Guest post by one of our wonderful volunteers, Kristine Leise.
Hayley from Earthsave Whistler asked if I would like to write something about chickens. She said she has never heard anyone talking about chickens the way I do and that it might help people to see those animals differently. “The way I do” is with love and compassion—the same way I treat people. At first I was surprised. What’s so special about someone talking about their beloved pets with genuine care? But the more I discussed the subject with others, the more I came across the same feeling: people just don’t have an opinion about chickens. “I’ve never really thought about chickens,” was a common answer. So I decided that writing something is the least I can do for these amazing birds, and if even a few people find it interesting and stop to observe chickens the next time they see them (alive), I’ll be as happy as, well… a chick in a nest!
I’ll start at the beginning. When I was a kid, my Grandmother had a flock of about 30 chickens. We lived in suburban area but grew our own food including—unfortunately—the chickens that I considered my pets. My hens and roosters each had a name and a distinct character, and each of them meant the world to me. Each day I would wake up and go straight to their shed to see how their night went and how they were doing. I’d let them out to run in their fenced area and get them what they needed in the way of water, food, or hay for litter. Only then would I go back to the house for breakfast with a “to do” list in my head. No adults had to tell me to do anything in terms of caring for the chickens, I just went. They were my chicks, and I took care of them.
On a typical day I’d do all the cleaning, feeding and collecting of eggs they’d laid overnight. They always tried to hide their eggs and I’d hunt them down, each one found feeling like a little treasure. It was like a game for us. As I approached the shed they’d start to cluck, roosters setting the tone followed by the hens. Then they’d all run towards me and throng onto the fence trying to get closer. When I walked in, the birds would surround me and I had to make my way through the crowd to bring in food. They would be so happy, jumping on the food trays, clucking and trying to get their little heads in over each other. The roosters would cluck out a food call to all, then wait patiently until all the ladies finished eating before feeding themselves. Such gentlemen! I can still picture myself standing there watching with a smile on my face. While they ate I collected eggs. After came cuddling time—really! Many can’t believe this and I wish I’d had thought it interesting enough to take a picture of at the time. I would squat down and the chickens would surround me, one-by-one making their way between my knees to put their head on my lap where I’d pet them and they’d close their little eyes in pleasure. Each of them came, one after another. They’d become so relaxed, so reliant in my hands, so trusting. There was so much love! My heart still warms just thinking about the connection we had.
I’d go on with my day until later it was time for pasturing. I loved letting them out and watching them run! I’d usually do the gardening and all the fowl would come running happily, wings out, jumping up in the pure happiness of freedom. If I shoveled soil, they’d be right there trying to delve around to get worms and bugs. They’d roam over fresh green grass hunting seeds and I had to watch they didn’t get into beds of vegetables and strawberries. It was so much fun! A vibe of freedom in the air. Not that the fenced enclosure was uncomfortable; it was 8×8 meters and 2.5m high with three level roosts, a nesting “house,” and wooden stairs for older or clumsier chickens. Pretty much like a chicken entertainment park—all made by my Mom. But there nevertheless was a fence, and just like us chickens like to go out to explore and have fun. Sometimes one would wander further and separate from the crowd, something that local hawks were always on the lookout for. Over the years we lost about 10 chickens to hawks. Roosters, always on the watch, would be the first to call an alert, clucking loudly, creating panic in the flock and hoping to scare the predator away. If a hawk grabbed a chicken, the rooster would try to jump on it to save his family member. I’d be running like crazy throwing things in hopes it would release my little friend. When this happened there was always tears and crying on my part; I felt so sorry—and so angry for not saving my chicken. If there were any remains left such feathers from the fight, I’d stage a little funeral under the apple tree in my garden. That was my mortuary with parts of other fallen chicken family members from different “accidents.”
And, of course, I inevitably lost many of my chickens to the axe. There were times when some—usually young roosters—would be locked in smaller cages and us kids would be told not to feed them as they had to be underfed the a day before butchering. Those were my saddest days. When I saw my favorite little guy in the cage I just couldn’t take it. Once I exchanged one for another, one that was a bit more aggressive to the rest of chickens, but it didn’t really make me feel any better. My heart always skipped a beat when I was taking the other chickens for a run and those doomed birds had to stay in those cages. They could tell that their confinement was leading to something bad; I knew they could feel it. But what could I do as a kid? Sometimes, just to spite the adults I fed the caged birds really well so that when grandma cut their dead bodies open all the stuff from their stomachs just floated onto her hands—a small revenge. We were never allowed outside when my uncle did the slaughtering. But I always knew and evidence was always there: severed heads and a bloody stump with axe prints—and a soup, stew or a roast for dinner. My Mom never ate our chickens. She was amazing animal lover who once saved an older chicken from a heart attack with Valerian drops, revived a chick after it fell in a water bucket, and other miracles. When I declared that I wasn’t going to eat our chickens either, my grandma told me the chickens we ate were from the market. I guess I never really understood the concept. There was never an option to choose what to eat—you ate what you were given. I didn’t hear about vegetarianism until I was 16 and didn’t become one until I was 18 and finally asked the question: how do they farm chickens industrially? (By then I’d figured out my grandma’s lie, but we didn’t have any of our own chickens left anyway). A classmate who had just started working at a mass-production chicken farm briefly described the process of raising and killing the chickens. I haven’t eaten any kind of meat since then—11 years now. I wish I’d known I had the option not to eat meat years before that.
I just wanted to share my memories of how much I enjoyed being around chickens. I found them beautiful, smart, caring and very, very affectionate birds. They have personalities and moods as people do. They love their chicks and roosters take care of the flock. They love freedom, green grass and playing, they’d jump for joy on sunny days and cluck plaintively when it had been raining for a week if they’d had to stay in. Look at these recent photos from Pemberton and tell me chickens aren’t something worth thinking about! My heart still melts in joy and love when I see chickens.
Even when chickens are raised for meat they should be honored, loved and lead a happy life. And if/when killed it should be done in a respectful, graceful and non-stressful way. At a meal the bird should be given respect for the life it lived and thanked for being your food. Chickens lay eggs —it’s in their nature—but they should be living a real life while doing so for us. A real life, not squeezed in a cage smaller than a sheet of paper, beaten, thrown around by their legs and basically treated like worthless work machines. My message to chicken eaters is this: choose wisely, source your “product,” and above all, love animals. All of them!
~Kristine Leise, 06/17/12