In a recent column, I pondered how the world would change if dogs were as dumb as chickens. The following day I got an e-mail from my friend Bruce Friedrich, who is Washington spokesman for PETA, the animal rights lobbying group. Like all great social liberators -- Gandhi and Mandela come to mind -- Bruce has suffered for his principles, such as the time he was arrested in front of Buckingham Palace, where he was running naked with a vegan Web address painted above his butt. If you're gonna hang with lobbyists, you can do a lot worse than Bruce.
Anyway, he wrote to inform me that I am an idiot, that chickens are at least as intelligent as dogs, and he offered to prove it. Like all great leaders, though, he didn't offer to prove it himself. He delegated that task to Terry Cummings, who runs Poplar Spring, a rural Maryland sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals. I drove out there.
Terry agrees that birds are vastly smarter than people think they are. She brought me to the poultry area, where we were greeted by Edward, a peacock. Edward was strutting around in full NBC mode, displaying his handsome fantail to Abigail, Pearl and Jeannie. Unfortunately, Abigail, Pearl and Jeannie are guinea hens, not peahens. In terms of the likelihood of productive mating, this would be like a guy in a bar flexing his biceps to impress a cigarette machine.
Terry winced. "Actually," she said, "I have seen Edward displaying to squirrels."
Remember, please, that the dog-bird claim was made not by Terry, but by Bruce. Terry was gamely (ha-ha) trying to help him out.
Many of the chickens at Poplar Spring were refugees of Santeria rituals, discovered in Washington cemeteries, at night, with candles burning nearby. (Most Poplar Springs animals narrowly escaped death in some way. Adam the sheep was found by Washington police in the company of five men with a butcher knife. They claimed they intended him no harm, but also found in their possession was a bottle of barbecue sauce.)
Next, we visited the chickens. I admit chickens look pretty alert; they are constantly whipping their heads around in a startled fashion. Unfortunately, they don't appear to be looking at anything in particular. ("Behold, air! Behold, more air!")
Terry found Emily the hen, whom she has been teaching a trick. Terry hid a bread crumb under one of three plastic eggshell halves, the one marked with an "X." Instantly, Emily pecked one of the others. So Terry showed her where the crumb was, and tried again. Emily pecked the same one as before. We repeated this several times, and Emily pecked the right shell exactly one-third of the time. Math can be cruel.
"She's just learning this," Terry said. "You should come back next week."
Next, we encountered Tyler the rooster and his girlfriend Wendy.
"So chickens are monogamous?" I asked.
Terry looked pained. "Well, Wendy is monogamous. . ."
This just goes to show how smart chickens are, Terry said -- socially, they are similar to people. Point taken.
Terry noted that one hen named Sara Jean refuses to lay her eggs anywhere but inside cars, under the accelerator pedal. This has created certain unpleasant surprises. Eccentric personality quirks like this, Terry explained earnestly, are further evidence of how smart chickens are.
Frankly, this lobbying effort wasn't going all that well, when Terry escorted me to a chicken barn. She was explaining how hard it is to come up with names for so many animals -- she and her husband actually visit cemeteries for ideas. It's particularly challenging when a whole bunch of animals arrive at one time, such as the dozen roosters just rescued from Katrina. Louisiana permits cock fighting, which is what these were probably raised for. Terry pointed to a feisty little red one, strutting and preening and puffing his chest. A bantamweight, as it were.
"That's little Gene Weingarten," she said.
It was at that moment that I began to realize how wrong I was, how unfair I had been and yadda yadda yadda. You just have to look at this majestic fellow's eyes to respect the species for its raw intellect -- quite possibly equal to a dog's.
As I left Poplar Spring, which operates entirely on donations from the public, it occurred to me that, speaking of comparative smarts, Terry had me beat by a country mile.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com.
Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.
Visit the chickens at www.animalsanctuary.org.