This excerpt from a forthcoming memoir is offered as a birthday gift to our supporters. The events described occurred in late January or early February 15 years ago. (We unfortunately did not make a note of the exact date, not yet knowing how it would all turn out.) The setting is the Delmarva peninsula, to which I and Miriam had moved only weeks before, not realizing that we had planted ourselves in the place where factory farming of chickens was invented.
One afternoon, on the way to set up our local checking account, Miriam and I passed a chicken in one of the drainage ditches that line all of the local roads. “Good for you,” we cheered, “You got away!” But we drifted into silence as we realized that outside in the snow, without shelter, that chicken would die.
I stopped the pickup truck we’d bought to be able to haul our trash and recycling to the dump. We looked at each other. Without a word, I swung the steering wheel into a U-turn. Veering back toward the bird, I felt a half-sick/half-excited fizzy sensation in the pit of my stomach.
I recognized the signal. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “my life is about to change.”
Miriam chased the chicken across the road and back again, then lunged and came up clutching the bird in a flurry of feathers. She jumped into the truckbed, clutching the chicken tightly to her chest as I drove slowly home. Back at the house, Miriam stayed with the bird as I made a few calls. After several minutes of frustrated dialing, I finally reached a local animal shelter.
“I found a chicken,” I told the woman on the line, “What should I do?”
“Have yourself a nice dinner,” she said, laughing.
That was it, then. This bird was our responsibility. I stood out in the backyard “supervising” the chicken while Miriam sped to the nearest farm store for food and fencing. After some time, I figured out that I probably didn’t need to police the chicken constantly, since she wasn’t doing anything that might hurt herself or anyone else. A plump white bird with ragged, dirty feathers, the chicken took only a few halting steps at a time, examining her surroundings carefully. What was she seeing through those bird’s eyes? What did this landscape that still felt so new to me look like to her? How did she see the “pump shed” or that triple-trunked birch tree? I knew that I couldn’t guess.
In fact, I was even more clueless than I knew. I didn’t realize it then, but this chicken was only six or eight weeks old, a chick in an adult bird’s body thanks to the genetic depredations of the poultry industry. Nor did I apprehend how strange yet familiar blue sky and trees must have seemed to a chicken—a bird— who, prior to her aborted trip on the transport truck, had never seen anything other than the inside of a windowless shed. Now she stood at the base of a long-limbed bare bush bowed down by brown thorny vines. Around her, clumps of tall grass broke through patches of half-melted snow. After each lurching step, she just stood there seeming, like me, unsure what to do next. I still didn’t feel comfortable leaving her all alone, so I busied myself with boards and baby-gates, blocking off a corner of the garage for the awkward animal standing so abjectly in my backyard.
Miriam returned with cracked corn, wood shavings, and fence poles that proved to be useless since the ground was frozen. From Michigan, we’d paid a local contractor to run the cheapest fencing possible—”turkey wire” lashed to metal posts—around most of the property, so the dogs could run safely. The bird and the dogs would have to trade time in the fenced area until the ground thawed enough to sink some posts and fence off a sub-section for the chicken.
Night fell. I closed the chicken into her corner of the garage for the night, feeling a sense of tender trepidation. She seemed so vulnerable, so alone. I rushed into the house and looked up everything I could find online about how to care for chickens. Luckily, Miriam (who took care of the checkbook) had donated to organizations like Farm Sanctuary and United Poultry Concerns, so I knew to look for information on their websites. I learned that we needed to augment that cracked corn with grains and sunflower seeds. Luckily, we had birdseed on hand! I felt giddily gleeful at the prospect of giving our new charge a good breakfast.
I couldn’t rest at all that night. I couldn’t quit thinking about that bird alone in the garage. Was she scared? Cold? Sleeping? I should check on her—No, I should let her rest. Too anxious to sleep but too sleepy to work, I killed time online while waiting for the sun to rise. Each time I let the dogs out or in, I felt the frigid air on my skin as I looked anxiously toward the garage.
Finally sunrise, or at least daybreak, arrived. Or so I told myself. In truth, there was just the slightest lightening of the eastern sky. I walked out into the backyard and then ran toward the garage. Feeling my footfalls thudding on the hard ground, I felt like a child, running down the sidewalk back in Baltimore. No, that’s not it—I was that child, running as hard as she could. Together, we fumbled with the clumsy metal latch, heaved the heavy wooden door open, and breathed a sigh of relief. There she was—still alive after a long, cold, lonely night.
The big bird stepped out of the building and into the drift of dead leaves against its eastern wall. Bursts of breath lingering visibly in the air above her beak, she lowered her head and began to dance, scattering dry leaves with every step. Scratch-scratch (pause) scratch. Scratch-scratch (pause) scratch. Dumbstruck, I backed away toward the house, tossing cracked corn and birdseed in my wake.
Looking out the window later to make sure she had found the food, I saw that she wasn’t the only successful scavenger that morning. There she was— a big white chicken surrounded by oily black grackles and red-winged blackbirds, all enjoying a satisfying breakfast on what was beginning to be a sunny winter day.
Fifteen years later, VINE Sanctuary cares for more than 500 animals on a hundred-acre wooded refuge in Vermont. Fifteen years. That’s 5,479 days of getting up at dawn to open up the chicken coops, 180 months of going out in all weather to make sure everybody has fresh water, and 780 weekly runs to the feed store.
If you’d like to say “Happy Birthday!” click the cow in the sky to make a one-time donation of $15, $30, $45, $75, or $150 (that’s 1, 2, 3, 5 or 10 dollars for each year). Be sure to add a birthday greeting for us to pass along to our hardworking staff!
For the remainder of this year, we’ll be posting remembrances of our first year, including a visit to a factory farm and our first encounters with egg factory refugees, not to mention the doings of the very first chickens to live at the sanctuary. Subscribe to this blog to make sure you don’t miss a post!