One of my big “things” in keeping animals is providing an environment where they can remain mentally stimulated and practice natural behaviors daily. Just as exercise and physical activity are good for our physical health, problem solving and using all of our senses is good for our mental health.
Think about how nutty you would go if you were stuck in a tiny room day in and day out, without enough room to stretch your legs or turn around. Then add, on top of that, nothing to read, no new sights to see, and your only social interaction was being stepped on or over by the other people squished into that tiny room with you. What kind of psychosis would that lead to?
Unfortunately that’s just the kind of life that laying chickens in a typical battery or large-scale factory farm experience. They never have the opportunity to enjoy life, and even worse than that, their caged lives are dragged on for over a year for laying hens. At least in meat birds (who live a similarly awful life, but also have to deal with severe physical ailments), their torment is over after just 6 short weeks of life.
But there is another way to raise chickens- the right way, in my humble opinion. And that way includes caring for their mental health as well as their physical health.
During the spring and summer months it’s pretty easy to provide a stimulating environment for your animals. Just give them access to the outdoors and they find plenty to do, all on their own. There is green grass to peck at, bugs to chase and dust to roll in. What more could a chicken want? But when it comes to the winter months, especially when the temperature is subzero and the snow piles up above their shoulders, we’re sometimes forced into keeping them confined to a smaller (more boring, but more comfortable) space than they’d like. When the air temperature is above the single digits, we typically leave the top half of the barn door open so that they can fly up and out if they like, but they rarely do. Chickens are pretty wimpy when it comes to snow or rain.
So what do you do to manage their sanity? It’s actually pretty easy. The answer comes from asking the right question- “what would the animal typically be doing, if given the choice?” For chickens it’s probably scratching around, looking for food. A close second might be dust bathing or, if the opportunity presented itself, mating. That’s about it. No rocket scientists in the chicken world. But hey, who am I to judge? Whatever floats your boat.
If foraging for food is what you like to do in your spare time, then that’s what we’ll let you do. Any time our chickens are indoors for any length of time (whether it is their choice or ours) we set up a mini treasure hunt for them in their pen. At least twice a day we toss some kitchen scraps into the straw so that the hens have to “hunt” for their treat. Today we just so happened to have some black beans in the refrigerator that needed to be used up, so that’s what they got. (It’s just a nice side benefit that they look like little black beetles hiding amongst the roughage. Maybe that will train them to be Japanese-Beetle-hunting-assassins come summertime- I can’t stand those things!) But since chickens are omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything that people do. When we’re lacking kitchen scraps, they get a scattering of cracked corn to keep them busy.
Another nice winter treat is a bowl of whey left over from cheese or yogurt making. Over the summer, the pigs drink most of the whey that turns up as a byproduct of making cheese from our raw goat’s milk. But during the winter, the chickens have fewer competitors on the farm and they could use the extra protein boost, so they’re the lucky winners of the white gold.
We also keep one corner of the pen loose with sand/dirt so that they can bathe when they feel the urge. And of course our resident rooster keeps the ladies busy. I’ll spare you from an image of that.
This same philosophy can be applied to any animal that needs added mental stimulation. Zoo keepers and aquarium staff have long been enriching the environments of captive wild animals in order to provide more humane care for them. Octopuses, for example, are often fed out of Kong toys in aquariums to simulate their natural hunting and feeding behaviors. (Check out this article on Pandora, The National Zoo’s octopus, who just recently passed away holding onto her favorite Kong toy.) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/octopus-chronicles/2014/02/13/national-zoos-octopus-dies-in-the-company-of-her-favorite-toy-a-kong/
But why stop at wild animals for environmental enrichment? Are domesticated animals any less worthy of the opportunity to behave naturally? They may have weaker drives than their wild counterparts, but that should only serve to make it easier for us to entertain them.
To me, having a healthy animal requires more than just adequate nutrition and loads of medication. It’s a whole package deal. And that package is at least 50% psychological. Let’s start giving that other half some attention too.