Thursday, February 26, 2009

Animals Make Us Human

Temple Grandin includes chickens in her new book, Animals Make Us Human, She has some important things to say. As an influential person in the animal industry, I hope she will be heard and changes made.

She approaches the subject of animal welfare from beyond the physical needs of food, water and shelter. She looks at the whole animal and examines behavior in terms of what can be inferred about its emotional state. As a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and frequent advisor to the industry, she approaches the subject scientifically. She evaluates animal emotional welfare in terms of core emotions, as defined by Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University. Core emotions, “blue-ribbon emotions that generate well-organized behavior sequences that can be evoked by localized electrical stimulation of the brain,” include: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, PANIC, LUST, CARE, and PLAY. She follows his convention of capitalizing them.

Good environments produce healthy brain and emotional development. Bad ones don’t. Poor welfare can be inferred from such pathologies as Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors, stereotypies such as feather pecking.

Unfortunately, treatment of chickens in the industry is so poor that their physical welfare does not meet even minimal standards, and must be addressed before emotional welfare.

Grandin is very critical of the treatment of chickens in the poultry industry. She describes touring a broiler farm and a chicken hatchery that were suppliers to McDonald’s, with a McDonald’s vice president. Even the executive, when he saw the way workers grabbed the chickens by the wings, often breaking them, said, “This looks like a Humane Society undercover video.”

Conditions at the hatchery were as bad, with live chicks being thrown into garbage dumpsters to die. Laying hens were so crowded into cages they had to lie on top of each other to sleep. The spent layers were in such bad shape, “They didn’t even look like hens any more.” They were half-bald from having frantically beaten their own feathers off.

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this blog that industry conditions are deplorable, but I hope that Dr. Grandin’s publicizing them will help improve the situation. She credits traditional breeds with hope for improvement.

Chicken genetics, so intensively pursued by industry breeders, have resulted in broilers that have totally abnormal bone physiology, resulting in misshapen bones. Their feet may be rotated nearly 90 degrees and their legs twisted. She devised a simple test for evaluating lameness in chickens: those that cannot walk even ten paces, those that can but are crooked and lame, and those that can walk ten paces normally.

A recent study from the University of California, Davis, documents the problems of limited genetics,

“This is why it’s important to preserve the old breeds of animals and poultry,” she writes. “Keeping the classic breeds alive is the only way to preserve genetic diversity and to save animals that have valuable genetic traits breeders may want to breed back into commercial lines in the future….Fortunately, many of the older breeds of poultry and livestock are being raised by local farmers and sold in farmers’ markets or to gourmet restaurants. If a serious disease ever kills commercial broilers or layers, the entire world will be thanking the small producers and hobbyists who have kept the old breeds of chickens from becoming extinct.”

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