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Chickens Feel Empathy, Why Can’t We?

Chickens Feel Empathy, Why Can’t We?

A new study at the University of Bristol has shown that chickens can feel empathy, a trait that was previously thought exclusive to humans.

The study involved ruffling the feathers of chicks with puffs of air. The chicks showed signs of distress at having their feathers ruffled and the mother hens mirrored their stress. The researchers were able to document equivalent signs of physiological distress in the mothers when they observed that their chicks were bothered.

Scientists documented increased heart rate and alertness as well as lowered eye temperature, all signs of distress in chickens.

Scientists working at the University of Bristol as well as groups like Compassion in World Farming have already taken note of the impact that this knowledge could have on the considerations of farm and laboratory animal welfare. Among the most horrifying parts of being an animal on a farm or in a laboratory is having to witness other animals being tortured and killed. Up until now, it was thought that most animals weren’t capable of empathizing with others in distress.

This study shows that the animals that we most often slaughter for food are capable of not only feeling pain and fear for themselves, but are also capable of being terrified at what they are seeing happening to others around them. In the United States, we kill almost 9 billion chickens for food annually, which doesn’t even count male chicks killed at birth and egg-laying hens confined in cages their whole lives. Compare that number to only around 100 million cattle slaughtered for beef.

Once again, many are missing the point in saying that this study creates an imperative for so-called “better welfare” on farms and in slaughterhouses when what it creates is an even greater imperative to stop slaughtering animals for food entirely.

We don’t need friendlier and “happier” slaughterhouses, we need no slaughterhouses. We don’t need compassion in animal agriculture, we need to end animal agriculture.

Every step of the way we learn more about animals and how much they are like us and we struggle to continue justifying the fact that we treat animals like property instead of sentient beings.

We’ve proven that chickens feel empathy with the suffering of others; the only thing left is for us to prove that we as humans feel empathy for the suffering of chickens and other animals.

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1032 comments

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1:47AM PDT on May 6, 2012

John, you're confusing instinct with both empathy (having strong emotional capabilities towards other beings) and intelligence (being able to figure things out. Poultry, at least domestic chickens have instincts, but little else. Wild turkeys have a lot more intelligence as their domesticated cousins, that's for sure, but even there, they don't have "empathy" and if one is shot, the rest will scatter pretty quickly, certainly not gather around and grieve.

John, you were rambling there about the gun and a loved one in a war zone, etc. Sorry, but I think I can have the logic to understand that a gun pointed AT me means I've got something to fear, even if nobody's ever shot at me before. Walk up to a chicken with a hatchet in your hand and unless you've attacked it with a hatchet before, the chicken will probably not even try to escape. If he does, will he then go on to appreciate his life more? Nope, he'll just continue clucking and pecking for bugs like nothing happened.

12:43AM PDT on May 5, 2012

Animals are aware, but they aren't really self-aware in the sense that people are. Well, maybe some of the other apes are. Self-preservation=preservation of the species, and it is hard-wired into all critters. That does not mean that the animal has any real concept of "death" like we do. They do not understand mortality, they simply live until they die. (Actually, they may be the lucky ones.)

Most animals will sniff at one of their fellows that has died, but that's about it. (I've seen a tomcat pee on a dead rival, in fact. And yes, he died of natural causes. The other one got his licks in before I could bury the deceased.) I've had chickens, and in my experience, they will bully a weak one or a newcomer. Pecking order, yes. They DO peck.Like Diane, I find the stories of heroic chickens a little hard to believe...

12:14AM PDT on May 5, 2012

Diane L., please explain to us all what intelligence has to do with empathy, with emotions? There is a part of the brain in every living vertebrate called the amygdala which controls our sense of fear and releases adrenaline so that we may either fight whatever it is that is causing fear or run from it. Birds also have an amygdala so it has been shown that they too react to fear much as we do. There has yet to be found a particular area of the brain that controls other emotions, but that's true of primates and other vertebrates. So why is it inconsistent to state that since birds and primates share fear, they also share other emotions?

And while we're at it, fear of what? If someone pointed a gun at you or told you loved one stationed as a soldier in some far off land was seriously injured, the fear that grips us is that of death. The amygdala has kicked in - you'll be tense and if you escape, won't get any sleep for awhile. So what have chickens to fear? Its not some primitive reflex that just says, "Get out of the way." Its still death. They are aware of it. And for someone to be aware of death, they must surely appreciate life.

12:14AM PDT on May 5, 2012

Diane L., please explain to us all what intelligence has to do with empathy, with emotions? There is a part of the brain in every living vertebrate called the amygdala which controls our sense of fear and releases adrenaline so that we may either fight whatever it is that is causing fear or run from it. Birds also have an amygdala so it has been shown that they too react to fear much as we do. There has yet to be found a particular area of the brain that controls other emotions, but that's true of primates and other vertebrates. So why is it inconsistent to state that since birds and primates share fear, they also share other emotions?

And while we're at it, fear of what? If someone pointed a gun at you or told you loved one stationed as a soldier in some far off land was seriously injured, the fear that grips us is that of death. The amygdala has kicked in - you'll be tense and if you escape, won't get any sleep for awhile. So what have chickens to fear? Its not some primitive reflex that just says, "Get out of the way." Its still death. They are aware of it. And for someone to be aware of death, they must surely appreciate life.

12:08AM PDT on May 4, 2012

Cara,I replied to the fact you have no member profile, never commented in the past that I recall, and now, out of nowhere, come in to refute what I've posted in a couple of Care.2 discussios, also with the accusation I comment in ALL animal-related topics. How would you know that, just curious?

Your stories are cute, almost the plot of a Disney movie and I can't believe much of any of it. Now, the first story, about the sympathetic, grieving hens? They might not have layed for awhile because they'd been stressed, but I bet you never thought of that? C'mon, the headless bodies of 3 hens and another spread her wings over her friend and stayed there all night? Why didn't you remove the dead hens? A weasel more often will eat the entire chicken, also. They don't decapitate 3 and leave the bodies, as there ain't a lot of nutrition in the head! Try again.

Recently, in another Care.2 discussion (not so much about animals as about nutritional lifestyles), a more disrespectful and rude former member commented (under a false and now deleted identity) that the "good and caring" members are being turned off in Care.2 and leaving. To be more truthful, more and more people with common sense are getting turned off and bored with the A/R nonsense and radical mentality.

11:47PM PDT on May 3, 2012

Because humans suck.

11:19PM PDT on May 3, 2012

No, Beth, I know the difference between the two. Chickens have very little intelligence and none of the other. There are probably exceptions, but rare.

This is a very old discussion. Why are you ressurrecting it now? I'd ask the same of John. His pet rooster will never learn more, nor be more intelligent. Hopefully, a little kid will.

Oh, Cara? I see it was you who actually ressurrected this, and don't waste your time and very limited knowledge. My beliefs won't change because of your cute stories. Have empathy and grieve? Yeah, right. They don't call it "pecking order" for nothing. Try again with somebody gullible enough to believe it. I'm not, and I don't.

12:04PM PDT on May 3, 2012

Diane L, you are making the common mistake of equating empathy with intellegence, as John H so credibility pointed out.

11:54AM PDT on May 3, 2012

Some meat eaters do care about animals, just not enough.

11:52AM PDT on May 3, 2012

Diane- I am bound and determined to make you change your mind ! :-) Here's another story for you, my sanctuary is on 27 acres of mostly open pasture..We get very high winds occassionally. During a pretty bad wind storm this Winter one of my coop doors blew open and when I looked out the window I heard the garble sound of chickens blowing across the yard (yes, it WAS funny) I put my clothes on and ran out to try and gather them up.. I got everyone in but three, My alpha rooster, a hen and a smaller rooster.. In the morning I found them huddled together..The alpha rooster had his wings spread over the hen and the little rooster to keep them alive and warm through the night, he however not protecting his own head had severe frostbite on his comb and was very close to death. If there was no empathy why would he keep another ROOSTER warm? Hens..maybe you could arguehe was instinctually prepetuating the species...AT the sacrifice of himself he saved the lives of the other two.. He did survive by the way and despite almost losing his comb and his life is still the fair and just ruler of the roost.

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