Do Chickens Mind Seeing Other Chickens Killed in Their Presence?
Thinking Like a Chicken Podcast
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Absurd as it may sound to anyone familiar with chickens, some people, including one high-profile animal pontificator who shall be nameless, have claimed based on false and unquestioned assertions, that chickens do not mind seeing and hearing other chickens being slaughtered in their presence. This would include seeing one or more members of their flock being tortured by humans or harmed by a natural predator such as a hawk or a fox. In this podcast episode I address the question of traumatic empathy in chickens. Please join me.
Thinking Like a Chicken Overview
Do Chickens Mind Seeing Other Chickens Killed in Their Presence?
Hello, and thank you for joining me today. I’m Karen Davis, the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes compassion and respect for chickens, turkeys, ducks, and other domesticated birds.
Today I want to speak to you about whether chickens are bothered by seeing other chickens harmed in their presence, including being killed.
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 mind. Was this true?
Lest anyone think that chickens don’t mind hearing and seeing 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 seen the effect on chickens of a hawk or a fox and the terror those 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 back then, named Ethel Murmur, 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 happened, Ethel Murmur was so vigorous and loud that we named her after the famous Broadway singer Ethel Merman on account of her imposing character, her ample physique, and her big voice. Afterward, Ethel Murmur was never the same. She stopped making a joyful noise, she 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 hen, Alexandra, outside with her bantam rooster companion, Josie. It was a spring day, and the kitchen door was open. 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 ran outside. Josie was nowhere. Once again – a fox. Once again, heartache.
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 with these people 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 quickly rescued all five chicks, and we covered the openings safely.)
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’s physical environment and bodily deformations, imposed by exploiters, retain the fundamental instincts, sensitivities, emotions and intelligence of a bird whose evolutionary home is the tropical forest. Like their wild cousins of the tropics, domesticated chickens, perceiving a predator in their yard, will typically react with a loud clamor, and they will hide themselves among the trees and bushes for protection.
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 – that is, behavior exhibited by individuals enduring repeated, traumatizing treatment beyond their control, even if their senses are on high alert. They may develop a condition of muscular immobility produced by their intense fear at being helpless, and knowing they are 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 a slaughterhouse, a live poultry market, or a cockfighting ring. They sense, in these places, when they themselves and their companions are in immediate danger, as shown by their ready response to danger in a diversity of settings.
The day after Josie, our little rooster, was grabbed by a fox in front of Alexandra our hen, I was filled with grief and guilt. “Why oh why did I let them outside yesterday morning unprotected?” I berated myself. I sat on the floor and could not stop crying. Here, then, came big white billowy Sonia, a hen whom we’d rescued with Josie and other chickens from a filthy shed in back of a shiny farmers market in Virginia, here Sonia came across the living room floor. She rested her head against me and began softly purring, over and over. My sadness deepened with love for this gentle being, who maybe knew or did not know why I was crying, 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, together in this tragic world.
I hope you have found today’s podcast informative and inspiring on behalf of chickens and that you will share it with your social media network. Thank you very much for joining me today, and, please join me for the next podcast episode of Thinking Like a Chicken – News & Views! And have a wonderful day.
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 published by Lantern Publications & Media.