Would you eat your favorite pet for dinner? If the answer is no, then why would you eat farm animals such as chickens and goats, which have been shown to be as smart, emotional and susceptible to pain as cats and dogs? That’s the underlying question in Amy Hatkoff’s book, The Inner World of Farm Animals: Their Amazing Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Capacities (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $19.95).

As the author notes, “It is easy not to think about farm animals, about who they are, what they experience or even what they mean to us.” This is especially true for so many city dwellers whose only regular animal sightings are the occasional cockroach in the pantry.

But this latest venture in the long list of books and movies meant to persuade you to rethink the current farm industrial complex brings farm animals into your home through powerful stories and photos that illustrate their rich social lives and intelligence.

At first glance, this may sound like your typical feel-good animal picture storybook. But flip through the pages and you’ll see Hatkoff’s evidence about animals being sentient beings is more than just anecdotal — it’s backed up by scientific and psychological research.

Here’s some of the facts that may take you by surprise:

• Chickens are no birdbrains. Once hatched, chicks can remember that something exists even if they can’t see it. Human infants can’t do this until they’re several months old.

• Geese tend to be monogamous, looking for a new partner only if their mate dies. Some geese will remain alone by choice for the rest of their lives, as long as 25 years.

• Turkeys can be affectionate toward humans. They love to be caressed and will “purr” when they’re content.

• Ducks have regional accents. City ducks have a “shouting” quack thought to compensate for city noise while country ducks’ quacks are softer.

• Cows like problem solving, which indicates they have self-awareness, a key component of consciousness. They also work together as a group to “calf-sit,” where one or two cows will watch over a group of calves while other cows graze in the distance.

• Pigs can be taught to play computer games, indicating they can grasp the concept that what they were doing in one place had an impact somewhere else.

• Sheep with separation anxiety can get stress relief from seeing photographs of a familiar breed of sheep. They also form strong attachments to people and will respond when their names are called, just as dogs do.

Despite the underlying message of the book — treat animals with respect and compassion — Hatkoff avoids the common do-gooder pitfall of being preachy or pushy. Instead, she merely lays out the facts and the photos, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether farm animals are conscious beings so much like ourselves — and therefore worthy of proper care — or simply a means to an end for dollar-menu burgers and cheap chicken nuggets.

The result is a gentle but powerful message that may make hardcore carnivores think twice about ordering a bacon double cheeseburger.

Want more eco-literature? Stop by our books section.

MNN homepage photo: GlobalP/iStockphoto

'The Inner World of Farm Animals'
Author Amy Hatkoff leaves it up to the reader to decide whether farm animals are conscious beings or simply fare for the fast-food menu.