Romeo knew his name and loved going for walks with me around the farm. He loved scratches under his chin and falling asleep with his head on my arm. He let me know his favorite treats and would get excited and even do a little happy dance when he saw me coming with them.
I would call his name and he would come running as fast as his big bulky legs would carry him. I had planned to get a video of this but sadly I never did and never will. All I have are memories tinged with sadness for a life cut short because of human ingenuity.
Romeo’s final hours were spent soaking up the sun’s rays, eating watermelon and being stroked by his human friends. He passed away peacefully as so few of his kind ever get the chance to.
Romeo was a broiler chicken. He grew to be a big bird with an even bigger heart – friendly and gentle, he quickly endeared himself to many. It was no doubt his big heart, surrounded by his huge muscle mass, that was no longer able to cope that brought about his demise.
In September 2009 the ABC aired a BBC documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed. What followed was outrage and disdain from a community enraptured by man’s best friend. The show highlighted critical animal welfare issues that had resulted from the selective breeding for appearance traits that had nothing to do with the welfare of the animal.
King Charles Spaniels that suffered epilepsy due to their skull being too small, German Shepherds suffering hip dysplasia and Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs rejected because they lacked the genetic fault of a ridge along their back, were just some of the appalling legacies of animals bred to meet human expectations.
The British KCC copping an extra bite from the RSCPA who pulled their support for the largest dog show in the world, Cruft’s, due to their concerns that the exhibition was encouraging the breeding of deformed and disabled dogs.
However, beyond the back yard and across the paddock, tucked away on factory farms a congratulatory high five was being done, acknowledging the fast tracking of meat chickens (broilers) to slaughter weight in as little as just five weeks. Fifty years back it took more than three times as long. Sadly, these infant birds, complete with baby blue eyes and chirps, are the size of huge adult birds and they pay a huge price.
Gentle laying hens faring little better as their bodies are pushed to exhaustion pumping out around 300 eggs a year compared to their wild cousins of just a handful. At just two years old no happy retirement home exists for ‘spent hens’. ‘Spent’ because their short, miserable lives have been spent crammed into tiny cages, devoid of mental stimulation or means to satisfy their innate natural behaviours and they are no longer viewed as economically valuable.
Given the chance, and devoid of human manipulation into their genetics, chickens can live happy and fruitful lives for up to ten, even twelve, years. Recent studies have further shown that chickens are far from ‘bird brained’ having complex lives with cognitive abilities that rival mammals and even primates.
That the pecking order describes their ability to recognise and remember their cohorts says more about their intelligence than it does for our ability to discount it. Equipped with around thirty vocalisations they indeed have their own language that can communicate a wealth of meaningful knowledge. And those that have come to know chickens will quickly attest to their unique personalities.
And if you need any more convincing that chickens command far more respect than currently afforded, consider that they have even been shown to possess the knowledge that an object exists despite the fact it has been taken away and hidden – a capacity that is beyond that of small children.
While my life with Romeo was short, it taught me many things none more so than birds like him are much, much more than the before of a chicken nugget.