Fear is generally considered a powerful emotional state that normally gives rise to defensive behaviour or escape behaviour.
Fear normally activates the autonomic nervous system and the neuroendocrine system, which in turn through their effects on regulatory mechanisms such as energy availability and use, and cardiac and respiratory functions, assist the animal to meet physical or emotional challenges
Fear may be triggered by environmental stimuli which are novel, have high intensity such as being loud or large, have special evolutionary dangers such as height, isolation and darkness, arise from social interaction such as contagious learning or have previously been paired with aversive experiences.
Farm animals, such as poultry, may frequently interact with humans and through conditioning, may associate humans with rewarding and punishing experiences that occur at the time of these interactions and thus conditioned responses to humans may develop.
Extensive studies in the livestock industries have shown marked between-farm variation in the fear responses of farm animals, including poultry, to humans.
For example, when the behavioural response of the laying hen was tested to assess the hen's fear of humans; they found a negative inter-farm correlation between fear of humans and productivity of the hens.
Such negative correlations, based on farm averages, indicate that high levels of fear of humans may be an important factor limiting the productivity and welfare of livestock.
Studies in the dairy and pig industries have shown significant sequential relationships between the stockperson's attitudes and behaviour towards animals and the fear of farm animals toward humans.
The existence of these sequential relationships between human and animal variables in the livestock industries indicates that the opportunity exists to modify stockperson attitudes and behaviour in order to improve livestock welfare and productivity, and such opportunities may also exist in the poultry industries.
The results provide an interesting basis for the study of human-animal interactions in the laying hen. The lower withdrawal response of the hens in the inner aisles compared to the outer aisle could be due to the higher level of human contact, particularly visual contact that the former birds receive.
Greater social stimulation available to birds in the inner aisles may also be implicated.
Aisles on the outside of the shed only contain a single row of cages, whereas inside aisles have cages on both sides. The hens located in the outside aisles generally only have visual contact with the hens in adjacent cages, depending on the cage design, and face a solid wall. The location of cages on both sides of the aisle in the inside rows also means that stockpeople will make twice as many passes along these aisles, particularly when routinely inspecting the birds and perhaps during other tasks, thereby exposing these birds to about twice the amount of human contact.
Thus, the nature of the human contact is likely to be an important factor in the level of fear of humans by laying hens and this factor will be examined in the larger study on human-animal interactions in the egg industry.
Within the context of this larger study, targeting human-animal interactions requires understanding the stockperson behaviours regulating these interactions and in turn the stockperson attitudes leading to these stockperson behaviours. Such knowledge may provide industry with an opportunity to reduce any limitations on animal welfare and productivity imposed by these interactions.
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Article made possible through the contribution of the Australian Poultry Science Symposium (APSS) 2006.