LETTERS FROM LONDON
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
14 January 2017
The Animal Kingdom
     
This is going to be a very long year. With minute to minute coverage of The
Donald, and I do mean minute to minute, I’m thinking it’s time to turn to animals.
Huh? You may ask – mumble really. Well, what else is as diverting? Surely
you've been watching YouTube endlessly to escape The Donald. Cute kittens,
smiling dogs, zoo antics?

So let’s consider cats. Not those endearing furry fatty cats who love their
tummy's scratched. It’s the human variety. Those obscenely rich fat cats who
can hire peasants to scratch their fat tummies. If they like that sort of thing. We
have had detailed reports of the uber rich and their kinky sexual preferences;
imagine S&M and peeing, loads of peeing. Wait. Don’t or you’ll picture The
Donald with the latest revelations. Aughhh.

Human fat cats will have earned the yearly salaries of their workers at midday on
‘fat cat Wednesday’. You do realise that was the 4th of January. So we can
shout: “WHAT?” or if you are really cross: “WHAT THE F***!” Were they even
working that day or still celebrating the festive season. You know the answer.

Facts to annoy: a typical chief executive of a large company will have earned
more than the £28,200 UK average salary as of Wednesday midday. Just as
you might be about to have a cheese sandwich on stale bread ends brought
from home working at your desk. Be irritated: some bosses earn more than
£1,000 an hour. And surely by now you know their salaries are not related to
ability, performance or results. NOT!

The think-tank High Pay Centre reported the median chief executive pay in 2015
was £3.97 million, although many, many bosses earned far more. Sir Martin
Sorrell, chief executive officer of media agency WPP, as taking home £70.42
million, Tony Pidgeley, founder of builder Berkeley Group, as earning £23.3
million, and Reckitt Benckiser chief, Rakesh Kapoor, as receiving £23.2 million.
Oh it’s “the government for everyone” isn’t it? Had you forgotten?

A survey by The Equality Trust reported the average pay for a FTSE 100 CEO is
172 times more than a nurse’s and 145 times more than a teacher’s.

Wait. Aren’t we suffering from brutal cuts that affect everyone’s life - except for
the big fat cats that is. Another yacht? Oh why not. Another home? Oh why not.
And what about another car. Of course. Naturally fat cat pay is surging – again
– but average wages are still worth less than nine years ago. Plus ça change.

Leaving the fat cats to their own privileged lives full of fun and fab perks, let’s
move on to animals who actually deserve recognition. Chickens. Really.
Chickens. Those de-feathered morsels that make up your stews, casseroles,
roasts, sandwiches are not 'bird-brained' as it turns out.

They have distinct personalities, they can outmanoeuvre one another, they know
their place in the hierarchical pecking order, they can reason by deduction,
developed by the age of seven in humans. Poor chickens have been upstaged
by other bird abilities, skills, intelligence.

Chickens can do maths. Yes. Experiments with newly hatched domestic chicks
showed they can discriminate between quantities, they also have an idea about
‘ordinality’, which refers to the ability to place quantities in a series. When five-
day-old domestic chicks were presented with two sets of objects of different
quantities disappearing behind two screens, they were able to successfully track
which one hid the larger number by apparently performing simple arithmetic in
the form of addition and subtraction.

Oh come now. We are talking chickens here and all you can say is: “who
knew!?” A gobsmacked response would be more appropriate. The fact that they
are able to self-assess their position in the pecking order is indicative of self-
awareness.

That’s not all: chickens are also able to remember the trajectory of a hidden ball
for up to 180 seconds if they see the ball moving, and up to one minute if the
displacement of the ball is invisible to them. And what other animals are capable
of doing this? Primates. Chickens – primates: quite the anthropological leap.
Let’s not forget rewards. Who doesn’t love a reward? Chickens do. Chickens
possess self-control if tempted with a better food reward. Why settle for second-
best?

Let’s not forget chicken communication. Clearly they need to share information.
Their repertoire is complex. It consists of a large number of different visual
displays and at least 24 distinct vocalizations. They have the complex ability of
referential communication, which involves signals such as calls, displays and
whistles to convey information, including the ability to sound the alarm when
there is danger – like a hungry fox or a hungry human. This ability requires
some level of their self-awareness as well as being able to take the perspective
of another animal, as do those highly developed primates.

Now let’s do time. Chickens perceive time intervals and can anticipate future
events. “Oh stop!” you must be saying at this point. “Oh pull the other chicken
leg!” Sorry – no really, I just couldn’t hit that backspace button. Like many other
animals, they simply demonstrate their cognitive complexity when placed in
social situations requiring them to solve problems.

Let’s do chicken emotions. Chickens are able to experience a range of complex
negative and positive emotions: including anticipation, anxiety and fear. Their
decisions are based on what is best for them. How human. But all is not lost,
they also possess a simple form of empathy called emotional contagion. Often
missing in many humans. Are we back to those greedy fat cats agan?

Individual chickens have distinct personalities, while mother hens also show a
range of individual maternal personality traits affecting the behaviour of their little
chicks. Chickens watch and learn from each other. They can even deceive one
another, like humans. I’m thinking bonuses and rewards are in order. Clearly
chickens are far more intelligent than those fat cats. And we boil, steam, fry,
grill, roast them! When you hold that little fried wing or leg between your greasy
fingers you might wonder if your chicken snack suffered from fear and anxiety
before it was butchered. Delicious? Possibly not.
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