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USDA Plans to Bake Chickens Alive

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USDA Plans to Bake Chickens Alive

When a vandal shut off the ventilation at a Pilgrim’s Pride mega farm earlier this year, essentially baking the chickens alive, the poultry giant offered a $50,000 reward, lamenting that “these heinous acts resulted in a cruel death for several thousand chickens.” Yet strangely, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is now recommending the same cruel fate for millions more birds impacted by the bird flu outbreak in Iowa and elsewhere.

Confined wing-to-wing in these cages, each animal is given less space than an iPad on which to live for her entire life. Photo credit: Shutterstock

USDA Chief Veterinarian John Clifford recently proposed, before a congressional committee, ending the lives of infected flocks by simply closing off the ventilation and “heating up the houses.”

Such an inhumane end would be adding insult to injury—or really, injury to injury; many egg-laying hens already are locked in cages so small they can’t even spread their wings. Confined wing-to-wing in these cages, each animal is given less space than an iPad on which to live for her entire life. It’s hard to imagine a more miserable life and now the USDA is suggesting we make their deaths more heinous, too.

The American Veterinary Medical Association doesn’t consider ventilation shutdown an acceptable method of euthanasia. Nor does the gruesome method meet the World Animal Health Organization’s guidelines. In fact, even the USDA says ventilation shutdown presents “compelling welfare concerns,” including “concerns that prolonged suffering may occur.”

That’s because it can take as long as 35 minutes to result in mass death and some animals may survive more than three hours. During that time, the hens experience intense and protracted suffering, as blood pressure plummets and fatal organ failure sets in.

In addition to the fact that less inhumane methods of mass “depopulation” already exist, overheating birds to death probably violates state anti-cruelty laws. It’s routine for people to be charged with cruelty for leaving dogs in hot cars, for example. Though some states excuse inhumane treatment of farm animals if it’s deemed a standard farming practice, cooking conscious birds to death has never been standard. That means this needless cruelty likely would merit criminal animal cruelty charges.

USDA found itself in hot water earlier this year when the New York Times revealed, in a front-page exposé, ghastly experiments the agency conducted on behalf of the meat industry, at its U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska. Still on the heels of that controversy, the USDA would be wise to demonstrate a commitment to improving animal welfare, not further undermining it.

One way the agency and industry could do that would be to phase out the very conditions that make today’s poultry factories such ripe incubators for public health threats, including bird flu. As Michael Greger, M.D., writes in his book, Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, “humanity must shift toward raising poultry in smaller flocks, under less stressful, less crowded and more hygienic conditions with outdoor access.”

In other words, what would be better for the hens’ welfare would also be better for us. The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions on today’s factory farms create ideal breeding grounds for high-pathogenic illness. These systems cause animals to live in states of stress and frustration, weakening their immunity and making them particularly vulnerable to disease. Consequently, what enters a poultry factory as a low-grade virus is allowed to flourish and mutate, possibly turning into a high-risk strain with pandemic potential.

USDA has an opportunity to lead on animal welfare. Promoting cruel and possibly illegal responses to bird flu outbreaks isn’t the way to do that; promoting better treatment of farm animals to reduce their suffering and better protect public health is.

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter at @pshapiro.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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