Nov. 6, 2020

Be the chicken

Animal Welfare

Imagine this: you feel really motivated to do something, sit down let's say. You have this overwhelming urge to do it.  It's necessary, you need to do it. But there's no place to sit nearby. You try anyways, you have to.  There's a crowded bench but when you try to sit you get kicked off. The motivation doesn't go away so maybe you try to do something else to take your mind off of sitting. You get something to eat or drink, but the urge is still there.  You are getting frustrated, so you might try to grab someone's chair.  Finally, when you haven't been able to find a seat for long enough and your motivation reaches a tipping point, you settle and just find any old spot on the ground to sit.

What does this have to do with chickens?  I’m Michelle Hunniford, National Animal Care Specialist here at Burnbrae Farms and what I have just described is like the overwhelming motivation a chicken feels when they are trying to find a nest.  In some housing systems, like traditional cages, there are no nests provided so the chicken would need to settle for a spot on the floor to lay her egg.  Furnished cages are supposed to solve this problem by providing a curtained nesting area.  But do they?

My PhD research focused on how hens responded to those nests in furnished cages and what we could do to make them better.  I tried to get into the mind of the chickens to see the space like they do (or as my Dad says, be the chicken ).  Since I couldn't possibly know what it was like to be a chicken, I had to find other ways to understand their experience and how they perceive their surroundings.

I found that not all hens look for the same thing in a nest.  Some prefer the most enclosed area; some prefer a different type of surface. No matter what kind of nest you provide, some hens are just going to go rogue and lay their eggs wherever they please.  Even the addition of a simple wire partition was enough to make an otherwise uninteresting area into a type of semi-enclosed nest.

When I describe my PhD thesis to people, I sometimes say that I was like a chicken architect – I observed how chickens interacted with their space and tried to find ways to design it better.  This made me reflect on how much of an impact we can have when seemingly random design quirks have the potential to significantly influence an animal's experience.  So, when we design environments for animals, we have a lot of power. Whether it be in zoos, farms, research labs, or homes, the places in which animals live profoundly impacts their welfare . Designing those environments with the animal in mind – their behaviour, mental capacity, and physiology – is one way to ensure an animal has a good life.  We can start to do that by seeing the environment from the perspective of the animal ... or be( ing) the chicken.