This photo shows chickens under observation at the University of Guelph in October.(FEDERICA NARANCIO / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This photo shows chickens under observation at the University of Guelph in October.(FEDERICA NARANCIO / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

What makes chickens happy? University of Guelph researchers try to find out

Animal welfare advocates say cruelty begins with birds that have been bred to have breasts so big they can barely walk

How do you measure a chicken’s happiness? Is it in the way it runs for food? How much time it spends preening?

To size up what might make chickens happy in their brief lives, researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, are putting 16 breeds through physical fitness and behavioural tests. They’re watching how well birds scramble over a barrier for food, how skittish they seem and whether they play with a fake worm.

Chickens can’t say how they feel, but playing with a fake worm may be a sign of happiness.

“We have to infer when an animal is happy or content or experiencing pleasure based on their behaviour,” said Stephanie Torrey, one of the researchers.

In recent years, the animal welfare world has moved beyond looking at how to minimize suffering to exploring whether animals can also enjoy their lives, Torrey said.

Such measures may be considered irrelevant by companies but underscore a broader lack of consensus around the welfare of chickens, which are sometimes slaughtered as soon as five weeks after hatching.

Animal welfare advocates say cruelty begins with birds that have been bred to have breasts so big they can barely walk. They say today’s chickens are genetic monstrosities crippled by pain and that the industry needs to switch breeds.

Read more: ‘Feed a fed horse’: PETA launches campaign to nix anti-animal language

Read more: Okanagan Animal Save protests at D Dutchmen Dairy in Sicamous

Many in the industry say there’s no problem and that chickens may not move around a lot because they’re sedentary. Even if they were to agree to change breeds, it’s not clear what the alternatives should look like.

The two sides disagree about the cause and frequency of health issues among broilers chickens. Tyson and Sanderson Farms, for example, acknowledge that chicken breasts have ballooned over the years, but they say they’re not seeing widespread problems as a result.

“If they can’t move and get to the feed trough, they’re not going to survive,” said Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer for Sanderson Farms.

John Glisson of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association says broiler chickens are “couch potatoes” and that some people may mistake the birds’ laziness for a medical issue. He said trying to assess welfare is tricky beyond established industry measures, like whether a chicken dies from disease before it’s slaughtered.

The industry says changing breeds is unnecessary, and that switching to broiler chickens that don’t grow as big or as fast would mean using up more water and other resources. Chicken prices at the supermarket would be higher too.

Still, animal welfare is becoming a bigger public relations concern, and companies say they’re always looking for ways to take better care of their chickens.

Tyson recently ran a trial that let chickens pick from pens with varying levels of light to determine which they prefer. Perdue is testing giving its conventional birds as much light and space as its organic birds, which are the same breed.

The Humane Society of the United States says stepping up living conditions helps, but it believes the bigger problem is breeding that has resulted in disfigured chickens. It says chickens have been genetically manipulated to have massive breasts their legs cannot support.

“It is crazy for anyone to have to remind the industry that birds naturally walk,” said Josh Balk, the Humane Society’s vice-president of farm animal protection.

Balk said the study in Canada will provide important information on what type of chickens might suffer less.

University of Guelph researchers are also tracking chicken traits like weight, growth rate and meat quality they hope will be useful to the industry. Aviagen and Tyson-owned Cobb, which supply breeds to chicken producers, are providing birds for the study, including breeds that are widely used.

The companies say they already track health and welfare, but that they’re interested in the research.

The Guelph study is being funded by the Global Animal Partnership, which certifies corporate animal welfare standards. In 2016, it launched a campaign to get companies to switch to “slower growing” breeds. Since then, it has acknowledged that chicken welfare is more complicated than just growth rate.

It’s now pushing for a “better” chicken, and hopes the study will help define what that entails.

Only a small percentage of chickens in the U.S. are GAP-certified, and spelling out new requirements for breeds risks making certification even rarer.

Anne Malleau, the group’s executive director, notes some of the researchers’ tests may seem far out. But she said providing “enrichments” — such as places where chickens can rest or perch — was also seen as a fringe idea before becoming more accepted.

GAP was founded a decade ago with funding from Whole Foods, which still pays Malleau’s and another staffer’s salaries.

Back in Guelph, researchers note that chicken traits can make for marketable imagery. That includes behaviours like their willingness to engage with a fake worm — which they note may be misinterpreted as “playing” and happiness.

“The jury’s still out whether domestic chickens, with their comparatively smaller brains, have the capacity to play,” Torrey said.

___

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Candice Choi, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Comox Valley RCMP had access to 20 Street blocked off between Cousins and Choquette avenues as they conducted a raid of a house on the block. Photo by Terry Farrell
Comox Valley RCMP raid Courtenay problem house, several arrests made

Neighbours have reached out to media on several occasions with complaints about the property

Darcy Rhodes (left) says his grandfather’s bonsai trees are his ‘babies.’ (Courtesy of Tamara Bond)
Construction takes place on Bamfield Main in early February 2021. (PHOTO COURTESY CTV NEWS)
Ongoing Bamfield roadwork unrelated to planned $30M fix

Construction by Mosaic unrelated to $30M upgrade ordered in wake of fatal bus crash

Protestors against old growth logging gather in front of the courthouse in Victoria on Thursday morning. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
Fairy Creek protesters gather at Victoria courthouse

Logging company seeks injunction to remove blockades near its Port Renfrew operation

One person is dead after a camper van caught fire Thursday morning in Victoria's Beacon Hill Park. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
UPDATED: One person dead after vehicle fire in Beacon Hill Park

Investigation into Victoria death in early stages

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the B.C. legislature press theatre to give a daily update on the COVID-19 pandemic, April 6, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. nears 300,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, essential workers next

564 new cases, four deaths, no new outbreaks Thursday

Walter Gretzky father of hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky waves to fans as the Buffalo Sabres play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky, father of the Great One, dies at 82

Canada’s hockey dad had battled Parkinson’s disease and other health issues

Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne speaks in the B.C. legislature, March 4, 2021. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals, NDP sing in harmony on local election reforms

Bill regulates paid canvassers, allows people in condo buildings

The intersection of Melrose Street and Third Avenue. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Suspect in custody after two pedestrians struck in Port Alberni hit and run

RCMP asking for video footage, credit witnesses for quick arrest

(National Emergency Management Agency)
No tsunami risk to B.C. from powerful New Zealand earthquake: officials

An 8.1 magnitude earthquake shook the north of New Zealand Thursday morning

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Pandemic stress, isolation key factors as to why Canadians turned to cannabis, alcohol

Study found that isolation played key role in Canadians’ substance use

Crews disassemble the iconic red and white KFC bucket from a sign on Goldstream Avenue. (Photo courtesy of Mark Schoor)
Iconic KFC bucket removed from Goldstream Avenue

Popular fast-food chain closes Langford location

Grand Forks’ Gary Smith stands in front of his Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster float. Photo: Submitted
Grand Forks’ Flying Spaghetti Monster leader still boiling over driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith, head of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster of B.C., said he has since spoken to lawyers

(Pxhere)
B.C. research reveals how pandemic has changed attitudes towards sex, health services

CDC survey shows that 35 per cent of people were worried about being judged

Most Read