More often than not it is inferred that only humans – and perhaps certain creatures we grow fond of and close to – are blessed with the capacity to really feel. Animals whose natural dispositions do not tend towards human company or affection are categorized differently from the ‘pets’ who share our lives; thus farmed animals (cows, chickens and sheep), certain wild animals and birds are more easily dismissed as emotionless, or at least incapable of the level of feelings our companion animals show us. Because few people in industrialized and heavily urbanized countries get to know an individual chicken, let alone experience living with a flock of chickens, these birds are more easily dismissed as unfeeling and may even be misconceived as suffering less. However, wild and free-ranging chickens establish structured social relations and ‘friendships’; they display tenderness, deception, altruism, and grief, and even suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The devotion of a mother hen towards her chicks is evidence enough of affection amongst chickens. Hens also form close relationships with particular members within their flock, often foraging alongside each other, showing each other tidbits, preparing dust-baths together, and nesting companionably when laying eggs. Chickens also form friendships with other species, including horses, goats, dogs, cats, ducks, and of course humans. In his sixteenth century treatise on chickens, ornithologist Ulisse Aldrovandi described the devoted friendship he developed with a hen, to the extent that she would only go to sleep at night when in his company and surrounded by his books.
One story of chicken friendship concerns two ex-battery hens who lived with my partner and me on our property in the port town of Lyttelton in New Zealand. One of these hens, Buffy, became ill at the end of her first year with us, and slowly deteriorated until she wanted only to sit under a native cabbage tree in the garden, now and again sipping water as she faded away. Her friend Mecki was especially attentive during this time, choosing to sit with Buffy in her ground-nest despite the enticing activities of the other active and noisy hens. Mecki would gently peck the ill hen around her face and on her back while uttering soft sounds, which Buffy responded to in kind. When Buffy died, Mecki retreated to the henhouse for some time, refusing to perch or eat, just sitting in the gloom and disengaging from the routine activities of the flock.
Thus chickens grieve. And they also feel immense joy. I have had the pleasure of assisting factory-bred and raised chickens to adapt to the lives that were their birthright. This process can take several months, while chickens re-grow feathers and recover from viruses and other diseases resulting from overcrowding, learn to walk on weakened and deformed legs, and socialize appropriately with other free-ranging chickens. Former battery hens also need to adapt to natural sunlight, learn how to move on grass for the first time, forage for food, and take dust-baths. Their story is one of determination against the odds: these hens show immense courage and will to live despite suffering chronic pain and infirmity. It is also a story about discovering pleasure: although they did not live long after their liberation from a factory farm, Buffy and Mecki experienced profound joy when they encountered a new world as part of a free-ranging flock.