WASHINGTON — Few feathers fly when scientists announce new discoveries regarding the intelligence of animals and how our underestimation of their mental faculties couldn't be more outdated.
While terms like "bird-brained" have become part of our lexicon, it now seems that being compared to birds should be considered a compliment.
Unfortunately, even with our newfound respect for avian intelligence, we have yet to translate that recognition of animal cognition into the most elemental legal protections for the bird we use most intensively for commercial purposes: the domesticated chicken.
With nearly 9 billion raised for food each year in the US, chickens are the most numerous birds on the face of the planet. And they're undoubtedly the most abused.
Chickens are virtually always raised in industrial confinement operations, and the birds are treated at slaughterhouses as if their suffering hardly mattered.
A 2003 New York Times article paraphrased avian expert Chris Evans's assessment of chickens' faculties:
"Chickens exist in stable social groups. They can recognize each other by their facial features. They have 24 distinct cries that communicate a wealth of information to one other, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea. They are good at solving problems."
"As a trick at conferences," the article quoted Dr. Evans as saying, "I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I'm talking about monkeys."
Among the chickens who face the most abusive conditions are egg-laying hens - the national flock size is roughly 300 million birds. They are typically housed in battery cages that don't allow the animals enough space even to spread their wings. With no opportunity to engage in many of their natural behaviors, including nesting, dust bathing, perching, and foraging, these birds endure lives of daily frustration and suffering.
Chickens raised for meat - known by the agribusiness industry as "broilers" - are exploited in even greater numbers than laying hens. More than 8 billion of these birds are raised and slaughtered in the US annually, almost all of which have been selectively bred for extremely rapid growth.
This forced rapid growth, exacerbated by routine antibiotic use for growth promotion, takes an enormous toll on the birds' welfare.
Demonstrating the prevailing lack of concern for animal welfare in the chicken industry, two poultry scientists recently asked in an industry newsletter, "Is it more profitable to grow the biggest bird and have increased [bird] mortality due to heart attacks? ... A large portion of growers' pay is based on the pounds of saleable meat produced, so simple calculations suggest that it is better to get the weight and ignore the mortality."
Unfortunately, the industry also operates virtually free of any legal animal welfare regulations. Chickens raised for food are exempt from both the Animal Welfare Act and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Furthermore, standard agricultural practices used for chickens are exempted from most states' anticruelty statutes.
While it's now becoming the norm within the scientific realm to recognize these animals' cognitive abilities and their behavioral needs, the birds are still treated as if they were inanimate objects.
If the poultry industry will not voluntarily begin acting to improve animal welfare, the government must take action to prohibit the worst practices, as Europe is beginning to do already. European Union animal welfare standards will ban all battery cages by 2012 - and banned the installation of new battery cages in 2003.
Two good first steps would be to phase out the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens and to include poultry under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act - lending credence to the notion that these birds' suffering is an important issue.
• Paul Shapiro is the factory farming campaign manager of The Humane Society of the United States.