Last month Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten asked himself what our lives would be like if dogs were as dumb as chickens. Predictably, Weingarten wrote in his column yesterday, the folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) were not amused:

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 … 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.

Instead, Friedrich sent Weingarten to an animal sanctuary in Maryland. There he met the owner, Terry Cummings, another animal-rights advocate (though, as far as we know, unlike Friedrich, Cummings has never advocated violence to advance her views):

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.”

After their visit with a bird-brained peacock, Weingarten and Cummings met up with some 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.