Representative image
Representative image

Why did the chicken cross the barn? To sign up for a study

A bruiser of a turkey strutted through an open door, tail feathers spread like an ornamental fan. And a penned flock of white-feathered hens emitted tiny, intermittent squeaks, an asynchronous symphony of chicken sneezes.

It was a crisp October day at Farm Sanctuary, and inside the small, red barn, the chicken people were restless. A rooster, or maybe two, yodelled somewhere out of sight. A bruiser of a turkey strutted through an open door, tail feathers spread like an ornamental fan. And a penned flock of white-feathered hens emitted tiny, intermittent squeaks, an asynchronous symphony of chicken sneezes.

The hens were experiencing a flare-up of a chronic respiratory condition, said Sasha Prasad-Shreckengast, the sanctuary’s manager of research and animal welfare, who was preparing to enter the chicken pen. She donned gloves and shoe covers, threw on a pair of blue scrubs and then slipped inside, squatting to bring herself face-to-face with the first hen who approached. “Who are you?” she cooed. Prasad-Shreckengast meant the question literally. She was trying to find the birds that were enrolled in her study: an investigation into whether chickens — animals not often heralded for their brainpower — enjoy learning. But her question was also the big philosophical one driving the new, in-house research team at Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit that has spent more than 35 years trying to end animal agriculture.

They have their work cut out for them: The US alone keeps more than 90 million cattle and slaughters more than 9 billion chickens (and 200 million turkeys) a year. But there are some signs of a societal shift. In a 2019 Gallup poll, nearly one in four Americans said that they had curbed their consumption of meat. A jury recently acquitted activists who ferried two piglets away from a factory farm. Fast-food giants are adding faux meat to the menu, and just last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to lab-grown chicken.

And a growing body of research suggests that farmed species are brainy beings: Chickens can anticipate the future, goats appear to solicit help from humans, and pigs may pick up on one another’s emotions.

But scientists still know far less about the minds of chickens or cows than they do about those of apes or dogs, said Christian Nawroth, a scientist studying behavior and cognition at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany. “I’m still baffled how little we know about farm animals, given the amount or the numbers that we keep,” he said. Farm Sanctuary, which was founded in 1986, has always held that farm animals are sentient beings, even referring to its feathered and four-legged residents as “people.”

“They have their own desires, and their own wants and preferences and needs, and their own inner lives — the same way that human people do,” said Lauri Torgerson-White, the sanctuary’s director of research.

Now, the sanctuary is trying to collect enough data to convince the general public of the humanity of animals. “Our hope,” Ms. Torgerson-White said, “is that through utilizing really rigorous methodologies, we are able to uncover pieces of information about the inner lives of farmed animals that can be used to really change hearts and minds about how these animals are used by society.”

The sanctuary is conducting the research in accordance with its own strict ethical standards, which include giving the animals the right to choose whether or not to participate in studies. Consequently, the researchers have sometimes found themselves grappling with the very thing that they are keen to demonstrate: that animals have minds of their own.

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