To Roam, or Not to Roam?

Getting chickens out of battery cages has long been a goal for animal rights groups. But what if chickens are no happier wandering free? A new study by a Sydney University research team found that caged hens and free-range hens had the same levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in their eggs. While penned-up hens are subject to crowding, cannibalism, and physical injuries, hens that roam outdoors are prone to predators, manure-borne diseases and parasites, and extreme temperatures.

London Times editorial contributor Ross Clark isn’t surprised:

Occasionally I walk past a free-range chicken farm in Norfolk and have always been amazed by how few of these liberated birds actually bother to venture out of doors; most choose to stay crammed in their sheds.

Blogger DaveH, who lost almost all of his free-range chickens and ducks to coyotes in the spring, says animal rights activists tend to “anthropomorphise animal behavior”:

[W]hat most ‘activists’ fail to realize is that if a farmer mistreats their stock, they will not make as much money. It is in the farmer’s own best financial interest to see that their stock (and their crops) are grown under optimal conditions, a good sized population but not overcrowded (most stock are highly social and really need companions) and decent air, light and water.

Unfortunately, anthropomorphizing is exactly what the Times commentator does as well, as Ross’s piece continues:

All I know is that if chickens are even slightly like humans the last thing they would want to do, to use the fashionable expression from animal welfare regulations, is to ‘express natural behaviour.’ How many of us, given the choice between a life of foraging for nuts and berries, stark naked in the rain, and living in a small, centrally heated flat with a fridge full of food, would choose the former?

Until we develop that long-awaited poultry mind-reading technology, our best bet, the study’s authors suggest, is breeding mellower hens.