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Farm Animal Feelings get Scientific

News Icon 19/03/2015

Jonathan Balcombe is Director for Animal Sentience for the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, DC. He is the author of Pleasurable Kingdom, Second Nature and The Exultant Ark. This is the link to Jonathan’s website. As an internationally recognised expert and respected author in animal behaviour, I’m very excited to share with you Jonathan’s article called ‘Farm Animal Feelings get Scientific’. 

It is hard to say whether I’ve learned more about the behaviour of farm animals from reading scientific studies or from first-hand interactions at a local sanctuary for rescued animals where I volunteer on Saturday mornings. As an ethologist (a student of animal behaviour), I’ve perused my share of published papers about everything from flooring preferences in hens to eureka moments in calves. But there is no substitute for the experience of rubbing a grateful pig’s belly or watching a row of hens sunbathing in a beam of sunlight.

Despite their unfair relegation to the minor leagues of respectability, the animals who humans raise to be eaten are among the most studied of all. Much of the research is done in the industry’s interest of maximising yields, but a good amount of pure behavioural research has also been amassed. As the former scientific taboo on studying animal minds and feelings has lifted, we are gaining exciting perspectives on their inner lives.

One of the more surprising results was a 2004 study with the provocative title Chickens prefer beautiful humans. When presented with pairs of photographs of human faces, chickens showed an astonishingly close (98 percent) correlation of face preference to those of humans rated. It remains uncertain what this says about a chicken’s aesthetic sense, but the idea of chickens preferring any humans has poignancy, given how inhumanely we treat them. Here in America we currently slaughter about 300 chickens every second, and poultry are not even covered by the federal humane slaughter law.

Those discerning hens’ eyes hint at an active mind, and there are plenty of other studies to support that. Among the nobler traits of chickens is their willingness to take a risk for others’ benefit. Chicken alarm calls are unique to each category of aerial predators: large, small and intermediate, each with an appropriate response. Sounding the alarm naturally draws attention to the caller, yet chickens do it anyway to warn flockmates of approaching danger. On the flip side, these crafty birds are not beyond using deception for their own ends, as when a rooster makes a food call to lure hens despite having no food to offer them. Perhaps the “grasshopper” he spied in the grass escaped, so he can earn credit with a hen without any cost to himself, provided he doesn’t pull the stunt too often and be shunned.

Pigs are rightly renowned for their intelligence and resourcefulness. In farm operations with remote-controlled feeding regimes, pigs are known to pick up a collar that has dropped off another pig and use it to trigger the access door for an extra helping of feed. At the sanctuary, Petey the pig will often snatch a rake from an unsuspecting volunteer and carry it to his nest; it doesn’t earn him more food, but he gets to wield a rake!

And pigs need stimulation. Housed in an enriched, social environment with straw bedding and interactive toys, pigs showed much greater optimism than other pigs housed in barren pens. Trained to expect a treat when they heard a chime, or a mildly unpleasant thing (rustling plastic bag) when they heard a click, the enriched pigs responded favourably to an ambiguous sound (a squeak) whereas impoverished pigs tended to retreat from it. These reactions mirror those of humans, evoking complex emotional lives that include optimism and pessimism, happiness and unhappiness. It makes one shudder to consider the appalling confinement so many millions of pigs still endure on factory farms.

A similar study with goats living at least two years at a sanctuary in Britain had an unexpected outcome: the most optimistic response to an ambiguous signal came from females who had a prior history of poor welfare. The study investigators concluded that these females could be experiencing long-term optimism triggered by release from stress. Just as we can feel elated and grateful to be liberated from a prolonged hardship, so too might a goat take a sunnier view of new-found freedom and comfort.

These studies are powerful for revealing emotions that are difficult or impossible to glean from just looking at an animal. Nevertheless, other research is using visible cues to interpret inner states. A Norwegian study found that the amount of white showing in the eyes of cows is a reliable measure of stress and frustration, and a new study suggests that the position of a cow’s ears may be a reliable indicator of whether she is feeling relaxed or upset. And we shouldn’t underestimate the animals’ keen capacity to read subtle physical cues on the faces of others. For instance, sheep prefer the face of a just-fed (thus contented) flockmate compared to that of a hungry one, and a smiling human face over a frowning one.

As the science of animal emotions and minds advances, the case to end the routine cruelty, abuse, and neglect that farm animals experience at our hands strengthens. To that end, I and my colleagues are excited to be soon launching Animal Sentience, the first scholarly journal for the ethical study of animal feelings. Because science informs ethics, all articles published in our journal will address how the work can be leveraged toward changes in policy and practice.


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