The most recent outbreak of salmonella has got people talking a lot about poultry. With chicken still being shipped out of Foster Farms, the contaminated factory in California, and put onto supermarket shelves, it’s clearer than ever that consumers need to take responsibility for the quality and safety of the meat they consume (if they choose to eat meat at all). The industry only cares about itself. As Mark Bittman wrote last week in the New York Times, ‘This is not a shutdown issue, but a “We care more about industry than we do about consumers” issue.’
The reasons to buy high quality, ethically raised chicken go beyond the risk of salmonella. In an article titled “Are Chicks Brighter Than Babies?” Nicholas Kristof challenges the inhumane way in which most poultry is raised. Perhaps it’s harder to feel sympathy for a clucking, pecking hen than it is for a brown-eyed calf, but chickens and geese are truly fascinating creatures. While reading the following list, you’d think I’m talking about monkeys, not hens and geese.
- Geese mate for life, share family duties, and even try to comfort each other when approaching the chopping block.
- Hens can count at least to six. Even chicks can do basic arithmetic, so if you shuffle five items in a game, they mentally keep track of additions and subtractions and choose the area with the higher number of items. They do better than toddlers in these tests.
- Hens can delay gratification. Researchers gave hens the choice of two keys, one that waited two seconds and gave the hen 3 seconds of food, and the other that waited six seconds but offered 22 seconds of food. Soon 93 percent of hens opted for the longer delay with more food.
- Hens can multitask, using one eye to forage for food and the other looking out for predators.
- Hens are social animals and recover more quickly from stress when in the company of others.
- Hens have a “Machiavellian tendency” to adjust what they’re saying according to who’s listening. They can share precise information about the location of food and presence of predators using specific sounds and calls.
- Hens have an intriguing ability to understand that an object, when taken away and hidden, continues to exist.
- Hens can also recognize a whole object even when it is partly hidden. It was thought only humans could do this.
I’m not tackling the basic question of whether or not to eat meat, but I’m sure we can all agree that animals should not be hurt unnecessarily. These are not “birdbrains” that we’re dealing with, but intelligent creatures who do not deserve to spend their lives “jammed into tiny cages in stinking, fetid barns.” If our consumer habits are creating horrible environments for animals in captivity, then those habits need to change.