Scientists have recently published a study showing that chickens are capable of feeling empathy. They say their study “has important implications for the welfare of farm and laboratory animals.” Here at Farm Sanctuary, we’re happy that the scientific community is starting to acknowledge that animals deserve ethical consideration, but if they wanted to know whether or not chickens are capable of empathy, they could have just visited our farm! For many years we have been marveling at chickens’ personalities, at their individual quirks and habits, at the relationships they form, and at their numerous displays of empathy.
We frequently see chickens empathize with one another when one of them has a health issue. All of the hens and roosters we’ve rescued from the egg production industry perch at night, but if a hen is sick, we will usually find her on the ground when we come in to close the barn. She will not be alone, however, and if not a rooster, one of her companion hens will be there to keep her company until we take her to our shelter hospital for treatment and observation.
The bonds between chickens grow when they have these experiences. We remember Taboo and Giggles, who were from different flocks, but developed a strong relationship when they spent time together at the hospital barn while they were both sick. Taboo’s health improved, so we returned her to her flock. After a few days, she ventured away from her flock and made the downhill trek back to the hospital to see her friend. We had to keep her away from some of the sick birds, so we again put her back with her original flock. It wasn’t long before Taboo started to show signs of illness and had to go back to the hospital barn. Immediately the friends united, and Taboo made an amazing recovery. At this point, we relented to Taboo’s insistence and let the two chickens remain together. They happily lived with one another until Giggles passed. After that Taboo started to succumb to illness again, and was never quite the same as when she was with her friend. It was clear to anyone who knew her how meaningful her relationship with Giggles was, and how profoundly affected she was by her friend’s well-being.
The sad truth is that despite all the information we have about the complexity of these beautiful, intelligent animals, agribusiness still treats them like egg, milk and meat making machines. In typical factory farm conditions, behaviors like those shown by Taboo and Giggles could never be observed — most chickens spend their days crammed in a cage barely able to move, or in the case of birds used for meat, are killed after just six short weeks of life. We have been fortunate to be able to give chickens like Taboo and Giggles a home where they can act as they naturally should. In return they have shown us just how much they can empathize with one another, without having to test on them!
Top photo: Taboo and Giggles, friends for life