Think of the Chickens

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s a followup from the reader who served up yesterday’s chart on the varying numbers of animals killed for the same calorie count:

Regarding your reader’s reply in the update, the chart was in response to the crazy notion that eating plants kills more animals than eating animals. What do some people think we feed to the animals in the torture factories? Rocks? Furthermore, the notion that chicken suffering is to be discounted seems quite wrong to me. I agree that pigs are among the most intelligent and sentient beings abused for their flesh. But chickens are right up there with them. From “The Startling Intelligence of the Common Chicken” in Scientific American, outlined here:

  • “Mounting evidence indicates that the common chicken is much smarter than it has been given credit for.
  • The birds are cunning, devious and capable of empathy. And they have sophisticated communication skills.
  • That chickens are so brainy hints that such intelligence is more common in the animal kingdom than once thought.
  • This emerging picture of the chicken mind also has ethical implications for how society treats farmed birds.”


  • “It is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates…” — Dr. Lesley Rogers
  • “Chickens do not just live in the present but can anticipate the future and demonstrate self-control…something previously attributed only to humans and other primates…” — Discovery Magazine
  • “Chickens are . . . complex behaviorally, do quite well in learning, show a rich social organization, and have a diverse repertoire of calls. Anyone who has kept barnyard chickens also recognizes their significant differences in personality.” – Dr. Bernard Rollin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University

Further, because chickens are so small compared to cows and other mammals that humans eat, we must abuse far more of them per pound of flesh. And the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which isn’t very humane, doesn’t apply to non-mammals such as chickens.

If one wants to eat animal products with a smaller cruelty footprint, then the red meats are the way to go. Yes, they have a larger environmental impact, especially the least cruel types. That is not a reason to eat chickens but a reason to eat red meats infrequently and in small quantities, and to otherwise eat plants. Humans do not need to eat animal products, but if one chooses to do so anyway, the best easy approach is to eat beef, lamb, and other red meats in limited quantities (add oysters and mussels if one wishes to). But even starting out with something as easy as Meat-Free Mondays makes a very significant difference; most people should try it.

The more we learn about how animal products are produced, the clearer it is that bird and pig products should be avoided.

Back in 2011, Helene York wrote a piece for us about “the best kind of chicken farming.”