Chickens

The Best Day

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Photo credit: Daring Damsel

 

On the best day of Marsha’s life, she fell off of a truck.

The truck was in Brooklyn.  We believe Marsha and her flock were headed to one of the popular “live markets” there, where customers pick out live animals and pay to have them slaughtered on-site.  The other animals are kept in cages, forced to witness the grisly proceedings.

So, on the best day of Marsha’s life, she fell off of a truck.  Some of her flock-mates did not survive the fall, however Marsha and 49 others were allowed to go to Farm Sanctuary, who kindly taught them that many humans are friendly and not to be feared, compassionately treated their wounds, responsibly ensured that they were healthy and ready for travel, and then sent half of them to Indraloka.

We call them the Golden Girls because of their beautiful golden feathers.  Inquisitive, friendly, and lively, the Golden Girls transformed the once-serene atmosphere of the barnyard into an all-day, everyday joy-fest.  Everywhere you look, there are cooing, pecking, preening, chatting, nesting, scratching, dust-bathing Golden Girls.  Everywhere.

 

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And, if you are smart enough to sit down to watch, you will inevitably find yourself with a hen cuddling in your lap, another gently grooming your hair, a third trying to fit her head under your hand in an attempt to force you to pet her, and many more watching you with unabashed curiosity.

On a hot, humid day last summer, during a Sheep Shnuggling event, where guests are encouraged to spend the day spoiling the animals (and vice versa), a big, brawny, bald guy sat on the cool ground in the shade of the barn.  Instantly, he was surrounded by friendly, curious Golden Girls.  He sat transfixed, watching them watch him.  Tentatively, he put out a hand, and Marsha instantly walked under it, settling in for a nice petting session.  The man let out a surprised-but-pleased sigh and began stroking her soft feathers.  Minutes passed, and tears began to roll down his face.

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Photo Credit: Daring Damsel

He wept, “I get it now.  I finally get it.”  Those girls taught him more clearly than any of the rest of us ever could.  He understood that each of them is a unique, sensitive being—a being with much more to offer as his friend than as his meal.  He understood that raising them in dark, filthy, crowded circumstances and then sending them brutally to their deaths at only 6-8 weeks old is, quite simply, unconscionable.  He understood that it was up to him to change his ways.  From that day on, he has refused to support the system that so violently harms more than 24 million of these beautiful, precious, precocious beings each and every day.

Often, when someone has a lucky day like Marsha and the Golden Girls, their past haunts them.  The Golden Girls are not emotionally haunted by their past.  They moved right on when they realized they were safe and beloved.  Sadly, though, their past still haunts them physically.

When chickens are raised for meat, as the Golden Girls were, they are bred to grow very, very fast so that the agribusiness that is raising them can profit by selling them for slaughter when they are only a few weeks old.  Thousands of these chickens are crammed into warehouses, which in most cases are never cleaned in the chickens’ lifetimes.  Because disease and fighting amongst the stressed and overcrowded birds is rampant, the majority these “production facilities” feed the young birds a cocktail of antibiotics, sedatives, and growth hormones every day of their short lives.

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Photo Credit: Daring Damsel

Sadly, Marsha was among those in her flock most affected by this terrible, unhealthy past.  Early on, Marsha’s feet began to swell painfully.  Along with Juanita, Glenda, Layla, and Gracie, Marsha had a bacterial infection caused by the filthy living conditions from which they came.  Lab cultures showed that the bacteria were resistant to almost all antibiotics.  Our veterinarian had to special-order the only effective antibiotic from a compounding laboratory.

Day after day, our sweet girls drank way too much bitter medicine.  While the others’ feet returned to health, Marsha’s only grew worse.  Our compassionate and talented avian veterinarian surgically drained the painful boils.  We had to pull off the scab daily and soak Marsha’s feet in warm water with herbs to encourage draining.  Day after day, Marsha withstood the pain, drank the medicine, and allowed her wounds to be tended.  She did all of this with her wise, clear eyes making direct contact with Shadden’s, the kind caregiver who devoted herself to Marsha.

Marsha became accustomed to the hour-long drive to the vet’s office.  She would sit next to me as I drove, cooing and looking out the window raptly.  When we arrived, she stepped proudly out of her carrier and wandered the office, examining every detail that had changed from our last visit.  Truly, it is a rare chicken that enjoys car rides and vet visits, but that is who Marsha was—is still—a rare bird indeed.  She made the best of everything and was determined to live life fully.

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Last week, the bacteria that attacked Marsha’s feet managed to travel to her respiratory system.  Her heart, already weak and too small for her overly large body, was forced to struggle even more to keep her blood flowing.

Still, she carried on.  In too much pain to walk, but ever-dignified, Marsha sat on a bed of hay, watching her flock-mates as they went about their business.  Dutifully, she complied with her many treatments.  Her favorite part was being held in Shadden’s arms while soaking her feet in warm herb water.  Cooing softly and snuggling closer, Marsha usually persuaded Shadden to soak her feet for much longer than necessary.

Yesterday, as morning sunlight streamed through the barn; as the Golden Girls set busily about their days; and as Charlie, a sweet, elderly rooster with an advanced heart condition dozed on a heated mat under a blanket nearby; Marsha nestled into Shadden’s arms for her final foot soak.  With one last look of love and gratitude at her dear friend, the air left Marsha’s lungs and her heart slowed to a halt.

The other Golden Girls paused their cooing and pecking, looking to the sky in silence. For a moment, every pig, every goose, every creature on sanctuary grounds observed the same perfect stillness as they hailed a great soul and a cherished sister.

Marsha’s spirit hovered nearby, comforting her beloveds, before drifting away like a puff of smoke rising from a dying fire’s embers.

On the best day of Marsha’s life, she fell off of a truck.

She managed to cram a whole lifetime of joy into six months of sanctuary before dying in the arms of someone who will never, ever, forget her.

On the best day of Marsha’s life, she was granted the chance to die a peaceful death.

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Coming Home

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On Sunday, a new hen arrived and my world changed again.  I am swimming languidly, luxuriously, in the warm sea of new love.  I can’t get her off of my mind, and I don’t want to.  I revel in her intelligent, sensitive gaze… her vibrance… her spunk.  Oh yes, Enid is the chicken of my dreams and I am beyond thrilled to have her here at the sanctuary with us.

Enid and I met once before, briefly, in September 2012, just over a year ago.  It was just after she and 249 of her flock-mates fell off of a moving truck headed to the slaughterhouse.  She was dazed and frightened and I doubt very much that she remembers me.  I however, remember her well.  I was deeply moved by the incredible web of karma that brought Enid and her flock to that moment in time.  They had been forced to spend the first six weeks of their lives in a love-deprived, drug-filled haze in a dark, dirty warehouse, only to fall off of a moving truck just in time to escape meeting an incredibly painful and frightening end. Then they found themselves surrounded by well-meaning people, who coddled the little birds as the precious beings they are.

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Enid was lucky enough to be adopted by a big-hearted couple, Jen and John.   Jen and John understood the sensitive and intelligent nature of chickens.  They took beautiful care of Enid and her sisters, Billina and Octavia.

However, chickens that are bred for meat (technically “Jumbo Cornish Crossbreeds” but usually referred to as “broilers”), don’t live very long.  They are bred to be large enough for “processing” at only 6 weeks old.  According to the University of Arkansas, if humans grew at a similar rate, a 6.6-pound newborn baby would weigh 660 pounds after two months (source: Chickens Used for Food).  You can just imagine all the health issues that come with such rapid growth and unnatural size.

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Sadly, Billina’s time on earth came to an end in August, and Octavia crossed over this past Saturday.  Enid lost her two sisters just a few months apart and she was devastated.  From years of time spent living with and observing chickens, I can tell you that they are incredibly intelligent and sensitive beings.  They develop deep bonds, show great care and compassion, and they grieve over the loss of loved ones in the same way that we do.  Enid cried audibly, refused food, and spent the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday in her hen-house alone, mourning her sisters.

Enid cuddles with Octavia
Enid cuddles with Octavia – photo by Jen Washicosky

Enid’s adoptive human family, although they loved her deeply, knew the best thing for her would be to live with other chickens, and so they brought her to Indraloka Sunday evening.  Enid was not the first of the chickens from this accident that made their way back to Indraloka, after having been adopted by others but that is another story for another day.

Today is Enid’s day.

Sherman, one of our lovely roosters, fell immediately in love and entertained Enid by prancing proudly back and forth in front of her as he cooed and explained where all the yummy food is to be found.  Enid watch in calm amusement.

Then Thelma and Louise, the turkeys, approached.  Thelma took umbrage that another female had entered her territory and, fluffing up her feathers, began to make intimidating noises.  Enid never cowered, never shrank away, and never got angry.  She simply stood herself up to her whole height and looked Thelma in the eye.  Thelma backed right down and the three are now fast friends.

Next Sheba, our pea hen, approached.  Sheba is quite certain that she is Queen of Indraloka, and never hesitates to assert her authority over the other birds.  Interestingly, Enid was already standing at her full height, with great dignity, by the time Sheba arrived to greet her.  They looked one another in the eye, completely silent, for a full 90 seconds before Sheba pivoted on her elegant left foot and glided away.

Sheba, Queen of Indraloka
Sheba, Queen of Indraloka

Late that night, I saw a different side of Enid.

Amidst the snoring of pigs, as the ducks and geese slept with their heads tucked primly under their wings, and as all the other chickens cooed in dreamland, Enid let her guard down.  She was breathing heavily and her comb was very pale.  It was plain that her heart had already become quite weak.  I stroked her soft feathers and said, “I’m going to take care of you.  I know you don’t feel well, and I know you’ve just lost your family.  But you’re here now, and I promise you I’ll be here for you every day of your life.”

The look she gave me was merciful and tender as she said with her eyes, “I won’t be here much longer, my dear.  I’ve simply come home to die.”  We sat in the sleep-filled barn, the light of the full moon streaming through the window and my hand resting on her back.  Together, we cried at the beauty of autumn and the brief, sacred journey of life.

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