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For many years I told myself that chickens were so dumb that those in factory farms probably had little to no awareness of what was going on. My prejudice came to light when I was having a discussion at dinner with an ex-vegetarian who had chosen the vegetarian option from the menu. I chose the chicken. My ex-vegetarian friend explained that she would only eat free-range chicken, and hence almost never ordered it at restaurants. I, feeling a little defensive about my menu choice, declared, 'I feel bad about cows, but chickens are just stupid'.
Looking back on my attitude, I see it as being symptomatic of having spent time on a poultry farm as a kid, collecting eggs from row after row of battery cages, sitting with hatchlings under heat lamps, and looking in fascination at the giant incubators keeping future egg laying hens (and future dead males) warm. I remember the dusty smell of the grain, and running my hands through deep crates of feed, loving the feeling as the granules passed between my fingers. I remember the smell of the battery sheds, and seeing the red-raw skin on the necks of hens as they stuck their heads through the wire cages. Once I found a hen with its leg stuck in the cage and calling on an adult to assist, other times I left hens stuck. I walked past thousands of hens crammed in tiny cages and not once did I stop to think that perhaps what we were doing was wrong. But bear in mind, I was only a kid, and I dutifully mimicked the attitudes of the adults who surrounded me.
Chickens, I came to learn when my family had backyard chickens, are not as dumb as I initially thought, and I was soon led to believe that free-range eggs and free range hens were a better alternative to the battery cage. Nevertheless, I never hesitated to eat eggs from cafes, restaurants, or in other store-bought products not knowing if they were free-range and the same went for chicken flesh.
But now I see just how wrong I was on a number of fronts. Firstly, the idea that chickens are 'just stupid' is clearly unscientific:
'Chickens exist in stable social groups. They can recognize each other by their facial features. They have 24 distinct cries that communicate a wealth of information to one other, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is travelling by land or sea. They are good at solving problems. As a trick at conferences I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys.' - Dr. Chris Evans, Professor of Psychology at Macquarie University, Australia.
This article from National Geographic highlights the fact that chickens are far from 'bird-brained' or that 'bird-brain' may in fact be a compliment.**
I was also wrong in thinking that free-range chicken products were much better than caged. In all egg systems, the baby male hatchlings are killed at birth and the female hens, once they stop being as 'productive', are also slaughtered, generally after about eighteen months.
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Since going vegan, I have really been able to confront my participation in abusing chickens. Now I no longer participate in the exploitation of these animals, my prejudice against chickens has been dissolved.
- Stevie Schafer, 2012
* From the FAO data I have added together the numbers for both meat and egg industries. It is unclear, however, whether the figure for the egg industry includes the male offspring which are slaughtered at one day old. The figure may easily be closer to 68 million if the male offspring have not been counted.
** Not that intelligence should be the yard stick by which we measure moral concern. Sentience should be the only consideration.