According to Scientists, Chickens Feel a Wide Variety of Emotions

Lauri Torgerson-White, senior director of research and animal welfare at Farm Sanctuary, says “Chickens feel a wide variety of emotions. There’s been quite a bit of research on emotion in chickens. A lot of research has focused on fear. We are certain that chickens feel fear.”

Animal scientists differentiate a feeling from an emotion. A feeling is described as an internal state while an emotion is observable through behavior and physiological changes.

“There is no such thing as higher or lower species,” says Giorgio Vallartigara, professor of neuroscience at the University of Trento. “There seems to be no difference of basic cognition between species. Verbal language is a specific adaptation of our species just as building a web is a specific adaptation of a spider. Apart from these special cases, the building up of the brains is very much similar in different species.”

Thus, it is reasonable to claim that fighting chickens know what is happening when they’re in a fighting pit and that they are reacting not just out of animalistic survival instincts but also out of a kind of fear that humans would intimately recognize.

Chickens have natural hierarchical instincts encoded in their DNA the moment they hatch. This is where the term “pecking order” comes from. Easily vulnerable chicks are provided with safety and structure by these instincts, urging them to follow their mother hen closely at all times.

Cockfights hijack these instincts. When two roosters meet to assert dominance in a natural environment, the confrontation is violent but not always fatal. In the pit, however, where blades are attached to the spurs of a rooster’s feet, there is no possible escape or retreat.

House Bill 1980 states that it aims to “strengthen existing laws relating to the fighting of birds to more closely mirror those of existing state dogfighting laws.” However, there are complications to consider.

There should be caution placed on the consequences of felonizing a practice that has existed in islands, particularly in Hawaii, since the plantation days and is primarily practiced by poorer, underserved communities.

Cockfighting is undeniably cruel to roosters but it’s also a tough argument to make in the face of the current industrial farming system, the cruelty of which is not far off from cockfighting. It also affects innumerable chickens as there are more chickens killed for food each year than there are people on the planet.

Trainers who say they take good care of their fighting roosters aren’t lying. Chickens destined for the pit live much better lives than chickens destined for food, at least until they are forced into death matches. Many people argue that food is obviously a more noble purpose than entertainment or gambling, which is what cockfighting is truly about.

The question then is whether stiffer criminal penalties will be enough to deter people from engaging in something that, like it or not, is part of the cultural fabric of Hawaii, or if the better bet is to try and clean up the seedy environments through legalization and regulation. 

Torgerson-White says that either way, it’s important to keep the chickens in mind. “These animals have inner lives and needs and desires, They’re whole people, they truly are. Focus on the fact that they have rich inner lives, and that’s reason enough to protect them,” she adds.