Quote for the Day – The Dangers of Anthropomorphism

It may seem a benign slip from sad eyes to depression, but anthropomorphisms often slide from benign to harmful. Some risk the welfare of the animals under consideration. If we’re to put a dog on antidepressants based on our interpretation of his eyes, we had better be pretty sure of our interpretation. When we assume we know what is best for an animal, extrapolating from what is best for us or any person, we may inadvertently be acting at cross-purposes with our aims. For instance, in the last few years there has been considerable to-do made about improved welfare for animals raised for food, such as broiler chickens who have access to the outside, or have room to roam in their pens. Though the end result is the same for the chicken — it winds up as someone’s dinner — there is a budding interest in the welfare of the animals before they are killed.

But do they want to range freely? Conventional wisdom holds that no one, human or not, likes to be pressed up against others. Anecdotes seem to confirm this: given the choice of a subway car jammed with hot, stressed commuters, and one with only a handful of people, we choose the latter in a second (heeding the possibility, of course, that there’s some other explanation – a particularly smell person, or a glitch in air-conditioning – that explains this favorable distribution). But the natural behavior of chickens may indicate otherwise: chickens flock. They don’t sally forth on their own.

Biologists devised a simple experiment to test the chickens’ preferences of where to be: they picked up individual animals, relocated them randomly within their houses, and monitored what the chickens did next. What they found was that most chickens moved closer to other chickens, not farther away, even when there was open space available. Given the option of space to spread their wings…they choose the jammed subway car.

This is not to say that chickens thus like being smushed against other birds in a cage, or find it a perfectly agreeable life. It is inhumane to pen chickens so tightly they cannot move. But it is to say that assuming resemblance between chicken preferences and our preferences is not the way to insight about what the chicken actually does like. Not coincidentally, these broiler chickens are killed before they reach six weeks of age; domestic chicks are still being brooded by their mothers at that age. Deprived of the ability to run under her wings, the broiler chickens run closer to other chickens.

~Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Knowp. 16-17

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1 Comment

May 22, 2014 · 9:26 am

One response to “Quote for the Day – The Dangers of Anthropomorphism

  1. Chicken behaviour does change over time. A workmate got six chickens in a good sized pen in his garden. For the first few weeks they stuck close to the coop and were easy to round up at night. After a couple of months the whole family had to take it in turns to get ‘the girls’ inside! They got more adventurous as the surroundings became more familiar. I’d be surprised if chickens put into a strange house didn’t seek each other out.

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