How Do We Know What Animals Are Really Feeling?
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Still, despite years of promises to end the practice, many sows are still kept almost permanently in 7-feet-by-2-feet “gestation crates,” too small to turn around in. And the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has doomed millions of pigs, cattle and chickens to lives spent cheek to jowl in the stench of their own waste — waste that also threatens the health of nearby communities and ecosystems.

At the contest, many attendees were excited about the gains that artificial intelligence could bring to the animal-welfare field. Pilot studies have indeed shown great promise: For example, with A.I. assistance, 24-hour video surveillance can help pinpoint sick or injured animals much more quickly so they can be pulled out for veterinary care. Last year, a group of European researchers announced that based on 7,000 recordings of more than 400 pigs, they had made significant progress in understanding the meaning of their grunts. “By training an algorithm to recognize these sounds, we can classify 92 percent of the calls to the correct emotion,” one of the scientists remarked.

That well may be, but given what we know about pigs — specifically, their remarkable intelligence, which rivals (if not exceeds) that of a dog, to the point that a group of scientists recently trained some to play video games — there is no amount of A.I.-driven progress that can reconcile their short, crowded life as an American industrial food animal with any definition of what a “good” life looks like for such brainy creatures, all 75 million of them.

The laying hen, among the four species considered at the contest, is the one that lives among us in the largest numbers: There are an estimated 308 million of them in the United States alone, or nine for every 10 Americans. In a backyard flock, these hens could be expected to live six to eight years, but a vast majority of them toil in industrial operations that will slaughter them after only two to three years, once their productivity (six eggs a week) declines — and chickens, notably, are not covered by the Humane Slaughter Act. Poor air quality, soiled litter, nutritional stress and conflict with other chickens can contribute to dietary deficiencies, infectious diseases, egg-laying complications, self-mutilation, even cannibalism. And even in the best laying-hen operations, including the “cage-free” ones imagined in the contest scenario, these are short lives spent under 16 hours a day of artificial lighting in extremely close quarters with other birds.

More than in the other scenarios, the organizers had made the laying-hen choice a straightforward one. The corporate farm offered fewer amenities for the birds, which were also observed rarely to use the dirt-floored, plastic-covered “veranda” that was supposed to serve as a respite from their long hours laying in the aviary. The more commodious verandas of the family farm, covered with synthetic grass, proved more popular with their chickens, and in warm weather, its birds made use of a screened “garden” as well.

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