Julie Douglas

The Way Back Vault: Chicken Vision Quest

The Way Back Vault: Chicken Vision Quest
Jessica Harms/Getty Images

While researching the color red and its various effects on perception for an upcoming video I ran across a 1998 article about multimillionaire businessman Randall E. Wise, who figured out a novel way to lower the cost of the poultry industry while increasing profits:

Fitting chickens with red contact lenses.

According to the Chicago Tribune article, "He Sees Fortune in Chicken Contact Lenses," Wise first struck upon the idea of distorting a chicken's eyesight by overhearing a medical-supply salesman claim to Wise's father that chickens with cataracts were more docile.

By now you're probably familiar with the reason why farmers would prefer a docile chicken to an angry one. Housing an exceedingly large amount of animals in a small space (relative to the amount of animals) induces anxiety in chickens and can cause them to become aggressive, sometimes pecking one another to death.

Perhaps this is why the elder Wise decided to pursue the idea of contact lenses altering a chicken's behavior, even forming his own company. But it did not end well for the chickens, with blindness and irritation just a few of the problems given the lack of technology at the time with polymers.

But the younger Wise never lost faith in the idea and even wrote a case study when he was a graduate student at Harvard University. Though the inspiration for chickens seeing red came later.

Farmers already knew that red lights helped keep chickens calm, but it wasn't particularly practical in that you had to seal the hen houses from any external light source, and humans weren't able to see around the joint as well as they needed to. But red contact lenses could cause the same sorts of behavioral changes in chickens, with less eating and fighting.

Win-win right? So why didn't the poultry industry adopt Wise's permanent contact lens as a business model and transform their chickens into demon-looking poultry the world over? Well, for one, it's kind of hard to fit a chicken for contacts.

And then there was the problem that prolonged wear of the non-gas-permeable lenses were depriving the chickens' eyes of oxygen, which was painful and in some cases made them go blind.

And in case you're wondering if farmers ever tried to manipulate their chickens' vision with sunglasses and spectacles, the answer is yes, they did.

Thanks for visiting the Way Back Vault with me.