January 28th marked the Chinese New Year. Each year, the Chinese zodiac has a corresponding animal that represents a 12-year cycle. A person’s birth year matches to one of twelve animals on the zodiac calendar and 2017 is the Year of the Rooster (or, depending on the gender, the Year of the Chicken). This so happens to be the corresponding animal to my birth year, 1969. Many East Asian countries celebrate each animal on the calendar for various virtues and personality traits corresponding to the person. Asian restaurants often have the Chinese zodiac wheel of animals and the corresponding birth years on paper placemats for a fun connection to the twelve animals.
I have always loved that the rooster was my Chinese zodiac animal. While many of the farmed animals are represented (ox, pig, goat, rabbit), I have a particularly close affinity for chickens, not only because I work for the world’s only organization focused on protecting chickens, United Poultry Concerns, but because I have information about these beautiful creatures that most people do not have. I know how intelligent, emotional, and social these birds are and I also know that they are, without a doubt, the most abused animals on the planet and in the greatest numbers.
For every one pig killed an eaten, 60 chickens are killed. For every one cow that is killed and eaten, 190 chickens are killed. Each year, 35 million cows are killed in the U.S., 35 million chickens are killed each day. And they are in the worst condition and suffer the most in brutal battery cages, at the heartless hatcheries, and at the slaughterhouse. These birds are the largest number of abused warm-blooded animals in the world. Along with the billions of chickens who are slaughtered for their flesh and eggs each year, millions more suffer in laboratories, get dumped in animal shelters, and die miserably in poultry houses without anyone knowing that they ever lived.
What we’ve learned about the avian brain and behavior in just the last 15 years contradicts hundreds of years of misinformed views about chickens and other birds. Much of what was previously thought to be the exclusive domain of human / primate communication, brain and cognitive function, and social behavior, is now being uncovered in chickens and other birds. Chickens are far more intelligent and cognitively sophisticated than previously believed. They express emotion like grief, fear, enthusiasm, anxiety, frustration, boredom and friendship. They communicate distinct vocalizations and behaviors that convey a wide range of information pertaining to territory, mating, nesting, distress, danger or fear, contentment, and food discovery.
Sciences is also learning that chickens can be deceptive and cunning, that they possesses communication skills on par with those of some primates and dolphins, and that they uses sophisticated signals to convey their intentions. When making decisions, the chicken takes into account its own prior experience and knowledge surrounding the situation.
As we are discovering the complexity of chickens, it is fitting that this is the Year of the Rooster. These birds have an ability beyond humans to see the infrared light of the morning an hour or so before humans do, so the rooster alerts us to the coming dawn with a robust crow. Just as the rooster calls us awake in the morning, I hope that the Year of the Rooster will \wake us up to the beauty, grace, and amazing complexity of the chicken and bring the dawn of a new era of compassion for these beautiful birds. Each day brings a new opportunity to move us closer to the day when no chicken suffers in human hands. Won’t you help to bring that day closer and get active for chickens. The Year of the Rooster is at hand.