A farm sanctuary in New York is investigating the inner lives of cows, pigs and chickens — but only if they volunteer.
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — It was a crisp October day at Farm Sanctuary, and inside the small, red barn, the chicken people were restless.
A rooster, or maybe two, yodeled somewhere out of sight. A bruiser of a turkey strutted through an open door, tail feathers spread like an ornamental fan. And a penned flock of white-feathered hens emitted tiny, intermittent squeaks, an asynchronous symphony of chicken sneezes.
The hens were experiencing a flare-up of a chronic respiratory condition, said Sasha Prasad-Shreckengast, the sanctuary’s manager of research and animal welfare, who was preparing to enter the chicken pen. She donned gloves and shoe covers, threw on a pair of blue scrubs and then slipped inside, squatting to bring herself face-to-face with the first hen who approached.
“Who are you?” she cooed.
Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast meant the question literally. She was trying to find the birds that were enrolled in her study: an investigation into whether chickens — animals not often heralded for their brainpower — enjoy learning.
But her question was also the big philosophical one driving the new, in-house research team at Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit that has spent more than 35 years trying to end animal agriculture.
They have their work cut out for them: The United States alone keeps more than 90 million cattle and slaughters more than 9 billion chickens (and 200 million turkeys) a year. But there are some signs of a societal shift. In a 2019 Gallup poll, nearly one in four Americans said that they had curbed their consumption of meat. A jury recently acquitted activists who ferried two piglets away from a factory farm. Fast-food giants are adding faux meat to the menu, and just last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to lab-grown chicken.
And a growing body of research suggests that farmed species are brainy beings: Chickens can anticipate the future, goats appear to solicit help from humans, and pigs may pick up on one another’s emotions.
But scientists still know far less about the minds of chickens or cows than they do about those of apes or dogs, said Christian Nawroth, a scientist studying behavior and cognition at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany. “I’m still baffled how little we know about farm animals, given the amount or the numbers that we keep,” he said.
Farm Sanctuary, which was founded in 1986, has always held that farm animals are sentient beings, even referring to its feathered and four-legged residents as “people.”
“They have their own desires, and their own wants and preferences and needs, and their own inner lives — the same way that human people do,” said Lauri Torgerson-White, the sanctuary’s director of research.
Now, the sanctuary is trying to collect enough data to convince the general public of the humanity of animals.
“Our hope,” Ms. Torgerson-White said, “is that through utilizing really rigorous methodologies, we are able to uncover pieces of information about the inner lives of farmed animals that can be used to really change hearts and minds about how these animals are used by society.”
The sanctuary is conducting the research in accordance with its own strict ethical standards, which include giving the animals the right to choose whether or not to participate in studies. Consequently, the researchers have sometimes found themselves grappling with the very thing that they are keen to demonstrate: that animals have minds of their own.
And today, the birds in “West Chicken” seemed a bit under the weather. Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast crossed her fingers that a few of them might still be up for a brief demonstration.
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“Hopefully,” she said, “people will be feeling like — chicken people will be feeling like — they’re eager and interested in participating.”
‘Somebody, not something’
Farm Sanctuary began not as a home for rescued animals but with a group of young activists working to expose animal cruelty at farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses.
“We lived in a school bus on a tofu farm for a couple of years,” said Gene Baur, the president and co-founder of the organization. But in the course of its investigations, the group kept stumbling upon “living animals left for dead,” he recalled. “And so we started rescuing them.”
They ultimately opened sanctuaries in New York and California, establishing educational programs and political advocacy campaigns. (They raised money, in part, by selling veggie hot dogs at Grateful Dead concerts.)
And in 2020, the organization, which now houses about 700 animals, began assembling an internal research team. The goal was to assemble more evidence that, as Mr. Baur put it, “these animals are more than just pieces of meat. There’s emotion there. There is individual personality there. There’s somebody, not something.”
The research team worked with Lori Gruen, an animal ethicist at Wesleyan University, to develop a set of ethics guidelines. The goal, Dr. Gruen explained, was to create a framework for conducting animal research “without dominance, without control, without instrumentalization.”
Among other stipulations, the guidelines prohibit invasive procedures — forbidding even blood draws unless they are medically necessary — and state that the studies must benefit the animals. And participation? It’s voluntary.
“Residents must be recognized as persons,” the guidelines state, “and always be provided with choice and control over their participation in an experimental study.”
The idea is not entirely novel. Zoo animals, for instance, are often trained to cooperate in their own health care, as well as in studies that might stem from it. But such practices remain far from the norm.
For the researchers at Farm Sanctuary, voluntary participation was not only an ethical imperative but also, they thought, a path to better science. Many prior studies have been conducted on farms or in laboratories, settings in which stress or fear might affect animals’ behavior or even impair their cognitive performance, the researchers note.
“Our hope is that they’re able to tell us more about what the upper limits are for their cognition and emotional capacities and social structures because of the environment that they’re in and because of the way we are performing the research,” Ms. Torgerson-White said.
Although the approach is unconventional, outside scientists described the sanctuary’s ethical guidelines as admirable and its research questions as interesting.
“The idea that you could study these species, who are usually only studied in sort of pseudofarm conditions, in more naturalistic environments that actually meet not just their needs but even their most arcane preferences — I think they’re right,” said Georgia Mason, who directs the Campbell Center for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph. “I think that really allows you to do something special.”
Putting a wing up
The researchers decided to start with a study on the much-maligned chicken and the birds’ emotional response to learning. “We call it ‘The Joys of Learning,’ but we don’t know that for sure, that they’re going to experience joy,” Ms. Torgerson-White said. “That’s our hypothesis.”
To recruit their avian volunteers, Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast and her colleague, Jenna Holakovsky, worked slowly and methodically. They started last fall by spending a few days just sitting in the chicken pen, before opening the door to the hallway where the experiment would eventually take place.
Then, they began adding elements of the experimental infrastructure — a window screen, a piece of plywood — and doling out food pellets to any birds brave enough to approach. After about three weeks, they had the entire experimental arena set up and 13 birds who regularly chose to enter it, becoming their volunteer chicken corps.
The researchers offered some of these chickens an opportunity to learn something new — how to knock a lid off a bowl — and assessed their overall emotional states, using what is known as a judgment bias test. The test, variations of which have been used with a wide variety of species, involved measuring how quickly the chickens approached a mysterious bowl and its unknown contents.
The theory was that a chicken in a generally positive mood would be more likely to assume that the bowl contained something good, like food, and would stride toward it more quickly than a down-in-the-dumps chicken would.
So far, the researchers have tested eight chickens, half of whom were in the control group, and it is too early to draw firm conclusions about chickenkind. (The original group of recruits dwindled after one bird died, another failed to meet the study criteria, and three others dropped out — in one case, to spend time in the nest box instead. “I think she really just was highly motivated to sit on some eggs,” Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast said.)
But the preliminary data suggest that learning did seem to boost the mood of some of the birds. (Here’s looking at you, Shirley and Murielle.)
Then there was Yoshi, who had attempted to bypass the learning challenge altogether. Instead of completing the task for her reward, she went straight for the food, trying to hop over the intervening window screen. Although Yoshi did eventually deign to complete the task, she did not seem to enjoy the experience. She probably found it frustrating, Ms. Torgerson-White said: “She knows how to jump over screens, so why did she need to perform this task?”
The researchers were initially disappointed by the result, but they were also charmed by Yoshi’s intransigence, viewing it as evidence of her individual personality.
Personality remains a tricky issue. By limiting their study to chickens who, in essence, raised their wings to volunteer, they may have enrolled an unusually bold group of birds, potentially skewing their results. So the researchers are now administering personality assessments and may try to repeat the study with more birds.
“Can they work out protocols to get all the chickens so calm and used to them that all the chickens volunteer?” Dr. Mason wondered. “Then their problem is solved.”
The researchers are also investigating whether farmed animals can develop symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder — and, if so, whether spending time in a sanctuary helps them heal.
“As a part of a normal life of a farmed animal, honestly, almost no matter the species, they are undergoing or experiencing the types of trauma that human psychologists use to diagnose PTSD,” Ms. Torgerson-White said.
Some of the sanctuary’s residents have escaped from slaughterhouses or suffered serious injuries on farms, and scientists have reported PTSD-like symptoms in elephants and chimpanzees exposed to violence or abuse.
“If PTSD exists in humans, then clearly it will exist in other species as well,” said Donald Broom, an emeritus professor of animal welfare at the University of Cambridge. “So to look into that would be an interesting thing to do.”
The study is primarily observational, involving a careful analysis of the behavior of new residents, such as Bella, a Holstein who arrived at the sanctuary this fall after watching her companion, a steer named Buck, be euthanized. But the team is also measuring the animals’ cortisol levels, inviting residents to cough up some saliva samples.
Lizzie and Robbie, a bonded pig pair with bristly coats and a fondness for mouthing visitors’ shoelaces, were absolute champs, happily slobbering all over the big cotton swabs proffered by the scientists. But Hayes, a steer with impossibly fuzzy ears, showed absolutely no interest in mouthing the swabs, not even when the researchers tried to sweeten the deal with molasses.
“He had just gotten access to pasture for the first time in his life, and nothing, not even molasses, was more interesting or exciting than grazing,” said Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast, whom Hayes nuzzled affectionately when she stopped by the pasture.
Some of their studies may not pan out, the researchers acknowledged, and their methods are still evolving. There are some clear areas for improvement: They did not conduct the chicken study “blind,” which means that they knew which chickens were in the control group and which were not. As a result, the researchers could have unconsciously influenced the birds’ behavior, especially if they were hoping for a specific result.
“We did our best to avoid unintentional cuing by remaining still, keeping our heads down and stepping away from the testing arena when possible,” Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast said. But, she acknowledged, “We recognize this is a limitation of our study design and plan to address it in our eventual manuscript.”
The researchers may be unusually upfront about their mission and values, but they are not alone in bringing a point of view to their work, Dr. Gruen, the animal ethicist, noted. After all, many biomedical scientists have made their own calculations that the possibility of alleviating human suffering outweighs the suffering that lab animals experience. “Values enter into scientific practice at every level,” Dr. Gruen said. “I don’t think it’s unusual that the values are there — I think it’s unusual that those values are there.”
The sanctuary said it was committed to publishing its results, no matter what they are. The scientists also run their research proposals through an advisory committee, a group of six outside experts tasked with ensuring that the studies are both ethically and scientifically sound.
“To be ethical,” said Becca Franks, an animal welfare scientist at New York University and a member of the committee, “to spend people’s time and energy and money on this and engage with the animals, the science also has to be good science.”
The researchers are working to expand their PTSD study to animals living on other farm sanctuaries, with financial support from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which also provided funding for the chicken study. Next year, the researchers hope to explore aspects of animal culture, as well as the emotional lives of turkeys. And they are eager to spread the word about their ethics guidelines, which they hope other animal researchers will adopt.
“If they can show this model works, I think that could really motivate more people to try it,” Dr. Mason said.
Although the sanctuary wants to end animal agriculture, other scientists view this kind of research as a path to improving the system. If chickens enjoy learning, for instance, then poultry farmers should give their birds opportunities to do just that, Dr. Broom said.
“I’m not against the use of animals for a variety of purposes,” he said. “But I’m very strongly in favor of providing for needs in such a way that the welfare of each individual animal is good.”
How will the sanctuary’s staff members feel if their work is used to tweak, rather than eliminate, the existing system? “If we can lessen the suffering of animals in the near term, I think that is positive,” Mr. Baur said. “However, we don’t want to further entrench the idea that these animals are here for us to be exploiting.”
Changing public attitudes and societal practices is a long-term project, Ms. Torgerson-White acknowledged. But she and her colleagues are trying to nudge it along from the pastures in Watkins Glen, where the animals are people and the residents are not scientific subjects but research partners.
“We’re not extracting information or knowledge from them,” Ms. Prasad-Shreckengast said. “Together, we’re learning, and they’re teaching us what they want and what they’re capable of.”