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19 August 2013
Are Chickens Smarter Than Toddlers?
A View of Cross-Species Comparisons

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

Twenty-five years ago, five years after I joined the animal rights movement in 1983, I addressed the question of cross-species comparisons – the strategy and legitimacy of comparing and ranking intelligences among animal species. In “The Otherness of Animals,” in Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics, Fall 1988, I asked whether dogs and cats could be adversely affected if science concluded they are not as smart as pigs and porpoises. Would we start anxiously scanning our beloved companion animals for signs of certified cognition? Blame them for “acting smart” just so we would feed, shelter and care for them?

I thought about the dogs I grew up with, and about my parrot Tikhon, who, I was told by a bird rehabilitator in San Francisco in the 1970s, was not “really” intelligent, but a creature of mere “instinct,” and thus a kind of imposter who only seemed to be an intelligent, emotional and reciprocal companion of mine. In this view I was a sort of dummy who couldn’t distinguish fixed behavior patterns from conscious awareness in a bird whose ability to fool me depended on the fact that I loved her and needed to believe we were bonded.

In short, I wanted Tikhon to be intelligent; therefore she was. And since most people don’t want chickens or other animals they like to eat to be intelligent; therefore they aren’t. Can science help us surmount our desires toward nonhuman animals to attain an understanding of what is really true about them?

In 1996, I discovered Dr. Lesley Rogers’s book The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken (1995) in the Beltsville, Maryland Agricultural Library outside Washington, DC. I sat on the floor of the stacks, reading it in tears, because Rogers was affirming that birds are intelligent beings, and that prejudice, not science, says otherwise. She said, “it is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals” (p. 17). She said, “With increased knowledge of the behaviour and cognitive abilities of the chicken has come the realization that the chicken is not an inferior species to be treated merely as a food source” (p. 213).

She explained that a chick “hatches with a well-developed brain, immediately able to make decisions and to form memories” (p. 118). Of battery cages for hens and all forms of industrial conditions for chickens, she said: “In no way can these living conditions meet the demands of a complex nervous system designed to form a multitude of memories and to make complex decisions” (p. 218). Citing recent demonstrations of complex cognition in birds including chickens and others once denigrated by mainstream scientists as “unquestionably low in the scale of avian evolution,” Rogers called for more research in the field of comparative cognition, given how recent studies had “thrown the fallacies of previous assumptions about the inferiority of avian cognition into sharp relief” (p. 218).

I was ecstatic. A bona fide avian scientist was saying what I already knew to be true about birds, and about chickens in particular, in forthright language that could be quoted without ellipses. She spoke of “the cognitive demands of the hitherto underestimated chicken brain” (p. 213).

The chicken’s brain is equipped to enable it to meet the complex demands of the natural world in which this brain took shape. There is a fit between the total mental system of the chicken and the tropical forest habitat in which chickens evolved. Chickens have thrived for tens of thousands of years within the complex ecology of their forest world – a world that is reflected in their genetic makeup. The neurophysiology of the chicken embodies a system of interactions between the genetic, hormonal and environmental factors that figure in the developing embryo and express themselves in the adult bird.

Other studies since 1995 confirm that the avian brain is a complex organ comparable to that of mammals. An article in Science Daily, July 17, 2013 , says that birds possess a range of skills including “a capacity for complex social reasoning” and problem solving. A researcher explains that “Birds have been evolving separately from mammals for around 300 million years,” yet they are “remarkably intelligent in a similar way to mammals such as humans and monkeys.”

It is both gratifying and grievous to see science gravitating toward the truth about birds and other animals traditionally dismissed as inferior, insensate, stupid, and emotionless. Grievous because of the terrible things we do to animals and will continue doing to them, including laboratory experiments designed to elicit whether, and in what ways, they are intelligent and how their brains are “wired.”

Galling as well as grievous is the aspect of cognitive studies and cross-species comparisons in which animals are ranked and pitted against one another as to who is smartest and most emotionally developed, or least intelligent and emotionally developed – dogs versus cats versus pigs, and so on. In Are Pigs as Smart as Dogs and Does it Really Matter? biologist Marc Bekoff calls these comparisons mostly silly, even dangerous, considering how they can be used, for example, to claim that “smarter animals suffer more than supposedly dumber animals” whereby “dumber” animals may be treated “in all sorts of invasive and abusive ways.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ability of chimpanzees to use American Sign Language, or Ameslan, was news. If chimpanzees could learn this version of human language, and devise clever strategies to outwit a chicken, as astronomer and science popularizer, Carl Sagan, wrote of an anecdote about a chicken and a chimpanzee, then perhaps chimpanzees had a cognitive advantage over all other nonhuman animals on the planet, entitling them and their great ape cousins to a semblance of “human rights.” These ideas led to The Great Ape Project, in 1994, calling for “the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes.”

An important fact about the chimpanzee’s ability to use Ameslan is that it depends on an anatomical feature that resembles one of ours – manual dexterity. Thus, no matter how unique, intelligent, or willing they may be, any creatures with fins, paws, hoofs, or claws cannot learn to use (even if capable of understanding) Ameslan.

Similarly, chimpanzees appear to be physiologically and anatomically ill-adapted to using (however competent of understanding) verbal language, which is why researchers switched to Ameslan. But what about animals who for one reason or other cannot, or will not, communicate in our terms? Whose kind of intelligence is not our kind? Whose modes of experience elude us? Must “illiterate” animals forgo “human rights”?

In her book Minds of Their Own: Thinking and Awareness in Animals (1997), Lesley Rogers writes that by privileging the great apes above all other forms of terrestrial nonhuman life, we are saying that “some animals are more equal than others.” She asks whether, guided by this cognitive-scale-of-being way of thinking, we are going to grant rights to “only our closest genetic relatives?” She exposes the fallacy – and the danger – of ranking animals according to their alleged intelligence or awareness, both of which attributes, she says, “are impossible to assess on any single criterion” (p. 194). She argues that instead of ranking animals according to a simplistic, anthropocentric model of intelligence, we would be more accurate and just in our assessments if we recognized that “there are many different ‘intelligences,’ rather than ranking all species on the same scale of intelligence” (p. 57).

Even for humans, Rogers says there is no evidence to support applying the single term “intelligence” to a diverse set of activities; likewise, there is no evidence that different species use the same cognitive processes to carry out similar types of behavior. There are no grounds for asserting “without doubt,” as Peter Singer wrote in Animal Liberation, 1990, that pigs are the smartest of all animals commonly eaten in the Western world (p. 119). In an article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell pertinently observes that “Rankings are not benign. . . . Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking.”

Allied with the attempt to place nonhuman animals in a cerebral hierarchy – who is smarter, a lizard or a lion, a penguin or a parrot, a chicken or a chimpanzee? – is the effort to compare cognitively intact nonhuman beings with incompetent human beings, such as children, who are mentally undeveloped due to their age, and people suffering from mental disabilities. This type of cross-species comparison has attracted animal advocates as a way of gaining public sympathy and support for nonhuman animals by placing them in the light of defenseless humans requiring legal protections, which of course includes all of us living in societies that, without laws to protect the weak and vulnerable, do not bend toward justice. As G.A. Bradshaw and Monica Engebretson urge in Parrot Breeding and Keeping: The Impact of Capture and Captivity, “Science dictates that standards and criteria used to assess and protect human well-being accurately extend to parrots and other animals. A single, unitary model of welfare and legal protection may serve human and nonhuman animals.”

Classifying competent nonhuman animals with vulnerable humans in an effort to gain legal recognition and protection of their rights and interests, which they cannot assert on their own behalf, is necessary and just. But the effort is misguided when it exceeds this purpose to foster the fallacy of an inherent equivalency between competent nonhuman animals and incompetent humans in terms of these groups’ actual mental development and real-world functioning. See, for example, Do Animals Typically Think Like Autistic Savants?

Nonhuman animals are not tantamount to mentally defective and undeveloped humans. Chimpanzees could not survive socially, let alone thrive, if they thought and functioned like “intellectually disabled human beings,” as in Peter Singer’s comparison in Rethinking Life and Death (p. 183). Such categorizing relegates the entire animal kingdom, apart from us, to a condition of mental debilitation and childlikeness, a condition that is totally incompatible with the cognitive demands exacted upon real adult animals in the real world. Ask yourself, if the “highest” animals rank with mentally disabled humans, where does that leave all the other species, mentally speaking?

Such comparisons lead to a perhaps well-intentioned but deeply demeaning focus on an adult animal’s ability or inability to play video games, and other trivia. It engenders a paternalistic emphasis on laboratory “findings” that adult pigs and chickens are as smart as or smarter than toddlers. This type of thinking is deeply childish in its own right, and it is profoundly insulting to the adult members of other species.

Animal advocates who defend representing nonhuman animals in this way argue that it could be a useful strategy since people are more likely to care about nonhuman animals if they see them in the light of cute, clever youngsters. Indeed, there was an item on the Internet recently about a woman who hesitated to eat a pig sandwich because she had heard that a pig is as smart as a toddler.

Running a sanctuary for rescued chickens for nearly thirty years, I am sometimes asked if I think the chickens see me as their mother, and if I consider them my “babies.” In fact, I don’t regard adult chickens or any other adult animals as babies. As I wrote in The Social Life of Chickens (titled “The Mental Life of Chickens” in Experiencing Animal Minds), I see the ability of chickens to bond with me and be companionable as an extension of their ability to adapt their native intelligence to habitats and human-created environments that stimulate their natural ability to perceive analogies and fit what they find where they happen to be to the fulfillment of their own needs and desires.

The inherently social nature of chickens enables them to socialize successfully with a variety of other species and to form bonds of interspecies affection and communication. But they are not humanoids. They are not phylogenetic fetuses awaiting human contact to stimulate their cognitive potential. They are neither failed nor inferior humans, and if they are adults, they are not babies. If chickens or any other adult animals thought and acted like toddlers or teenagers, in situations where, living free or feral, they had to fend for themselves, the species would not survive. Toddlers do not create, sustain and perpetuate viable societies. They do not have parenting skills or any of the other neurological capabilities involved with the demands of maturity. An adult chicken raising her chicks does not think like a six-year old. She thinks like a mother hen, in which respect there is commonality and continuity between her and all other attentive and doting mothers of all species.

I believe that we must represent other animals as who they are, in situations that are meaningful to them and in which they meaningfully express themselves, without torturing and murdering them to find out what is inside their heads and infantilizing them in experiments with our gadgetry. We do not elevate our fellow creatures by belittling them. We need to suppress our impulse to patronize the rest of the living world as inferior to ourselves. Other animals are not lesser beings. A bear is not a teddy bear. Chickens are not “dumb” – they are neither voiceless nor stupid. Competent nonhuman animals are not neurological replicas of impaired humans and little children. Let us learn to respect other animals by perceiving them justly, and teach others to do the same.

Print Works Cited

Davis, Karen. “The Otherness of Animals.” Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics, Vol.4, No. 4, Fall 1988, pp. 261-262.

Davis, Karen. “The Mental Life of Chickens as Observed Through Their Social Relationships.” Experiencing Animal Minds: An Anthology of Animal-Human Encounters. Ed. Julie A. Smith and Robert W. Mitchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Order of Things.” The New Yorker, Feb. 14 & 21, 2011, pp. 68-75.

Rogers, Lesley J. Minds of Their Own: Thinking and Awareness in Animals. NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997.

Rogers, Lesley J. The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken. CABI, 1995.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation, New Revised Edition. New York: Avon Books, 1990.

Singer, Peter. Rethinking Life & Death. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the founder and president of (United Poultry Concerns), a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Her articles have appeared in Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, Sister Species, Encyclopedia of Animals and Humans, and Experiencing Animal Minds: An Anthology of Animal-Human Encounters.

Karen’s books include Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities, Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless “Poultry” Potpourri, and A Home For Henny. Karen Davis and her work were profiled in the Ark Trust Genesis-Award Winning article, “For the Birds” in The Washington Post and she is in the U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame “for outstanding contributions to animal liberation.” See Karen's biography.

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