Study confirms chicken cognition

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1995:

SILSOE, U.K.––Hens pecking
buttons to earn food rewards may have a
better awareness of passing time and be bet-
ter able to assess the prospects of future
gain than human slot machine gamblers, a
new British study suggests.
Silsoe Research Institute Bio-
physics Group animal welfare scientist
Siobhan Abeyesinghe varied the “payout”
for pecking so that her hens would get only
a small amount of food if they pecked
quickly, but would receive a large amount
if they delayed their pecks for 22 seconds,
long enough to demonstrate the ability to
mentally clock their own behavior and show
deliberate self-restraint.

Researching poultry welfare since
1996, Abeyesinghe emphasized the welfare
implications of her findings in describing
them for the journal Animal Behavior.
“An animal with no awareness of
‘later’ may not be able to predict the end of
an unpleasant experience, such as pain,
rendering the pain all-encompassing,”
Abeyesinghe wrote.
“On the other hand, an animal
who can anticipate an event might benefit
from cues to aid prediction, but may also be
capable of expectations rendering her vul-
nerable to thwarting, frustration, and pre-
emptive anxiety,” Abeyesinghe added.
“In their natural environment it

may pay to get food while you can,
before someone else does,”
Abeyesinghe elaborated to Jennifer
Viegas of Discovery News.
“Counter to this, we found that
when a much larger food reward
was delivered for the jackpot, hens
chose it over 90 percent of the time,
ruling out that they have no aware-
ness of the near future.
“They probably show
more cognitive ability than people
would generally credit them with,”
Abeyesinghe added.
“The finding suggests that
domestic fowl, Gallus gallus dom-
e s t i c u s, are intelligent creatures
who might worry,” wrote Viegas.
Public response
Hampton Roads Daily Press
columnist Tamara Dietrich on July
19, 2005 considered what the
Abeyesinghe findings might mean
to the chicken-eating public.
“This isn’t terribly persua-
sive,” Dietrich wrote, “considering
that people wouldn’t generally cred-
it chickens with enough cognitive
ability to come in out of the rain…
But it’s that tiny slice of doubt that
has me downloading vegetarian
recipes….At this point, the only
meat or mammal I wouldn’t feel
guilty about skinning and stewing in
a pot is active members of al-Qaida
…If it would save the life of one
cow, pig or chicken, pass the meat
tenderizer and count me in.”
While Dietrich has yet to
complete the transition to meatless
eating, she has made the connection
that “meat is murder,” as PETA
puts it. Ahead is the question of
whether Dietrich can continue to
stomach a diet she now equates at
the gut level with cannibalism.
The Abeyesinghe results
have considerable implications
for lawmakers, regulators, and
others whose work requires
defining cruelty and suffering.
“The question is not,
Can they reason? Nor Can they
talk? But, Can they suffer?” the
British jurist Jeremy Bentham wrote
in 1780, succinctly setting forth the
philosophical foundation for animal
welfare advocacy that has prevailed
ever since.
In Animal Liberation
(1974), utilitarian philosopher Peter
Singer extended the Bentham princi-
ple, arguing that animals should not
only be well-treated, but should be
accorded moral status, since ani-
mals as well as humans may suffer
psychologically and emotionally.
Animal Liberation became
the foundation of modern animal
rights theory.
The late philosopher and
libertarian philanthropist Tobias
Grether in Homochronos: Time-
Conscious Man (1977) endorsed
Bentham but rejected Singer by
arguing that human morality pro-
ceeds from awareness of longterm
Having “rights,” Grether
argued, requires that the beings who
possess them must understand that
what they do now will influence
The Grether book was
read chiefly by other libertarian the-
orists, but Grether’s case against
Singer––often omitting Grether’s
endorsement of Bentham––posthu-
mously gained currency among
defenders of animal use industries
who claim that animals suffer only
in the immediate sense, if at all,
and do not experience anxiety or
depression based on awareness of a
future no better and often worse
than the present.
As Grether’s ghostwriter,
1975-1977, ANIMAL PEOPLE
editor Merritt Clifton argued that
much animal activity shows aware-
ness of longterm consequence. This
was to little avail because scientific
literature on animal behavior was
then dominated by “operant condi-
tioning” studies, in which animals
learn to perform tasks in order to
receive immediate rewards.
Even the first successful
attempts to teach chimpanzees and
gorillas American sign language
were “debunked” as alleged results
of operant conditioning.
The Abeyesinghe study
showed that chickens can think their
way past operant conditioning, if
motivated to do so.
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