Did you know your chicken sandwich used to feel empathy?

Why love one and eat the other? chicken kittenDon’t you just hate it when people guilt trip you about your food choices? I do! Crimeny, if I had a nickel for every time my Mom said, “Jesus, Moll, did you eat ALL the ____?”  or my other favorite:  “Christ, with a diet like yours, it’s a wonder you’re not DEAD yet!”

In honor of International Respect for Chickens Day (and no, Mom, it’s not a joke), today I’m going to give my diet critics  some payback. Think about this: the next time you chomp down on that crispy fried drumstick, consider for a moment the gravity of the knowledge that you are eating a sentient being capable of the very same feelings you and I have. Chickens feel empathy for others, feel pain, fear, stress, grief and sorrow.respectposter

Imagine for a moment, if you can, the unendurable horror of living a life of unimaginable cruelty and abuse, while you helplessly witness your friends endure the same fate. For the brief time it takes to eat a piece of chicken, imagine the horror of their lifetime spent in a cage so small they could not ever spread their wings or see the sun.


For a chicken trapped in the world of factory farming, to break out of the shell is to enter a deeper darkness full of bewildering pain and suffering from birth to death. During their terrible 6 weeks of life, baby chicks live in dark, filthy sheds on manure-soaked floors breathing poisonous fumes that burn their eyes so badly they rub their hurting eyes with their wings and let out cries of pain. At the slaughterhouse, the chickens “hang there and look at you and try to hide their head by sticking it under the wing of the chicken next to them. They’re scared to death,” said former slaughterhouse worker Virgil Butler, who became a vegetarian when he could no longer stomach this needless horror.

Right now, chickens are sealed up in dark, airless, industrial sheds choking with pollution and pathogens. They are painfully crippled and sick with respiratory and intestinal diseases. Public health officials told The Washington Post in 2009 that today’s chickens are “raised in squalor” and “infested with salmonella.” The conditions they are in “cause salmonella to thrive”. poster_heartbeat

International Respect for Chickens Day  seeks to educate people about the wonders of chickens; that they are sentient and possess complex systems of awareness; questions the ‘old view’ of animals as simply things, machines, tools, commodities, or resources, put here for our use, and holds that all sentient beings have intrinsic value and should be treated with respect.poster_freedom

Interestingly, the idea for International Respect for Chickens Day came from the star of The Simpsons, Harry Shearer, who proclaimed Sunday, May 14, 2000 – Mother’s Day – National Respect the Chicken Day because hens are justly praised as exemplars of devoted motherhood. In addition to this special day, May 4th, the entire month of May is devoted to International Respect for Chickens.cypress_poster

Chickens have feelings too!

A study done not long ago,  scientists found that chickens feel empathy. When I considered the implications, I could not help but immediately experience a profound, almost unbearable,  sorrow for every single chicken held in battery cages at that very moment, living in unspeakable conditions.

The study illuminated the need to examine the manner in which our society continues to treat animals as if they are objects – drumsticks, breasts, eggs, greasy fried buckets of chicken parts (spicy or extra crispy?), chicken wing snacks, plastic wrapped body parts in the grocers meat aisle; all the while choosing to ignore the suffering the animals endured to provide our society with cheap eggs and chicken meat.

We cannot change the world for animals without changing our ideas about them. Philosophers have led the way in helping us to think differently about animals.

A new study at the University of Bristol has shown that chickens can feel empathy, a trait that was previously thought exclusive to humans.

The study involved ruffling the feathers of chicks with puffs of air. The chicks showed signs of distress at having their feathers ruffled and the mother hens mirrored their stress. The researchers were able to document equivalent signs of physiological distress in the mothers when they observed that their chicks were bothered.

Scientists documented increased heart rate and alertness as well as lowered eye temperature, all signs of distress in chickens.

Scientists working at the University of Bristol as well as groups like Compassion in World Farming have already taken note of the impact that this knowledge could have on the considerations of farm and laboratory animal welfare. Among the most horrifying parts of being an animal on a farm or in a laboratory is having to witness other animals being tortured and killed. Up until now it was thought that most animals weren’t capable of empathizing with others in distress.

This study shows that the animals that we most often slaughter for food are capable of not only feeling pain and fear for themselves, but are also capable of being terrified at what they are seeing happening to others around them. In the United States we kill almost 9 billion chickens for food annually, which doesn’t even count male chicks killed at birth and egg-laying hens confined in cages their whole lives. Compare that number to only around 100 million cattle slaughtered for beef.

Every step of the way we learn more about animals and how much they are like us and we struggle to continue justifying the fact that we treat animals like property instead of sentient beings.

We’ve proven that chickens feel empathy with the suffering of others, the only thing left is for us to prove that we as humans feel empathy for the suffering of chickens and other animals.

Mollie the Crazy Cat Lady AKA the Crazy Chicken Lady

I admit it, I love to shock people. In the middle of a conversation about animals I proudly announce that I let my rescued rooster Henry sleep under the covers with me. The response is typically shock, disbelief, or lady, you’re just plain nuts, but usually it is met with silence and a look that says, “Alrighty then, umm…suure…whatever floats your boat lady…I’m going to leave now…step quietly away…and only approach next time with extreme caution.”

You think I’m nuts, well, there are perfectly wonderful people out there who lovingly knit sweaters for the featherless chickens rescued from battery cages. And trust me on this one, their ain’t nothin’ cuter than a chicken in a sweater!


and another…


and another…


And then on the other end of the spectrum…Mercy for Animals has a Hatchery Horror channel which seeks to expose the systemic cruelty chickens suffer at the hands of man.



Oregonians Work to Ban Cruel Battery Cages for Egg-Laying Hens

Pledge to Choose Cage-Free Eggs

Tell New Zealand No More Battery Cages

Stop cruelty to egg laying hens in WA


Did you know you can adopt a chicken on PetFinder? In California (where I live) there are currently 236 available chickens waiting for a home! Just click on Animals>Birds>Breed>Chicken and enter your location.


A superb article by Barry Estabrook on Mark Bittman’s (of the NYT) website: Politics of the Plate

International Respect for Chickens Day is a project of United Poultry Concerns, which is a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. www.upc-online.org

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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, the author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and consumer advisor. Help support her work by making a donation today.

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