VINE Sanctuary (formerly Eastern Shore Sanctuary) was founded in 2000 in Maryland and relocated to Vermont in 2009. As part of our 15th anniversary celebrations this year, we are sharing stories from our very first year. Here, in an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir of our years on the Delmarva Peninsula, you will meet the very first egg factory refugees we welcomed to the sanctuary.
Finally, the appointed day arrived. Kay visited the egg factory (*) and then drove north to United Poultry Concerns in Virginia. Miriam and I drove south to meet her and the birds there. The Isley Brothers sang “Caravan of Love” on the radio, and I swayed in my seat to that sweetly appropriate tune. We drove up just in time to see Kay and Karen unload and open the carriers containing the hens who would be staying at UPC.
Our upbeat mood evaporated as we watched the first few birds gingerly step out into the grass. They didn’t know how to walk! Having spent their entire adult lives perched on the wires of their cages, many had crippled feet and none of them knew exactly what to do with their legs. After a lifetime caged in dim, grim buildings, the birds seemed both stimulated and disoriented by fresh air, bright colors, and physical freedom. Some stayed still, hesitating between curiosity and confusion. Others careened into the greenery, eager to explore their new surroundings but not yet capable of controlling their frail bodies with their atrophied muscles.
They were so pale! Their combs and legs were almost as white as the sickly skin showing through their patchy feathers. Some were nearly naked. None had enough feathers to cover their wings, which looked like stumps rather than limbs. They didn’t look like birds at all! It was as if their essential ‘bird-ness’ had been stolen from them along with their eggs. “They look like monsters,” I thought, then felt immediately ashamed of that reaction.
As I watched those estranged animals from an increasingly dissociated distance, high school film-strip images dragged themselves out of my memory and ran like a newsreel before my eyes. Jerky black-and-white pictures of concentration camp survivors at the moment of liberation superimposed themselves over the scene before me. I’d always rejected facile comparisons between animal exploitation and events in human history, but those images of stunned survivors of concentrated cruelty must have been the only match my brain could find for the unspeakable sight of those limping, naked, scrawny survivors of concentrated suffering.
Stunned into silence, I focused on the concrete project of getting the hens home safely. As Miriam chatted with Karen and Kay, I wordlessly loaded carriers into our truck, tied them down, and covered the carriers with a tarp to shade the birds from the wind and sun.
Back at home, I struggled with a queasy mix of sympathy and revulsion as we carried the birds, one by one, from the truck to the foraging yard. I didn’t want to touch these birds! Their naked skin felt cold and clammy under my fingers. Suddenly I understood, with visceral clarity, how it is that degradation facilitates further degradation.
Catching myself recoiling from these debased creatures, I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach. Shocked and shamed by my reactions, I fought back against the archaic impulse to flee from suffering. Cradling each hen even more closely and tenderly, I focused on seeing each one as the bird she was born to be.
Once all of the hens were in the yard, I began what would be a multi-week campaign to gain their trust. Committed to the principle “let birds be birds,” Miriam and I knew that their most important relationships would be with each other rather than with us. Still, we wanted them to feel less fear when we were near, and we needed them to allow us to pick them up when they needed care. I began my campaign to gain their trust by sitting on the ground with my legs outstretched in the middle of a circle of seed, hoping that the new hens would notice that the other chickens did dare to approach me. As the new birds drew closer, I spread more feed on the ground all around me and then sat very still. After the new birds began to peck at that food, I poured cracked corn and sunflower seeds directly onto my boots and jeans. Very gingerly, some of the birds began eating that food too. One bold bird jumped right into my lap. “The Weight” by The Band popped into my head: “Take a load off, Fanny / Take a load for free/ Take a load off, Fanny / And put the load right on me.”(**)
I called the bold bird “Fanny” and the name stuck.
The other hens followed Fanny’s lead (***) until, ultimately, I was lying on the ground with bird feed pooling in the creases of my clothing and chickens literally walking all over me. I felt a bit silly, as the famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz had when climbing onto his roof in a devil’s costume—the only disguise he happened to have on hand—to handle jackdaw nestlings without leading their parents to hate him forever. As he had done, I gladly set aside conventions to gain and keep the rare gift of a bird’s trust.
In the following weeks, I repeated this process daily, always ending by sitting up and offering food from my hands to any bird who wanted some. (Fanny always did.) I spent a lot of time observing the hens as they were observing me. I noticed that, besides being courageous in relation to me, Fanny also was bold—and a little bit bossy—in relation to the other hens. In that, she was different from Scout, a curious explorer who was courageous in relation to me but deferred to the other hens. The hen we called Simone DeBeauvoir was different than both of them, approaching me deliberatively rather than impulsively and then sticking around to observe me at length, rather than hopping off to explore something new as Fanny and Scout tended to do. I considered her the egghead of the crew and accordingly felt a special affinity for her. Every time I looked at her mutilated beak, which had been partially melted by the debeaking operation that had left all of these birds with blunted visages, I felt my heart twist in sympathy.
Fanny, Scout, Simone, and most of the other 24 hens from the egg factory had reddish-brown feathers. Diamonda and the four other white hens from the factory were different again. All of them were much more skittish and shy of us than the red hens. Over time, that pattern would persist, with White Leghorn hens tending toward wildness and the red hens (a cross between White Leghorn and Rhode Island Red) more likely to want relationships with us.
Unlike their generally gregarious brothers, the big white hens bred for meat by the local poultry industry tended to fall somewhere in between those extremes. One evening near sundown, I was sitting on a cinder block with Fanny brushing against my legs and a big white rooster called Lucky sitting in my lap. Just as Lucky jumped down to join the others scratching for their suppers, I felt a strong presence just out of view beside and behind me. Glancing to my left, I was surprised to find the big white hen I called Iris standing so close that she was almost touching my leg.
Iris had been one the hens rescued during my visits to the nearby farm. All of those hens tended to prefer each other’s company to mine, and Iris always had been particularly shy of direct contact. I respected that and kept my distance, even though I would have liked to get to know her. That day I suddenly sensed that, although still bashful, Iris specifically wanted the kind of loving attention Lucky had just been getting. Trusting the feeling because it was so very clear and precise, I slowly lifted Iris into my lap and began to massage her crop. She stayed rigidly still for a moment and then relaxed into a comfortable position. We sat in quiet communion as the sun began to set. Some of her sisters came around and brushed against my legs as they pecked at the corn and grains on the ground. Then, just as suddenly and mysteriously as I had known that Iris wanted to be picked up, I knew that she wanted to be set down. I gently lifted Iris from my lap to the ground, and she wandered off toward the coop with her sisters as I started on my evening chores.
Our so-called coop was still the garage, more and more of which we had given over to the birds, blocking off our cast-off furniture and boxed belongings as best we could. As I was closing up that night, I noticed that one of Iris’s sisters was perched precariously on a tabletop. If she jumped down from there in the morning, she might hurt her legs. Thinking of other things, I reached to pick her up and move her to a safer spot. Not surprisingly, she squawked, jumped down, and ran from me, precipitating a general flight of frightened birds from my path.
“No! No!” I protested and then sat down where I was and cried, suddenly feeling wretchedly, miserably, piteously alone.
All evening, I wondered why I had reacted like that. After all, chickens had squawked and fled from me many, many times before. It was after midnight when it came to me. I woke Miriam to tell her: Earlier that evening, with Iris, the gulf that usually divides people from all other animals somehow had been bridged. When Iris’s sister squawked and fled, that chasm opened back up again—and there I was standing alone on the other side, just another scary human to be shunned or appeased. In that moment I felt the full force of the estrangement that all of us live with, but do not consciously perceive, every minute of every day.
(*) In those days of laxer security, it was still possible to sometimes sweet-talk egg factory employees into sparing the lives of “spent” hens who otherwise would be slaughtered for low-grade “meat” or simply trucked to landfills and buried alive.
(**) Yes, I know now that the name in the song is “Annie,” but I’m kind of glad I made the mistake, as Fanny was the perfect name for the hen who would become our unofficial ambassador and donation-taker. Click her image below to make a fast donation to the sanctuary today.
(***) While these birds had been so badly damaged by their egg factory experiences, we would later meet hens who had been even more ravaged by spending one or more years in cages. Sometimes, a group of newly-arrived egg factory survivors would clump in a corner of the coop, unable to understand that walking was now possible. Here’s an essay about what I learned from those hens.