Scientists performed a controlled study of domestic hens and chicks recently that reveals the animals “possess a fundamental capacity to empathize,” reports the Telegraph. The research, entitled “Avian maternal response to chick distress,” was published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. journal and provides proof that chickens have the ability to show compassion for each others pain.
The study, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council’s Animal Welfare Initiative, involved exposing chicks to puffs of air, which distressed them and—consequently—elicited distress in their mothers. The hens exhibited increased heart rate, lowered eye temperature (which is apparently a recognized sign of stress), and increased alertness. The hens also clucked at their offspring more often during the experiment.
“The extent to which animals are affected by the distress of others is of high relevance to the welfare of farm and laboratory animals,” said Jo Edgar, a researcher from the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Sciences. “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.”
However, this study does not directly prove that chickens show empathy or compassion for offspring that aren’t their own, such as those who’ve been raised for commercial purposes. Yet, as Edgar states, chickens in these circumstances do regularly encounter other chickens in pain, “owing to routine husbandry practices or because of the high prevalence of conditions such as bone fractures or leg disorders.”
While it is nice to know that—hey—chickens are more like us than we thought, this research is a harsh reminder of the harm done to chickens in the food industry. That they might feel one another’s pain makes it all the worse.
(Via the Telegraph)