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

The theme for this year’s Fraser Valley Regional Library Summer Reading Club is “Crack the Case” and Katie Burns, community librarian at the Chilliwack Library, is encouraging people of all ages to sign up. She is seen here at the Chilliwack Library on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Crack the case, read, win prizes with FVRL Summer Reading Club

‘Immerse yourself in other worlds and have a bit of fun while you do it,’ says Chilliwack librarian

Harrison Hot Springs country singer Todd Richard poses for a photo with Mission firefighters. (Photo/Sarah Plawutski)
VIDEO: Harrison country artist Todd Richard plans for a busy, rockin’ summer

Richard and his band look to live shows as restrictions start to lift

Vanessa Dueck.
Snapshots of a Chilliwack father from his loving daughter

Father’s Day memories of special moments shared together

Rachel is a six month old Labrador retriever cross who was found at large. She is seen here at the Chilliwack SPCA on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Find Me My Furever Home – Rachel at the Chilliwack SPCA

6-month-old puppy found at large, now at Chilliwack SPCA, needs special home

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

FILE – Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Feds to issue update on border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents

Border with U.S. to remain closed to most until at least July 21

A portion of the George Road wildfire burns near Lytton, B.C. in this Friday, June 18, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Blaze near Lytton spread across steep terrain, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire began Wednesday and is suspected to be human-caused, but remains under investigation

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
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

(Black Press Media files)
Burnaby RCMP look for witnesses in hit-and-run that left motorcyclist dead

Investigators believe that the suspect vehicle rear-ended the motorcycle before fleeing the scene

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

A police pursuit involving Abbotsford Police ended in Langley Saturday night, June 20. (Black Press Media file)
Abbotsford Police pursuit ends in Langley with guns drawn

One person arrested, witnesses say an officer may have been hurt in collision with suspect vehicle

Most Read