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

Aldor Acres is open to the public for pumpkin picking and animal visiting. (Ryan Uytdewilligen/Aldergrove Star)
Our View: Caution requires creativity this Halloween in Langley

And remember, no big parties, or you’ll get a trick in the form of a fine!

R.E. Mountain Secondary (Langley School District)
COVID-19 exposure issued for R.E. Mountain Secondary in Langley

Four schools have been removed from the list of exposures

Submit letters to the editor through our website, via email or in writing.
LETTER: Education is key to creating an equal world

Aldergrove reader ‘resentful’ of response by Christian Heritage Party candidate

Did those election signs change anyone’s mind in Langley? Something did. (Joti Grewal/Langley Advance Times files)
Painful Truth: Demographic transition an election fairy tale

It turns out people in Langley actually can change their minds

Walnut Grove’s Shawn Meehan (front) has started another band, Trigger Mafia. This local country rocker has put country on the shelf, and is going hard-core rock with this group, releasing their first single last Friday to radio. It started as a way to pass the time during the COVID lockdown, and evolved. (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Langley musician drives rock revival with COVID twist

Trigger Mafia goes straight from the garage to radio with raw lyrics

Burnaby RCMP responded to a dine-and-dash suspect who fell through a ceiling in March 2020. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Suspected dine-and-dasher falls through ceiling of Burnaby restaurant

A woman believed to be dashing on her restaurant bill fell through the kitchen ceiling

B.C. Premier John Horgan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee arrive for annual Cascadia conference in Vancouver, Oct. 10, 2018. They have agreed to coordinate the permanent switch to daylight saving time. (B.C. government)
B.C. still awaiting U.S. approval to eliminate daylight saving time

Clocks going back one hour Nov. 1 in Washington too

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Sen. Kim Pate is shown in Toronto in an October 15, 2013, file photo. The parliamentary budget office says a proposed law that would give judges discretion on whether to apply a lesser sentence for murder could save the federal government $8.3 million per year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
Judicial discretion for mandatory minimum sentences for murder would save $8.3M: PBO

The result would be fewer people in long-term custody at federal correctional institutions, experts say

Commissioner Austin Cullen looks at documents before opening statements at the Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in British Columbia, in Vancouver on February 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
RCMP lacked dedicated team to investigate illegal activities at casino, inquiry hears

Hearings for the inquiry are set to continue into next week and the inquiry is expected to wrap up next year

Robert Riley Saunders. (File)
Court approves money for B.C. foster children alleging harm from Kelowna social worker

The maximum combined total award for basic payments and elevated damages for an individual is $250,000

Most Read