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Time to crack down on chicken abuse

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Few feathers fly when scientists announce new discoveries regarding the intelligence of animals and how our underestimation of their mental faculties couldn't be more outdated.

While terms like "bird-brained" have become part of our lexicon, it now seems that being compared to birds should be considered a compliment.

Unfortunately, even with our newfound respect for avian intelligence, we have yet to translate that recognition of animal cognition into the most elemental legal protections for the bird we use most intensively for commercial purposes: the domesticated chicken.

With nearly 9 billion raised for food each year in the US, chickens are the most numerous birds on the face of the planet. And they're undoubtedly the most abused.

Chickens are virtually always raised in industrial confinement operations, and the birds are treated at slaughterhouses as if their suffering hardly mattered.

A 2003 New York Times article paraphrased avian expert Chris Evans's assessment of chickens' faculties:

"Chickens exist in stable social groups. They can recognize each other by their facial features. They have 24 distinct cries that communicate a wealth of information to one other, including separate alarm calls depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or sea. They are good at solving problems."

"As a trick at conferences," the article quoted Dr. Evans as saying, "I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I'm talking about monkeys."

Among the chickens who face the most abusive conditions are egg-laying hens - the national flock size is roughly 300 million birds. They are typically housed in battery cages that don't allow the animals enough space even to spread their wings. With no opportunity to engage in many of their natural behaviors, including nesting, dust bathing, perching, and foraging, these birds endure lives of daily frustration and suffering.

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