Photo © 2009 KevinHoran.com
the series Chattel
personalities, smarts, even a sense of agency.
Why then do we saddle them
with lives of utter despair?
These phrases represent our species' view of farmed animals as not particularly bright, uncaring about their treatment or fate, and generally bland and monolithic in their identities.
My team of researchers asked:
I've had the privilege of being the lead scientist for the Someone Project, a joint venture of two US nonprofit organizations,
The Someone Project is an exploration of our scientific knowledge of the minds of farmed animals.
My co-authors and I have explored the peer-reviewed literature on intelligence, personality, emotions and social complexity in,
...and the journey
'inward' into the minds of these animals has been nothing short of
We all know the feeling of being able to take on the world when bolstered by good experiences and praise.
And, unfortunately, we also know what it feels like to give up when we are pummeled by bad experiences. Cognitive bias is a deviation in judgment as a result of emotional experiences.
How we interpret ambiguous stimuli or situations depends upon whether we are depressed or anxious, or feeling on top of the world.
Just treat cows, sheep or chickens roughly through exposure to loud noise or the presence of a predator, or any other uncontrollable negative condition, and assess how they perform on a typical discrimination task differentiating between two stimuli to get a reward.
Just like you, all that
stress biases their brains and ability to do well.
Sheep who experienced prior aversive events were compared with an unexposed group.
When confronted with this simple task, the stressed-out sheep were more reluctant to approach the buckets and made more errors than their unexposed counterparts.
After a tough life, they view the world through the opposite of rose-colored glasses.
The fact is that several scientific studies (Animals' Emotions - Studies in Sheep using Appraisal Theories) show sheep in despair, with physiological signs of stress and depression when subject to unpredictable and uncontrollable conditions such as the sudden appearance of a new object while they are eating.
They are experiencing the well-known psychological phenomenon of learned helplessness, in which learning that one cannot control one's environment or life leads to depression and lack of motivation to even try.
Learned helplessness is
seen in sheep, in other farmed animals, in many animals in zoos and
marine parks, in lab animals, and, yes, in humans who experience
continued hard knocks throughout life, especially as children.
This mythology of emotional detachment has become the lore for chickens, cows, turkeys and other farmed animals. But what is the evidence for this convenient fabrication? At first blush, it is irrational to think that any mammal or even vertebrate would be indifferent to their offspring.
If that were the case,
none of us would be here now.
Several studies (Complex Social Housing reduces Food Neophobia in dairy Calves) show that calves must be brought up by their mothers to be socially well-adjusted. Young calves allowed to stay with their mothers grow up more socially confident with other cows.
Conversely, cows prevented from being raised by their mothers show more fearful responses to novel situations and unfamiliar cows. Dairy calves raised in more complex social groups in general tend to have increased coping abilities and higher capacities for dealing with change.
The same effects are seen
for piglets and lambs.
During weaning in sheep, lambs gradually become less dependent on mother's milk and more involved in foraging for food on their own as mother stands watch. But no factory-farmed animals are afforded this basic necessity.
Sheep naturally wean at six months, but on factory farms mother and offspring are separated at between one and two months.
Cows naturally wean between six and nine months, but dairy cows are separated within 24 hours. Pigs naturally wean at about three months, but mother and piglets are typically separated within 17-20 days on factory farms.
And the situation for chickens is just as severe. If left on her own, a hen will look after her chicks for between six and eight weeks.
conditions, layer hens never get to see their offspring, and chicks
raised for meat are killed at six weeks of age, still peeping the
sound of a baby chick even though their bodies have been genetically
manipulated to balloon to the size of an adult.
Just what you would expect - mother cows running after their abducted newborns, bellowing and restlessly searching when they are gone. When ewes (mother sheep) are separated from their lambs before weaning, they let out high-pitched vocalizations, pace, and even urinate.
And studies (Welfare implications of artificial rearing and earlyweaning in sheep) suggest that early separation from the mother has negative psychological impacts on lambs throughout progressive phases of their social development.
Lambs artificially weaned
at a very early age show less vocalizing and movement, are generally
more socially withdrawn, and exhibit abnormal, repetitive oral
But when they see someone
'air puff' their chicks, they show signs of distress, including
clucking, increased heart rate and alert posture.
The inner lives of farmed animals cannot be characterized entirely on a species level.
Instead, they are unique individuals with personality to spare. Those personalities map familiarly onto the same characteristics that comprise human personalities.
The five dimensions of human personality structure are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience. Most of us fall somewhere along the spectrum for each category.
For instance, in the
first category, each of us is either extremely extraverted,
extremely introverted or somewhere in between.
Cows similarly fall along a spectrum on dimensions of extraversion and also neuroticism.
Sheep have personality traits characterized in the literature as 'shyness/boldness' and 'gregariousness', comparable to openness to experience and extraversion in humans.
Finally, individual chickens (and turkeys) also vary along dimensions of personality, including boldness/shyness, activity/exploration (in humans, openness to experience), and vigilance (similar to neuroticism in us).
maternal style in chickens and hens through the dimension of
vigilance; the most extreme on one end tend to be the 'helicopter
moms' of the barnyard.
Up until today, the
scientific community has been slow to acknowledge personalities in
other animals, even our closest feline and canine companions. The
fact that, amid this juggernaut of denial and homogenization on the
factory farm, the personalities of cows, pigs and chickens still
shine through is testament to the strength and resilience of their
We humans are into faces. We like ones that are pleasant and convey positive emotions. We love smiles. As primates, we are especially attuned to facial expression.
And we use faces for the recognition of individuals (including our nonhuman companions).
It might be difficult to recognize a friend from a photo of a leg or a hand, or your dog from a photo of her tummy, but you would never fail to recognize their faces.
We post pictures of the
faces of celebrities and people in the news - not their elbows.
Moreover, faces contain eyes, and the gaze direction tells me where you're looking and, therefore, what you know or if you are paying attention to me.
No child has escaped the question asked by teachers and parents:
So identity, emotion and
attention are written all over our faces.
But what about farmed animals? Are they just faceless entities in a crowd or herd?
The answer is no...
as a reference
to an object...
Sheep are the 'face experts'. Well-controlled studies (Sheep don't Forget a Face) requiring sheep to discriminate pairs of photos of other sheep show that they are capable of remembering the faces of 50 different individuals for more than two years.
And, like us, they strongly prefer certain expressions over others.
As highly social mammals, sheep are sensitive to emotional expressions and are able to distinguish between and prefer photographs of sheep with a calm facial expression over sheep with a startled expression. And sheep are celebrity-watchers as well.
Studies (Sheep Recognize Familiar and Unfamiliar Human Faces from two-dimensional Images) show that they can discriminate among photos of four different human celebrities even when the faces are presented to them in different spatial orientations.
Altogether, sheep have
extremely sophisticated face-recognition abilities on a par with
humans and other primates.
Chickens, too, show notable abilities to recognize individuals in their own social group as well as keep track of the social dominance hierarchy (known as the pecking order). Hens can gain useful information about their own status in the dominance hierarchy before actually taking on a challenger by observing how that hen interacts with another hen she is familiar with.
If the challenger can be chased off by the familiar hens who are lower than her in the hierarchy, then she is more likely to engage in some sparring with her.
They are, apparently, wise enough to challenge only those chickens they know they stand a good chance against. In science, this kind of logical reasoning is called transitive inference, the ability to derive a relation between items that have not been explicitly compared before.
Whether or not chickens
accomplish this feat in exactly the same way that we do, these
findings show that they are not just mindlessly spending their days
pecking away at tidbits but are actually processing social
relationships in pretty complex terms.
Like all of us, they prefer interaction with us when we are looking at them than when we are turned away. And it's the same for other pigs. And pigs, like primates, dolphins and dogs, understand pointing as a reference to an object.
They learn these
social-cognitive skills at a young age.
The general public is starting to realize that animals such as apes, elephants, dolphins and whales have complex inner and social lives, and that we need to treat them accordingly.
For instance, there is a
growing viewpoint that whales and dolphins should not be in concrete
tanks performing for our entertainment and, accordingly, there are
major efforts underway to call attention to and end this practice.
Although vegan and
vegetarian food options are becoming more plentiful and more common,
meat consumption, on a global scale, has increased in recent years,
and it continues to be high on the list of coveted recreational and
dining experiences for most people in the developed world.
The numbers of individual farmed animals slaughtered for meat annually around the world also showed a staggering increase from 1961 to 2014, we've gone,
These statistics do not
take into account eggs, dairy and seafood.
is the problem of meat-eating
Regularly eating red meat
is tied to increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and
certain cancers. At the same time, the evidence for better health
and wellbeing associated with eating less meat is well-established.
But, again, the practice continues...
One must ask:
Perhaps the answer can be found in the inner lives of members of our own species.
We are masters at erecting psychological defences and justifying behavior that we know is not ethical but feels good, such as pleasuring the palate.
The main form that these defences, these mental push-backs, take is a cultural mythology that promotes a view of farmed animals as devoid of feeling, awareness, intelligence and concern about their own quality of life.
In the face of unimpeachable evidence for their suffering and our health risks, the last bastion of defence for human carnivores is to convince oneself that farmed animals do not care whether they live or die or how they live.
We tell ourselves that
their suffering isn't the same as ours and that they don't really
care about life the way we do, so why should we care?
But the scientific literature on everyone from pigs to chickens points to one conclusion:
They share many of the same mental and emotional characteristics that we recognize in ourselves and acknowledge in the animals closest to us,
To continue our self-indulgence, we resist the evidence and reinforce the status of farmed animals as objects, as commodities, as food.
Their inner lives have
become 'the forbidden territory' we dare not enter lest we deprive
our palate and shatter our sense of ourselves...