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Animal Advice Article
Image by Saikiran Kesari

     Before I lived with hens and roosters, I thought they all looked alike — white or beige feathers on round bodies with red combs and beady eyes. Based on the small amount of information I had, I assumed they were unintelligent and I expected little personality or connection with them.

      Despite these low expectations, when I was in my late twenties I decided to adopt five chicks. At the time, there was a trend of backyard chickens in rural communities, suburbs and even cities — outdoor spaces of all sizes had colorful coops adorned with flower boxes and shutters. The image of these tiny abodes and their inhabitants left me wanting my own backyard flock. I was embracing an off-the-grid lifestyle, focused on simplicity and selfsufficiency. As a vegan, I had no intention of eating chickens, but I was aware of how they could benefit my always-expanding vegetable garden. I imagined hens patrolling rows of soil between my garden beds, aptly removing pests that devoured the starts of kale and broccoli.

     The first chicks I adopted lived in my home’s guest room until their feathers started to appear, the first indicator that it was time for them to move out of the house into their coop. Feathers were the insulation their bodies needed to stay warm in cool temperatures. Their combs, bright red flaps of flesh, started to bloom on top of their heads, and every day their bodies seemed to grow taller and fuller.

     Each hen had a name and her own identity. Luanne was a Barred Rock breed; her feathers were a mosaic of black and white speckles. Agnes, an Orpington, had soft yellow feathers with flecks of amber that transitioned into lighter shades of blond. Sylvia, Maude and Penny were all Rhode Island Reds, with plumages of rich red-browns that were glossy in sunlight.

     Their personalities stood out. Luanne was the leader of the flock, always appearing fearless as she explored new areas of the back yard. Agnes was known for her calm, social demeanor. She was gentle when I picked her up, never resisting, and sometimes content to spend several minutes on my lap. Sylvia on the other hand, was skeptical of humans. She was not keen on being held, but knew that I often came bearing treats so she studied me, deciphering my intentions and deciding if she would tolerate me. Penny was sassy. When she started laying, she became broody, pecking at me as I tried to clean the coop and collect the eggs. Then there was Maude, the smallest of the hens, always following the others, and usually the last to stake out her claim of produce scraps or grains thrown into their yard.

     Their coop was built from wood leftover from previous projects. Although I wanted an aesthetically pleasing structure, security from predators was the driving force in its design. Each morning, shortly after sunrise, I made my way to their locked-up coop, opening the shutters and doors. The daylight signaled it was time for the hens to hop off their roost and make their way to their feeder. They then filed down their ramp into their yard where they dug in the dirt and watched the happenings of nature. On sunny days, they basked in the light, flopping on their sides and fanning their wings out to absorb warmth. Sometimes they would dig holes the size of their bodies in the dirt — their feet pulling back the soil until there was a bowl shape. They would plop themselves into the concaved earth they created, rolling and dirtying their bodies as a natural attempt to deter fleas and mites.

     At some point each afternoon, I opened the door of their enclosed yard to give them access to the expansive green grass of our property. Like children making their way to a playground, they would excitedly run at top speed towards the grass, garden beds, and shrubs that awaited their exploration. They spent hours lost in their rhythm of feet scratching and beaks pecking, finding new soil worthy of their study and effort. When one found something tantalizing in the mud or grass, the rhythm of scratch and peck accelerated, which alerted the others that something novel had been discovered. They would all rush to the source of wonder and join the process of unearthing their treasure, usually bugs or some tasty grit.

     Throughout the day they took turns in the laying box. One by one, they would disappear into the coop for as little as a few minutes or as long as a couple of hours. As one hen exited, the next would enter and take her place. If a hen ever took too long in the laying box and kept another hen from accessing it when she was ready to lay, there would be shrill squawks of frustration that could be heard from half a mile down the road.

     When hens are not exploited for their eggs and their bodies are free from excessive interventions that force them to lay daily, they typically produce 3-4 eggs per week. As they age, this number declines, and eventually they stop laying all together. As a vegan, I did not eat my hens’ eggs, but instead fed them back to the hens. The eggs are rich in calcium and other minerals that nourish the hens. Each time I threw an egg on the ground and it burst open to reveal the bright yellow yoke, the hens would rush towards it and slurp up the contents. They were my only pets that ever produced their own food.

     Their days of adventure would start to slow and transition to rest as the sun dipped into the western sky. I made my way towards their enclosure with a bag of scratch —a chicken treat of dried grains and corn — that I shook to signal it was time to return to their yard. They would hear the shake of the bag and immediately run towards their enclosure, where they would get their scratch and scarf it down. As twilight faded, they climbed the ramp to their coop and settled on their roost. Before locking doors and closing shutters, I peered in at them huddled together with their beaks falling towards their chests of feathers and their eyelids drooping shut.

     Around the time I first adopted chicks, I started volunteering at an animal sanctuary in western Washington, where there were dozens of hens and roosters — chickens rescued from factory farms and backyard breeders who neglected their care. These chickens represented nearly every breed there was, a rainbow of feather colors and patterns.

     The most well-known resident was Clooney, a massive rooster, standing over two feet tall and weighing close to 13 lb. His feathers were a magnificent burgundy with Kelly green tips on his wings. He ruled the chicken yard as a sort of king or dictator, defeating other roosters who challenged his machismo with their aggression, and herding entire flocks of hens to his liking. He was also determined to exude his force over his human visitors. When volunteers or staff stepped into his yard he leaped towards us, flapping his wings and coming at our legs with his spurs. Many times, I left the chicken yard with bruises quickly forming.

     Eventually, I transitioned from volunteer to employee at the sanctuary, and shortly thereafter was given the task of transporting Clooney from the chicken yard to the vet clinic. “You have got to be kidding me!” I said when my manager asked me to catch Clooney and carry him to the clinic.

     “The hardest part will be catching him,” my manager said before telling me she was too busy with a sick goat to help me, but trusted I could do it on my own. I did not share her confidence.

     I made my way to his barn with fresh produce in my pocket, clinging to the withering hope that I could win Clooney over with treats. My next stop was the laundry room where I grabbed a towel, my primary tool for capturing him.

     Entering the chicken barn, I immediately spotted Clooney — he was strolling the yard, indifferent to the drizzle that dampened his top layer of feathers. His head reached down and forward for feed that had spilled onto the mud, and as he focused on scratching and pecking the soil, I stealthfully approached him from behind. My hands held the towel’s corners and my arms opened wide. Right as I got within a few feet of him, he realized I was there and started to turn towards me, ready for a fight. Without even thinking of what awaited, my instinct sent me lunging towards him and as his wings started to lift, I dropped the towel over him. His surprise slowed him for a second as my hands came over the fabric and pinned his wings to his side. I lifted him towards my torso and held him so that one wing pressed into the side of my ribcage, while my hands secured his other wing from freeing itself. At first, he struggled and pushed against me, but I kept my firm hold and moved quickly, rushing him from the yard to the footpath that led to the clinic.

     Once away from the other chickens, Clooney transformed. In my arms, he became docile and cooperative. I carried him the quarter mile to the clinic and not once did he fight my hold or try to escape. Instead, we made our way through the sanctuary grounds with him wrapped in his towel, his head tilting with curiosity as his black eyes took in the sights of pastures and barns, trees, people and animals who he had never seen. A few times he looked up at me, our eyes meeting and studying each other with awe and question.

     When we arrived at the vet clinic, I set him on the linoleum floor and he strutted around slowly, taking each step with consideration as he assessed his surroundings — the filing cabinets, the exam table, and cornered cages where recovering animals slept. The vet, also aware of Clooney’s reputation, stood back, ready to run or defend, but Clooney showed no aggression. I squatted down beside him and offered him a treat of sliced cucumber from my pocket. To my surprise, Clooney took the veggie from my hand, without pecking or flying at me, and quickly ate it. He stared at me for a long moment as if to say don’t you have more?

     After Clooney was dewormed and examined by the vet, he let me secure him with the towel again and presented zero resistance as I lifted him into my arms. As if it was part of his daily routine, I carried him back to his yard. I set him down in his barn and watched as he fluffed up his feathers and stood as tall as he could, stretching his neck to its full length. As he started to walk his grounds, he let out a loud crow, announcing to his community that he was back.

     The next day, I went into the chicken barn to fill feeders, no longer worried about Clooney’s aggression since I now knew that underneath his macho rooster behaviors he was a softie. Plus, he would remember me; the connection we shared yesterday had changed our relationship forever, I was certain. As I picked up the first feeder, out of the corner of the barn came Clooney rushing at me, his wings spreading as he lifted himself and brought his spurs towards me. I was able to block his strike with the plastic feeder, but he immediately came at me again and again, until I backed away, removing myself from the barn altogether.

       Clooney had returned to being the ultimate protector, starting a fight before the threat of one even presented itself. Outside of his yard he might be submissive and compliant, but inside his world of hens and other roosters he was a boss that had to brutalize. My heart sank as I realized that Clooney was not going to give me any special treatment despite our bonding experience.


     Remembering Clooney and my backyard flock —my hens that are now long gone — I am certain of their sentience. Like all animals, and in many ways like people, chickens are capable of connections, emotion, and intelligence. They reveal preferences, communicate their boundaries, and offer bonds. In a world that ignores this sentience and sees them as nothing more than sources of food and profit, I hope more people will find the opportunity to observe hens and roosters in environments that reflect their intrinsic dispositions and curiosities. Here, we will find evidence that these animals are worthy of our respect and care. My hens became my pets, and just as my dogs and cats did, they provided joy, amusement, and companionship.

Emily Ehrhart writes creative nonfiction and literary fiction. She has been published in Voice Catcher Literary Magazine, as well as the online edition of Vegan Life Magazine. Currently, Emily is an MFA in Creative Writing Candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also holds a MA in Counseling from Webster University, and a BA in English and Political Science from Saint Louis University.

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