Researchers at the University of Bristol have found that domestic hens clearly display that they are aware of distress in their chicks, and respond in a way that shows they are in sync with the chicks when they are suffering. The awareness of their suffering was said to be the underpinning of empathy. Perhaps it is more clear to simply say awareness of emotion is the the foundation of empathy. Semantics aside, what the researchers found probably doesn’t come as a surprise to animal lovers.
One of the researchers said, “Our research has addressed the fundamental question of whether birds have the capacity to show empathic responses. We found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of “empathy”; the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.” (Source: University of Bristol)
In a controlled context, and using non-invasive methods, the researchers exposed chicks to a sudden puff of air. Instantly the hens’ heart rate, eye temperature, and vocalizations changed. One researcher said that understanding how factory farm animals react to their peers’ stress is one possible way of improving living conditions there. Chickens living on commercial farms encounter others with foot disorders and broken legs due to overcrowding; they can become distressed by the injuries and unhealthy states of their peers. The study was published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Empathy seems likely not to be restricted to humans, although some believe only humans are truly capable of such understanding. In fact, believing other social animals are lacking in empathy and emotion are often given as justification for using them for food and subjecting them to the abuses of factory farming.
Curiously, those who say animals don’t have empathy, are not using their own.There isn’t any valid reason for selective empathy or only empathizing with humans, when there are millions of other species on this planet. It would be very interesting to hear what the chicken researchers would say about the fact dolphins in Florida helped saved a dog from drowning, although they had no prior relationship with it.
The study was funded by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Image Credit: Andrei Niemimäki