Conference Summary

Farmed Animal Well-Being Conference at the University of California-Davis (part II)

June 28-29

The previous issue of PoultryPress gave a synopsis of speeches by Drs. Joy Mench and Ian Duncan on welfare problems for birds in the poultry and egg industries. The conference was sponsored by the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, Animal Place, and United Poultry Concerns on June 28-29, 2001. The following is a synopsis of talks given by bird specialists Lesley J. Rogers and Gisela Kaplan. Dr. Rogers is a professor of Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour at the University of New England in Australia and the author of The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken (1995). Dr. Kaplan is a full professor specializing in ethology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of New England in Australia and coauthor (with Lesley Rogers) of Birds: Their Habits and Skills (2001)

“Chickens with weak legs and weak hearts, pregnant pigs in cramped housing, lame cattle and other afflictions on the farm are on the agenda of an unusual conference opening today on the campus of the University of California, Davis.”
Knight-Ridder Tribune, June 28, 2001

Changing Our Views About the Domestic Chicken

Dr. Lesley J. Rogers, Professor of Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour, University of New England, Australia

Observing that science shows "the cognitive demands of the hitherto underestimated chicken brain," Rogers said that "people need to see chickens as animals equivalent to other creatures" and that all the information shows that chickens cannot be reduced to inferior creatures. Based on their complex memory formations and demonstrated learning capabilities, chickens "should not be in cages at all." Rogers told the audience of animal scientists, producers, veterinarians, veterinary students, and animal protectionists, "We need to make enormous changes that provide for the cognitive needs of chickens, not just physical."

Rogers told the audience that "despite domestication, very little has changed in the chicken's cognitive powers." Slides from her laboratory showed the chicken's ability to correctly identify and distinguish among a range of objects, to locate objects that have been removed from sight and to "tell that an object behind an object is a whole object." These and other studies, she said, reveal "the complexity of the chicken's cognition." While noting that the long history of domestication of the chicken has led to birds who may be somewhat less stressed by being caged or handled by humans than their junglefowl relatives, "this does not mean that domestic breeds are well-adapted to living in intensive poultry systems." Rogers concluded, "I would argue that genetic selection has favored chickens that can live in farmyard free-ranging conditions in contact with humans and other species, but not in battery cages."

From The Book
Dr. Lesley J. Rogers on Battery Cages for Hens

“Although many of the currently discussed methods of improving housing for battery hens are most important and definitely to be encouraged, it must be recognized that these are attempts by an industry designed for profit to make some concession to the welfare of the animal. 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. . . . Chickens in battery cages are cramped in overcrowded conditions. Apart from restricted movement, they have few or no opportunities for decision-making and control over their own lives. They have no opportunity to search for food and, if they are fed on powdered food, they have no opportunity to decide at which grains to peck. These are just some examples of the impoverishment of their environment. Others include abnormal levels of sensory or social stimulation caused by excessive tactile contact with cage mates and continuous auditory stimulation produced by the vocalizing of huge flocks housed in the same shed. Also, they have no access to dustbathing or nesting material. Chickens experiencing such environmental conditions attempt to find ways to cope with them. Their behavioural repertoire becomes directed toward self or cage mates and takes on abnormal patterns, such as feather pecking or other stereotyped behaviours. These behaviours are used as indicators of stress in caged animals.”
Lesley J. Rogers,
The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, pp. 218-219.

Emotions and Awareness in Birds

Dr. Gisela Kaplan, School of Biological Sciences, University of New England, Australia

"My special areas are bird behaviour, animal welfare and rehabilitation of native birds, including holding special licenses for birds of prey," Kaplan told the audience. A broad perspective on birds demonstrates that suffering by birds such as chickens in oppressive commercial situations is "infinitely more severe than is generally imagined." The latest research in bird cognition, including memory of the past, shows clearly that the "basic food and water" thinking is unjustified and, more often than not, cruel to the bird. Birds have a complex emotional life. Recognition of individuals, mourning and joy, fear and anxiety, boredom and masking behaviour-these are some of the emotional conditions that birds share with mammals including humans. Because the face of a bird differs in certain ways from a mammalian face, the lack of a "human" expression has sometimes fostered the false assumption that birds lack feelings and awareness.

Even though science is starting to take birds seriously, progress is slow. In Australia, for example, there was no real veterinary training in birds until a few years ago, and the 2001 European Commission's Report on the Welfare of Broiler Chickens is, deplorably, 20 years out of date. It ignores such vital aspects as fear, boredom, the need to preen, and much more. What needs to be understood is that "animals," like humans, are whole beings. For example, the voices of birds involve "learned, complex vocalizations" that are part of "very complex social interactions; and vocalization is just one of many ways in which birds communicate with one another."

From The Book
“Some people have thought that all animals that have wings and lay eggs are the same kind of creature, but birds' evolutionary distance from one another [e.g., owls evolved about 60 million years ago, about 30 to 50 million years earlier than songbirds] and their differences in behavior make this as absurd as saying that mice and tigers are similar. But it is not just for reasons of appearance that birds have been seen as a unitary set of species; the history of ideas has also played a role. Descartes's notion that only humans are 'complete' beings by virtue of their ability to think had particularly bad repercussions for birds. A false impression was created that birds are essentially like mechanistic toys. Likenesses of birds have been used as colorful decorations in living rooms or as self-propelled music boxes on mantlepieces, just to adorn human dwellings, with little thought of the live birds.”
From “Communication in Birds,” Songs, Roars, and Rituals by Lesley J. Rogers and Gisela Kaplan.

Birds: Their Habits and Skills (2001) by Gisela Kaplan & Lesley J. Rogers is available in paperback from the Allen & Unwin website and can be ordered online at Approx U.S. price: $13.50