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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Glass of whiskey
UBCO substance use clinic goes virtual

The clinic is adapting the way it provides services as the pandemic continues

Loud beats reverberate through the room as Total Fitness Zumba class participants follow along to the instructor’s moves during a drop-in fundraiser for the Shannon Sharp Learning Circle to be constructed at Salmon Arm West School. (Lachlan Labere/Salmon Arm Observer)
City-run fitness classes paused in Vernon

Greater Vernon Recreation Services pauses play in wake of province’s new health orders

Welcome Lars, the elf. Vernon Jubilee Hospital Foundation's newest representative for the Light a Bulb campaign. (Contributed)
Vernon hospital welcomes new elf for Light a Bulb campaign

The passing of candy cane from elf-to-elf warrants a colouring contest!

(Morning Star file photo)
Lumby bylaw complaints skyrocket in 2020

Bylaw officers have seen an 80 per cent increase in complaints over 2019, with two months yet to be recorded

Greater Vernon Water rates will increase an average of 2.4 per cent over the next four years after the Regional District of North Okanagan adopted a new water rate bylaw on Wednesday, Nov. 18. (File photo)
Regional District North Okanagan approves four-year water rate bylaw

Water rates for Greater Vernon Water users to climb an average of 2.4 per cent over the four years

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.”
Free ‘Hollywood Suite’ movies in December include ‘Keanussance’ titles starring Keanu Reeves

Also featured is the Israeli-made ‘Valley of Tears,’ a 10-part war drama

Dani Barker, originally from Salmon Arm, is working with others in the New York City film industry to bring a script she wrote to life as a feature film called Follow Her. (Contributed)
Salmon Arm woman’s movie thriller nearing completion, in need of backing

Dani Barker wrote and stars in Follow Her which wrapped filming in New York in February

Axel Hasenkox, owner of OP Office Products in Penticton, is fed up after his store was tagged by an unknown person Monday Nov. 23, 2020. (Jesse Day - Western News
Penticton business hit by ‘senseless’ vandalism

Business owner disheartened after store tagged

The Smethurst kids Kai and Julia went door to door over two days spreading to cheer and handing out 200 treat bags full of home cooked goodies for a random act of kindness on Nov. 22 and 23. (Facebook)
Penticton family hands out 200 treat bags to neighbours

The Smethursts are also making Christmas meals for anyone who needs it

Police have identified this woman accused of spitting on an employee at the Skaha Liquor Store on Sunday, Nov. 21. She also is seen on video purposely dropping his phone.
Unmasked woman who allegedly spat on a Penticton employee has been identified

Police say thanks to the public, they were able to identify her

FILE - This May 4, 2020, file photo provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.  Pfizer announced Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, more results in its ongoing coronavirus vaccine study that suggest the shots are 95% effective a month after the first dose. (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)
VIDEO: B.C. planning for the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the first weeks of 2021

The question of who will get the vaccine first relies on Canada’s ethical framework

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
Canada can make vaccines, just not the ones leading the COVID-19 race

Canada has spent more than $1 billion to pre-order seven different developing COVID-19 vaccines

Most Read