Camp Poultry

I can never understand other people’s happiness unless it’s derived exactly the way mine is. If it makes you happy to fish, to talk to people smarter than you, and to watch episodes of The Good Life back to back, I get it. But if opera, kayaking, and adventure travel float your boat, your psyche is a mystery to me.

While I have an abstract understanding that different people enjoy different pursuits, it still boggles my mind that something that bores me witless can fascinate someone else. Someone of the same species, someone whose DNA is virtually indistinguishable from mine. How can it be that a person who is the product of the self-same set of evolutionary forces actually enjoys nonrepresentational art?

And if I can’t begin to get inside the mind of a fellow human, what hope is there that I can understand a chicken? Oh, sure, there’s less to understand, but there’s much less common ground from which to understand it.

This week, our chicks and poults graduated to day camp.

Day camp isn’t a step they tell you about in the chicken-raising books but it’s the one you inevitably take when the brooder starts looking a wee bit small for the chicks, but the chicks still look a wee bit small for the coop. A little fencing to cordon off a sunny spot is all you need to give your birds a taste of the great outdoors.

I watched as they felt the wind ruffle their feathers for the very first time. They got their first try at flying, their first feel of earth, their first taste of bug. Being outside opens up new vistas for our chickens and turkeys. It’s their first chance to engage in the full range of bird behavior. They run, they peck, they roost, they scratch.

I think they’re happier, but that may be because I know I would be happier.

At least in part. I do know that our grown-up chickens absolutely, positively prefer to be out of the run than inside it. They tell us so, loudly, every morning. But I don’t know whether a chicken kept in a box all its life would be unhappy. If the box had food and water, other chickens, and ample space, the chicken might live out its days in perfect contentment. It would never know about sunshine or inchworms or The Good Life. It would have clean litter, congenial company, and maybe a Rothko print. It might very well be happy.

Remember those Fancy Feast commercials with Morris the Cat? The one where the cat food went on a little crystal pedestal, and the announcer went on about all the ingredients that might sound appetizing to humans? I always thought they were silly because everyone knows a cat would rather eat mutilated chipmunk guts out of a hole in the ground.

Still, I’ve known indoor cats whose lives seem complete. I’ve known overindulged, undisciplined dogs to look as happy as those who lives are rigorously regimented. Pigs can thrive in sties, and pigs can thrive in forests. My chickens run around in the bushes, but I can’t conclude that there aren’t other ways to keep chickens happy. What I know for sure is that I’d be miserable if I were cooped up in the house, so I can’t leave my chickens housed up in the coop.

I draw the line at taking them fishing.

17 people are having a conversation about “Camp Poultry

  1. “If I can’t begin to get inside the mind of a fellow human, what hope is there that I can understand a chicken?”

    By the same token, since we use all sorts of clues (including body language, facial expressions, and vocalizations) to guesstimate the emotional and mental states of our fellow humans, it’s just as reasonable to use the same kinds of clues to guesstimate the emotional and mental states of other creatures. Early in his book MERLE’S DOOR, Ted Kerasote makes this argument eloquently, as a reply to the common accusation of anthropomorphism: “There’d be no human intercourse, or it would be enormously impoverished, without our attempting to use our own emotions as templates—as starting points—to map the feelings of others.”

    • amanda blum says:


      Merle’s Door changed my life! I actually kept a correspondence w Ted for a year or so after I read it a few years ago. I changed everything about how I cared for my dog after that. Makes me so happy to see others have read it and had it affect them too!

  2. Margaret Fisher says:

    You love chickens! You love them – I know you do!

    And your “what was that noise?” photo captures that bird-brain psyche that I so love, perfectly.

    Good job, Tamar!

  3. Our chooks always line up to exit the coop. Therefore I believe they prefer to be outside.

    When I was a kid we once got ex-battery hens (who were just about “used-up”). They were unpacked onto the grass, no walls, no wire, the only limit the azure sky.

    They just sat there. And for about 20 minutes not really knowing what to do. The odd chook pecked at that green stuff that felt soft on her feet. Eventually one of the braver ones stood up and took a few steps. Soon the others followed. Two weeks later, you would have never known they had spent their life in a 1/2 metre square box.

    I’m sure there’s some people happy to live in gaol, but I bet for the most of life on earth something else is preferable.

  4. Tovar and Amanda — I haven’t read Merle’s Door, but I’ve read some essays by and interviews with Kerasote. And I will say that I am deeply suspcious of anyone who anthropomorphizes animals so thoroughly and consistently. We use our emotions as templates to understand the emotions of animals only because those are the only templates available to us, and not because we know them to be particularly accurate. For all we know, an animal’s emotional range includes feelings we humans simply don’t have. Dirthby and morniscience, say, but not envy or regret. I have a hard enough time using my own emotions as templates to understand the emotions of my fellow man, and cannot with any certainly extrapolate from what I feel to what my chickens feel.

    Margaret — Well, I like them at any rate.

    NorCal – That’s probably the single best compliment I’ll get all year. I value it particularly considering its source. I nevertheless reserve the right to be a boneheaded, muddled, conventional thinker whenever that seems to be the best I can do.

    Kinglsey — Ours, too, prefer to be outside. But I’m wondering about the chicken who doesn’t get the choice, who knows no “outside.” What goes on its head? Is it unhappy?

    I love that the battery hens adapted to their new environment, and I’m very glad they got to live out their retirement with you, rather than in a cage. My best guess is that animals like freedom, and we try to give all ours as much as possible. But I still wonder.

    • I’ll grant you that it would be silly to assume that animals feel exactly what we feel, or to assume that they do NOT feel things that we cannot imagine.

      But I am deeply suspicious of the common argument that because we can’t know exactly what animals feel, then we can assume they don’t have feelings and experiences that we might in any way comprehend; and perhaps we can assume that they don’t feel much at all. I don’t think you’re making that argument. That’s just the direction that “I-don’t-know-what-they-feel” talk tends to take.

      In cultures other than ours, recognition of the otherness of animals leads in very different directions: toward an appreciation of mystery and difference, not toward a denigration of other beings.

    • amanda blum says:

      the focus of Merle’s Door, other than, of course simply their relationship, was the concept not of animals being human-esque, but of them having free will and how we’ve robbed domestic dogs of the ability to have and enjoy free will.

      I can actually hear all your shaking your head, Tamar, but you know…but for instance… there’s an argument that if I’d trained Lucy into submission she’d have been just as well behaved a dog. Better, infact. But we had something else, we had trust, and she still maintained her personality. I gave her a choice, and she chose to engage and behave and act the way she should.

      i’m not saying that this could be applied to chickens and ducks, this was about dogs, which are a very specific species that inhabit a different space in human existence.

      there’s nothing scientific about Kerasote’s ideas…. so to be honest, there’s nothing to be suspicious of.. its all anedotal. But he’s a great writer and his markers for how to trust a dog is a blueprint for me.

      Tovar: haven’t read anything else. Always meant to and I know he has a few new books out, specifically about his new dog.

  5. There have been sevral million books filled with definitions of human happiness and, even though we can actually comunicate with humans, the definition is not clear. I’m sure everyone has heard at some point something along the lines of “he doesn’t know what real happiness is”, usually said about someone who, lets be honest, is a bit weird.
    My point is, what chance do we have to know if a chicken is happy? Even if we did there will be people willing to discuss if that is real happiness. I think the best we can do is to make sure that the chicken is safe from predators, free of pain, has enough stimuli, space to run around and whose life is generally as close as it would be in the wild.
    I’m willing to discuss if that is real happiness, but for that someone better get me a beer first.

  6. Javier, I think that’s the crux of the issue. It’s been pretty well-established that we don’t even know what makes us happy. It’s subjective, evanescent, and we’re notoriously poor at predicting it. And if you were something less than 3000 miles away, I’d want to get you that beer and have that discussion.

    Amanda – Lucy was a lovely dog, and I will remember her fondly always. She was undoubtedly a happy dog. Yet I have known well-trained, highly disciplined dogs that were also undoubtedly happy. There are many animal behaviorists (Vicki Hearne, Donald McCaig) who make the case that dogs thrive when they are confronted with expectations they can understand and fulfill. They speculate that dogs, like humans (here we go again) can feel satisfaction of a job well done. Again, I have no way to know, but I would tend to believe that a dog with a job — herding sheep, sniffing drugs, leading the blind, flushing birds — lives a fuller, more interesting, more rewarding life than a pampered lap dog. But maybe not. It all comes back to what makes ME happy.

    Likewise it is a function of my emotions and priorities that I am no more inclined to indulge a dog’s nature than I am a human’s. Plenty of people, with no demands made on their time or intellects, would sit around all day watching television and eating bonbons. What’s the doggy equivalent, and is it optimal to let a dog do it? I have no idea, but I can’t stop my sense of the value of usefulness and discipline from creeping over the human/animal barrier, and I come down on the side of training and employment for dogs.

    Tovar — You’re right that I would never make the argument that animals don’t feel. That was Skinner at his worst, and I don’t think reasonable people believe that any more. The question isn’t whether they feel, but what they feel — and how we can tell.

    Maybe the main reason Kerasote and I don’t see eye to eye is that I value neither mystery nor otherness. I like things understood, explained, and written about by smart people who make me see them clearly. I also don’t think the only alternative to the appreciation of otherness is denigration. There’s no question that domestication is tyranny, but dogs and chickens as we know them wouldn’t exist otherwise, and I think there’s a compelling argument to be made that both species thrive in their symbiotic relationship with humans.

    My mother and I, years ago, had a discussion about the role of religion in society. We are, both of us, profoundly and irretrievably godless, and have some trouble understanding faith. My mother, who’s much smarter than I am, pointed out that, for most people, the very best things in life are love and service, and religion offers both. So does domestication.

    • amanda blum says:

      “dogs need a job”. a trainer said that to me years ago, and its stuck. that’s not the point…you made it yourself. some humans, when given the choice would watch the real world on repeat while eating cheetos and paying someone else to mow their lawn. that is the difference between humans and dogs. dogs would CHOOSE to work. the difference between us here is the point of choice. its true that its hard to understand a dog’s thought process, particularly if you don’t have one. but the difference between obeyance and trust is huge. not saying one makes a dog unhappy. saying the other offers unbridled joy at no sacrifice to the ultimate goal. you CHOOSE to work. the joy and satisfaction you derive from it would be less if I made you do the job, expected you to.

      i am a sentimental fool, one who believes in both g-d and luck. i was graced by both to have an extraordinary dog. but i feel absolute that my belief in dogs intelligence, reasoning skills and ability to feel is not tied to either of those notions. dogs feel guilt. and regret. and hope. and anticipation. and have a memory better than my grandmother. they are not meat animals and are not here for our benefit. that’s a common misunderstanding that we have that leads to animals being sequestered to brick wall backyards with a bone and a hope. dogs are magnificent creatures deserving of far more (and far different) than we give them. no dog cares about a fancy collar. given our respect, they offer us their entire existence.

    • In my opening comment, I overstated my case a bit, in saying it’s “just as reasonable to use the same kinds of clues to guesstimate the emotional and mental states of other creatures.” Maybe not JUST AS reasonable. We do have trouble enough between individual humans, and more trouble yet between cultures. There’s ample research to demonstrate that emotions (and states of consciousness, for that matter) are things we LEARN how to do. We learn what to feel, how to feel it, and how to display it to others.

      You may “value neither mystery nor otherness,” Tamar, but you acknowledge both. You perceive that you don’t and can’t know exactly what any other person (or chicken) feels. And you guesstimate their feelings by using your own emotions as templates and by paying attention to others’ actions, vocalizations, and so on: “I do know that our grown-up chickens absolutely, positively prefer to be out of the run than inside it. They tell us so, loudly, every morning.”

      Is your perspective different from Kerasote’s? Sure. But it seems to me that you’re applying similar principles. Maybe you just apply yours more godlessly.

      I understand. My father was a devout atheist. I followed in his footsteps for years, until I started wandering into the wilderness…

  7. Anthropomorphism. A fun word and a fun concept. I think you’re right about Morris. Definitely would have preferred the mutilated chipmunk guts from a hole in the ground.

    Chickens are a mystery to me. Still, you can probably tell a little from their little chicken nonverbals, their birdie body language. When they first experience the open air, maybe it’s actually a little scary. But then they get used to it, and it’s freedom. After that, being inside makes them feel cooped up. So to speak.

    Lately, I’ve wondered about the birds that wake me up too early in the morning. Are they really singing happily? Or do their songs involve a lot of birdie tension, anxiety, competition, and even rage? Are those robins saying “This is MY tree.” Or “No, these woods are MINE, ALL MINE!!! And so is that hot little robiness over there. She’s MINE.” And then.. “No, she’s MINE.” And then she says “PEEEEP!” Who knows what those birds are really saying?

    I am learning to understand, at least in general, what the loons are saying. And I don’t think they’ve been enjoying the fireworks the past few nights. Not to sound unamerican or anything, but neither have the eagles.

  8. As a woman who took her sheep fishing I can’t really pass comment on what activities are suitable for humans and poultry to share.

    I’m going to re-read and inwardly digest the comments section. Your readers /commenters are fantastically interesting and varied.

    I’m not strongly emotional. I like science and explanations, and I love art, especially the non-representational and conceptual stuff. I don’t believe in god or religion, except as a concept that I understand helps lots of people find meaning and a place in the world. What absolutely gives MY life meaning is my relationship to animals. I’m obsessed with humans’ relationship to domestic animals. I spent years studying it at university. I can’t get enough.

    I can offer my observations to the conversation: I have nine dogs, all very different, from the couch potato to the high-energy athlete. Your statement that ‘dogs thrive when they are confronted with expectations that they can understand and fulfil’ resonanted perfectly with my experience. That’s a brilliant explanation. Dogs which we label ‘quick to learn’ are usually the ones who can cope with, and fulfil, more complicated patterns of our expectations – a job, if you will. As an example, retriever training is a series of small, learned behaviours that when put together, make up the job of retrieving. Dogs that can handle longer and more nuanced series of behaviours perform at a higher level.

    Most dogs have a limit, and also show aptitude, or maybe motivation, to perform some of the behaviours better than others. All have their weaknesses. The only difference is how a handler engages with that dog to make the best of its skills, and underplays its weaknesses. The relationship between the dog and handler is more important than the dog’s inherent abilities, to make both parties happy and fulfilled in their joint job together.

    Have I gone off topic a bit? The point is, the dog (or chicken or sheep) in inextricably linked in a relationship with humans, and have evolved together for arguably the last 10,000 years. I think both our happinesses are co-dependent. I also think it’s hard to quantify or measure that happiness scientifically. Like quantum physics, we’re affecting each other by observing each other and by our constant interactions.

    That is quantum, isn’t it? I’m only familiar with physics’ broad strokes (and what Science Friday teaches me)

    I can’t define exactly what an animal experiences, what we would call happiness. But I can observe that my chickens are motivated towards some things (e.g. food, dusting holes, roosts at night) and away from some things (e.g. predators). Sheep and dogs too. By enabling them to move toward or away from things as they see fit, I think that counts as making them happy.

    But what do I know? I take livestock fishing.

  9. Jen, as you are the person who knows more about the relationship of animals to people than anyone I know, I was hoping you’d weigh in. I think the point about domestication is key, and it’s important to distinguish between wild animals and those we’ve tamed, over millennia, to live with us. Because we’ve done that, their relationship to us is a part of their make-up. Your definition of animal happiness works for me, and is, I think, the best we can hope for. Al, I think that’s the point you were making, as well. Animal happiness models built on presumptions of animal psyche, rather than simply their observed behavior, seem like a stretch to me.

    Did the sheep catch anything? I love that every day is Take Your Livestock to Work Day out there at M&T.

    Amanda, I think dogs absolutely are here for our benefit — that’s why we domesticated them. Just because we don’t eat them doesn’t mean we don’t use them. We put them to work, or we use them for companionship. And I don’t buy that obeyance and trust are mutually exclusive choices. Some of the strongest bonds I’ve seen between owners and dogs are the ones where the dogs are very highly trained. The trust between a guide dog and a blind person is, I think, of the highest order.

    Tovar, if by acknowledging mystery you mean I believe there are things we don’t know, you’re of course right. It’s just that I would prefer to know them. And perhaps that’s why Kerasote and I part company. He DOES value the mystery — as do a lot of people. But, like opera and kayaking, it does nothing for me.

Converstion is closed.