they cannot “miss” what they personally never knew. So can chickens miss what they have never personally experienced? I believe the answer is an unqualified “Yes,” they most certainly can.

Here are three examples of experiences – positive experiences – of which chickens are deprived on factory farms: natural colors and sunlight, natural sounds, and hygiene – the ability to practice and maintain bodily cleanliness.

Natural colors and sunlight

As for natural colors and sunlight, let us recall that chickens evolved in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. This is a world of vibrant colors and sounds to which they contribute. Chickens have much better eyesight than human beings have, including long distance and close-up vision. They have full-spectrum color vision from the infrared to the ultraviolet. Their ability to perceive infrared light is what enables them to see the sunrise each morning an hour before we do. That is why roosters start crowing when for us it is still dark outside.

So how do chickens, endowed as they are genetically with superb color vision, experience being deprived of all natural colors and forced to see only varying shades of brown in their captive environment? I see, every day at our sanctuary, how avidly chickens seek sunlight, how they love to sunbathe, how they need to sunbathe. Is it not utterly cruel to deprive such creatures of color and the light of the sun? Do we assume that they do not miss these sources of inborn pleasure and inherited needs?

Natural Sounds

As for natural sounds, the tropical forest, in which chickens evolved, is alive, day and night, with the voices of the forest residents in their tree-filled habitats. During the day, chickens break up into smaller groups of, say, one rooster and several hens to forage together for food on the forest floor. Living in a dense forest means that the birds cannot always see each other among the trees. So they have to be able to hear one another over long distances. The roosters constantly notify their flock members vocally of where they are and what is happening. They keep in touch. Their voices provide comfort to the whole flock by communicating information through a natural symphony of sounds.

Compare this vibrant, meaningful ruckus of the forest with the dead silence, cries of distress, yelling of workers, and din of machinery to which chickens are subjected in the cages and sheds from which they cannot escape. Not a single note of joy or enthusiasm so natural to chickens living in a wild or sanctuary environment. Instead, every sound, every silence, is negative – threatening, traumatizing, distressful. Can we think for a moment that these chickens are not aware that what they were born to hear in the world of nature has been replaced by the sounds and silence of living in Hell?

Hygiene

Let us finally consider the issue of hygiene – the inborn need chickens have to keep themselves, their feathers and their skin, clean and refreshed. Chickens practice bodily hygiene in two main ways: by preening their feathers with the preen oil from their preen gland, and by taking frequent dustbaths. They create dustbowls in the earth, loosening the soil around themselves with their claws and beaks to distribute the particles of earth through their feathers and skin. This enables them to remove accumulated preen oil, dander, and skin irritants. As I have watched many times in our sanctuary, chickens who had never set foot on the ground before they arrived at our place – the first thing they do when removed from the carrier is to slowly and then vigorously start to dustbathe. Chickens do not have to be taught to dustbathe. So powerful is their instinct to bathe themselves and be clean that they will pathetically perform what poultry scientists call “vacuum dustbathing,” even on the wire floor of a crowded battery cage.

Factory farming strips chickens and all animals thus confined of every natural source of comfort and joy. Instead, every natural endowment of theirs is degraded to a source of frustration, pain, misery and learned helplessness. The environment they are forced to live in is completely inimical to their wellbeing.

Who Knows and What Do They Know?

Do factory-farmed chickens KNOW that they are miserable? Do they have an inner awareness of their deprivation, and its opposite? Do the ancestral memories that reside within each bird remind them at some level of consciousness of what they are missing?

Years ago I wrote in the first edition of my book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry that abused animals do in fact “know” that they are suffering because knowing is an organic process far deeper than words and concepts can express. Every bodily cell is a repository of experiences including memory and expectation as elements of a particular moment in the life of a particular cell. The look in a creature’s eyes tells us a whole lot about what he or she “knows.” I wrote this in response to the agribusiness and related claims that if animals have never known anything but their particular situation, be it happy or sad, they cannot know that they are miserable, or happy. But, for example, our lungs know whether they are breathing pollution or fresh air. Our bodies, which include our minds, know the difference.

Farmers and industry spokespersons will often counter opposition by proclaiming that farmers “know” their animals. However the animals they claim to “know” are typically known to them only within a context of enforced subjugation, manipulation, mutilation, and control. The owners of these animals think, or at least they say, that there is nothing else to know about the chickens and other creatures under their control, both physically and rhetorically. However, they are wrong, and those of us who know these animals differently have the evidence to prove it.

– Karen Davis