1 May 2021

 hens perched on a high beam
UPC photo shows hens perching safely in our predator-proof sanctuary.

Do Chickens Mind Seeing Other Chickens Traumatized in Their Presence?

A perspective on chickens in honor of International Respect for Chickens Day, May 4/month of May

By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns

(This article was first posted April 27 on Animals 24-7.)

A fellow activist once asked me if I believed chickens don’t mind watching and hearing other chickens being killed in their presence. He asked because a farmer had told him they don’t. He questioned the credibility of this claim from a person who would do such a thing. Was it true?

Lest anyone think chickens don’t mind seeing and hearing other chickens die violently in front of them, or be grabbed by a predator or otherwise traumatized, nothing could be further from the truth. As a chicken sanctuary director for more than three decades, I’ve witnessed the effect on chickens of a hawk or a fox and the terror these predators inspire in the birds, including the aftermath of trauma.

I learned the hard way back in the early days of keeping a few rescued chickens in an unfenced yard. (Those naïve days are long gone, and our 12,000 square-foot sanctuary is now fully predator-proof.) One of our chickens, Ethel Murmur, a Cornish-cross hen we rescued from a slaughter-bound truck spill in Northern Virginia, was in the yard one Saturday afternoon, next to the porch with her friend Bertha, when a fox stole Bertha and left her dead in the woods.

Before this, Ethel Murmur was so vigorous and full-throated that we named her after the famous Broadway singer Ethel Merman on account of her imposing character, ample physique, and big voice. Afterward, Ethel Murmur was never the same. She stopped making a joyful noise, stopped yelling for attention, and could hardly walk anymore. Her whole body shriveled, and she died a week later. Although she herself had not been attacked, she had watched the attack on her friend, and could not recover.

Another situation arose one morning when I put our brown house hen, Alexandra, outside with her bantam rooster companion, Josie. It was spring and the kitchen door was open wide. Suddenly, Alexandra ran shrieking through the door into the house, jumped up on a table, and could not calm down. I cried, “Alexandra, what happened?” Panic stricken, I raced outside. Josie was nowhere. Once again – a fox.

As for chickens not minding watching members of their flock being killed by a farmer, a man once told me how a small flock of chickens he and some others were keeping on a commune he belonged to at the time were slaughtered in front of each other by a member of their group. Three hens and a rooster who were previously friendly fled the scene. They disappeared for more than two weeks, before reappearing, timidly, and never again trustingly. Their behavior following the slaughter was totally altered, the man sadly said.

In nature, chicken parents will confront a predator by first pushing their chicks into foliage for safety behind themselves. Puffing out their feathers and spreading their wings wide, they will charge the predator while sounding alarm calls. One May day, when a pair of our hens and roosters produced an unexpected family, the tiny chicks squeezed through the wire fence to the other side, then peeped piteously at being stuck there. Shrieking and dashing about, unable to reach her chicks, the frantic mother hen instinctively flew straight up into my face when I approached her. (I rescued all five chicks and sealed the openings.)

When questioning the emotional complexity of farmed animals, we need to remember that a farmed animal is essentially a natural animal in captivity. A chicken is a being whose physical environment and bodily deformations imposed by exploiters have not eliminated the fundamental instincts, sensitivities, emotions and intelligence in this bird whose evolutionary home is the tropical forest. Like their wild cousins of the tropics, domesticated chickens sensing a predatory threat in a yard during the day will typically react with choral uproar, fight, flight, and hide behavior.

Chickens in a state of abnormal, chronic fear and severe, inescapable captivity tend by contrast to become very still and quiet, evincing what psychologists call learned helplessness – behavior exhibited by individuals enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control, even if their senses are on high alert. They may develop tonic immobility, a condition researchers call "a fear-potentiated response” to being restrained in a chicken who knows she or he is going to die.

I am confident that chickens are empathic creatures who are capable of experiencing not only the imminence of their own death, but the emotional tones of dread and dying in others trapped in a violent setting such as an industrial slaughterhouse, a live poultry market, or a cockfighting ring. I do not doubt that they sense when they themselves and their conspecifics are in mortal danger, as shown by their ready response to danger in diverse environments. My view is reflected in some preliminary scientific studies cited, for example, by evolutionary biologist Dr. Marc Bekoff in "Empathic chickens and cooperative elephants: Emotional intelligence expands its range again" in Psychology Today.

The day after Josie, our little rooster, was grabbed by a fox in front of Alexandra, I was filled with grief and guilt. “Why oh why did I let them outside yesterday morning unprotected?” I sat on the floor and could not stop crying. Here then came big white billowy Sonia, whom we’d rescued with Josie and other chickens from a filthy shed in back of a shiny farmers market in Leesburg, Virginia, across the living room floor. She rested her head against me and began purring softly over and over. My sorrow deepened with love for this being, who maybe knew or did not know why I was weeping, but who sensed my sadness and rose from where she was sitting to plod across the floor to comfort me in this moment of empathy that we shared in the tragic world.

Tuesday, May 4th is International Respect for Chickens Day, and the entire month of May is International Respect for Chickens Month. During this month, we urge people to do a kind action for chickens that lets others know who these birds truly are and how we can help them by expanding our own empathy to include them. For ideas about what you can do, please see Do a Kind Action for Chickens in May - and Every Day.

Karen giving Alice a hug
Karen hugs Alice at United Poultry Concerns. Photo by Karen Porreca

KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl (Lantern Books, 2019).