The naked chicken, generated at Hebrew University, has triggered harsh criticism from animal rights groups as well as a number of scientists, who claim the development is cruel. The developers, however, argue that the featherless fowl will be far more resistant to heat and will boost the stewing chicken industry.
Professor Avigdor Cahaner of Hebrew University's Rehovot agricultural faculty says he has been working on the development of a chicken that would be far less sensitive to higher temperatures, and consequently would not die during heat waves or when the temperature control in chicken coops goes awry - as often happens. Cahaner crossbred a small mutated featherless bird with a standard stewing chicken. The lack of feathers enhances the bird's natural cooling system, keeping them cooler than feathered fowls, explains Cahaner - "like a person wearing a coat as compared to someone not wearing one."
"My development is not yet complete," Prof. Cahaner adds, explaining that he and his colleagues are now trying to change some of the birds characteristics - including the quality of its meat and its rate of growth - to make it comparable to commercial stewing chickens. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the development of the naked chicken. "As an ordinary citizen, I am really shocked," said Avi Pinkas, the director of an organization concerned with the treatment of animals on factory farms. "Chickens, including those raised for their meat, have an urge to peck. Chickens raised in yards where they can roam freely are able to satisfy this urge. But, stewing chickens are raised under terrible conditions of overcrowding and they satisfy their urge by pecking on one another. This new development will take away their only protection. I don't believe this development will work out."
Whether Pinkas' predictions come true or not, it has been learned that scientists in the Technion in Haifa are also working on the development of a heat-resistant bird - this one with feathers.
The Haifa and Rehovot teams are using a similar strategy: crossbreeding. However, according to the head of the Haifa research team, Dr. Yehezkel Kashi, while Professor Cahaner and his team are crossbreeding stewing chickens with a breed of featherless fowl, the Haifa team is trying to crossbreed stewing chickens with a feathered breed of desert fowl that has a natural mechanism for coping with high temperatures.
Dr. Kashi says the development will prove helpful not only to farmers, but also to the birds themselves. "Firstly, the death rate of birds from overheating will drop, and secondly, the birds will be more comfortable because they will suffer less from the heat."
Dr. Zvika Ritter, who is director of the natural sciences and environmental experimental department of Haifa's Reali high school, a biology lecturer at the University of Haifa-Oranim, and a scientist formerly involved in numerous experiments on animals, was asked his opinion of the new development. "Are they really concerned with the comfort of the birds?" he wonders. "It would appear it is really all about money - to feed the world at minimum cost and maximum production, and they want the birds to survive until they are slaughtered."
Dr. Ritter believes that "relieving" the birds of their feathers is not the worst problem facing stewing chickens. "The birds spend many long hours on their way to the slaughter house, day and night, in rain and heat, without water. They are raised under conditions of maximum crowding. What is the difference between a chicken with feathers and without when they have to live under such awful conditions?"
Cahaner and Kashi would like to draw attention to farmers in developing countries, where, due to budget constraints, chickens are raised in coops without automatic temperature controls. Many birds die as a result, causing costs to soar. "It is a fact that chickens are raised in very hot countries and it is a fact that they suffer. They are not given food during the day to prevent them from dying from overheating." Cahaner adds that featherless chickens can make the process of preparing the chicken for eating cheaper. "The feather-plucking process is expensive and uses a great deal of water. Sometimes pieces of skin and flesh are removed with the feathers and wings are broken, making it impossible to sell them." He says the entire process causes millions of shekels in waste.