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Kristof: Time to give birds the respect they deserve

  • Week-old chicks are seen at a poultry farm near another farm which was infected with bird flu, in Abbotabad, Pakistan Monday Dec. 17, 2007. After at least 1200 birds were culled at the neighboring farm, the owners of the unaffected farm sold their birds, disinfected their coop and bought new chicks in an effort to reduce the risk of an outbreak on their farm. International health experts were investigating Pakistan's first outbreak of bird flu in people to determine if the virus was transmitted through human-to-human contact, officials said Monday. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

Some Americans are wondering whether to eat chicken in the aftermath of the latest salmonella outbreak.

But there's another reason to avoid poultry, and that's the inhumane way birds are often raised. We tend to feel more sympathy for calves with large, cute eyes, but, as an Oregon farmboy, I have to say that poultry are far from the nitwits we assume — and of the two-legged folk I've met over the decades, some of the most admirable have been geese.

Even as a boy, I was struck that our geese mated for life, showing each other tenderness and support without obvious marital squabbles or affairs. If there are philandering geese, I have never met one.

I remember being impressed by the way our geese shared family obligations. A mother goose would sit on her nest while her mate would set out into the fields and find, say, an overlooked stash of corn kernels. Instead of sneaking a few for himself, he would rush them back to his "wife."

The nobility of geese was most on display at execution time. My job as an 11-year-old when we beheaded the geese was to capture a bird and take it to the chopping block for my dad.

So I would rush at the terrified flock and randomly grab an unlucky goose. The bird in my arms would honk in terror and try to escape, and the other geese would cower in the corner of the barn.

Then one goose would emerge from the flock and walk tremulously toward me, terrified but unwilling to abandon its mate. It would waddle after me toward the chopping block, trying to honk comfort to its mate.

Even as a child, I was awed. This was raw courage and fidelity, and maybe conjugal love, although it sounds hokey to say so, that made me wonder if these animals were actually our moral superiors.

Maybe my farmboy recollections reflect anthropomorphism or soggy sentimentality. But, in the past decade or so, scientists have conducted experiments that tend to confirm the notion that poultry are smarter and more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

For starters, hens can count — at least to six. They can be taught that food is in the sixth hole from the left and they will go straight to it. Even chicks can do basic arithmetic, so that if you shuffle five items in a shell game, they mentally keep track of additions and subtractions and choose the area with the higher number of items. In a number of such tests, chicks do better than toddlers.


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