Animal sanctuaries that accept chickens often will avoid rescuing certain kinds of hens, especially cockfighting breeder hens. Why? First of all, they tend to go feral about 10 minutes after you introduce them to their new coop, which of course they disdain in favor of the tallest trees. Because of this, there’s often literally no way to bring them inside at night, as they tend to perch far above the tallest ladder. What’s more challenging yet is the fact that, in the words of another sanctuary worker, they tend to sneak off and have babies. Once you’ve given up looking for so-and-so, you generally see her the next day leading a bunch of 11 chicks around the same bush you’d looked under 100 times searching for her and never finding her.
These are all things we love at VINE. As I’ve explored in previous posts, the nature of sanctuary work contains inherently anti-liberationist tasks. Controlling the reproduction of someone else; constraining the movement of someone else; deciding where someone else will live; determining the diet of someone else, or whether or not they will go see a doctor or take a particular medication — these are all things that run counter to true liberationism (as I see it, in any case), as we are taking away some of the self-determination of the animals we rescue. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s for anyone else’s “good;” I sure as hell don’t want anyone controlling me for my own good.
So that part of sanctuary work always feels bad to me, and to others here at VINE. To balance this, we “allow” as much freedom as possible in our caretaking of the animals. However, that very word “allow” STILL speaks to the existing power dynamics in sanctuary relationships, and that’s just something you have to learn how to live with. You do what you do because while what you do sucks and is inherently controlling, the alternatives are unthinkable.
With that introduction, let me get back to these cockfighting breeder hens and tell you about a problem we are having that concerns some of the chickens here who are just about the freest of us all. As you know, we live in rural Vermont, but we do have neighbors across the road. They told us years ago that they didn’t mind the occasional chicken in their yard, and in fact the woman (it’s a straight couple) said she thought they were pretty. Well, we have had about six chickens lately — third- and fourth-generation descendents of the freest of the chickens here, the ones who roost in the trees at night — who have decided they want to hop the fence and visit the neighbor’s yard, as well as the woods behind their house.
We first learned that this was suddenly a problem when the cops showed up at our door last Friday. We were dumb-founded, and told the cop that we had, until that point, been told to our faces that it was fine — even nice — for them to roam their yard (which consists of a rutted spanse of grass and woods). We also said that we would take care of the problem, but that it would take a couple-few weeks to make it happen. (“It” being a 10′ tall stockade fence. It will be like living in a fort.)
The cop went back over there to tell the neighbors what we said. The next day, the contractor was here to measure for the fence. It doesn’t happen much faster than that. He’s wonderful, the contractor we work with. But let me tell you what happened next.
About 1 PM the next day, we received a phone call from a man who happened to be standing next to the neighbors while they were in line at Wal-Mart. The neighbor (let’s call him Earnest) was asking the clerk for a small gun, “like a 25 or 32.” The clerk explained that Wal-Mart doesn’t sell guns anymore (although of course tons of other people do, here in you-don’t-need-a-permit-to-buy-a-gun Vermont and New Hampshire). The man behind him (let’s call him Matt) asked him what he wanted that size gun for. “To kill me some chickens,” said Earnest. “Chickens?” asked Matt, in disbelief. “Why would you want to shoot chickens?”
It unfolded that the chickens — who were, according to Earnest’s wife (let’s call her) Romaine, as high as her waist — were coming over onto his property. It further unfolded that the people who were “allowing” these chickens to roam on their property were “those city people, you know, environmentalist types” who “took in” chickens.
Realizing as they were speaking that we (VINE) might not be evil Connecticuters unleashing the forces of urbanity upon poor Vermonters, he went to some effort to track us down and warn us that Earnest and Romaine were planning to purchase a gun to kill the chickens.
I am not ashamed to say I went ballistic when Aram told me “you gotta listen to this,” and led me into the kitchen where he replayed the message from Matt he’d just heard. I won’t write the things I said to him, and I won’t replay what I said to the cop I called, other than to note that I remained this side of civil (although I shudder to think what my blood pressure was at that time).
The thing is, I do go ballistic with such things (although — I’m also not ashamed to say — I’m finally getting some help to handle my moodswings, which have gone right back to bipolar status with the onset of perimenopause). I probably always will. I can’t imagine ever being one of those people who will calmly go across the street to speak with people like this. I’ve gone that route with these people for three years, but that’s out the window now. I’m too smart to be openly aggressive, and too smart to bad-mouth them to the other neighbors (some of whom, by the way, think this is absolutely horrible). But I also don’t want to cover them in a bubble of calming light and throw some blessings their way.
If you detect a note of sarcasm there, you’re on the money. I keep running into people who can think of folks like this with kindness, who approach humanity with an open heart — vegan animal-rights people, that is to say. They believe that we are on a path, we were once those people (although I was NEVER like Earnest and Romaine), and that compassion is the way to win people over.
Well, I agree that this approach can work. I also give it up to these people who can do this. I mean that sincerely. I’m just not one of those people, which is why this is a good role for me here at the sanctuary where my interaction with outside humans is relegated to business-type conversations, for the most part. Small talk that oh-so-carefully skirts the mountain of issues — or should I say issue — that stands between us. I can do that. But I can’t ever imagine being able to show, let alone feel, kindness to Earnest and Romaine again.
I continue to remember the time, a few months ago, that Romaine fell outside her door. She can barely walk, being in terrible health, and so she could not get up. Aram was outside, and yelled for me to come out too. We made sure she was all right, then asked where Earnest was. She named three places he’d planned to go. I ran over to the house and, after calling an ambulance, I called all three, finally reaching a place he hadn’t been yet. The woman there said she knew him and would send him home as soon as he arrived.
The ambulance came first, and the people were literally sliding her into the back of the truck when Earnest pulled up. No one said another word to us so we left. She was home a few hours later.
Good people don’t do things like this. REGULAR PEOPLE do things like this. It’s just what you do, unless you’re a psychopath. Hell, even sociopaths will do things like this if there’s some benefit in it for them (and there usually is, if only the accolades you get from the people you help). So I don’t relay this story to say see how great we are, and see how mean they are to us?
I relay it because right now, I can’t honestly say I would do the same thing for her again. I really don’t. Does that make me a psychopath?
How about if the chickens were little black girls on their way to school in 1950’s Arkansas? How about Earnest and Romaine going to buy a shotgun to take them out? After all, the little girls were doing exactly the same thing our chickens have been doing: acting like they’re free and shit. Whatever got it into birds’ heads to shuffle through the dirt for bugs? Use their wings? Spit in the face of their owners and act like they can do whatever they want? How should I act toward — how should I feel toward — Earnest and Romaine then? Further imagine that the law is still on their side, way back to when those little girls would have been someone’s property, and the cops, when you told them about this impending mass murder, said well, there’s no harm in that as long as it’s not cruel. How should I feel?
It is their very freedom I love so dearly about these birds. They are beautiful, yes, absolutely gorgeous: bodies made for perching in trees, wings able to fly, lean and strong and wild. But the fact that they do what they want is what I love so much about them, and that I love to be able to provide for them. But not now. Now, because of decisions we have made to protect their lives, we must take away possibly the thing they value the most: their freedom. Yes, they will have lots of room inside the 10′ stockade fence we will have built within the coming week. But it’s not the same.
For now, we’ve captured the birds with the help of a very wonderful vegan friend who lives in Springfield (interestingly, with the same name as “Romaine”). They are safe and comfortable — though definitely not very happy — in the barn we moved chickens out of last year. We’ve also put up “Safety Zone” signs all around the house, which supposedly disallow gunshots within 500 feet of our property, just in case he decides he wants to shoot someone else around here.
But I am just sick to my heart every time I think about them unable to roam, forbidden to explore the world, any longer. I’m sick with grief for them and sick with anger at myself for allowing their freedom to be taken away. But it’s got to be done, because the alternatives are unacceptable. Maybe they will really be happy without that freedom. Maybe they will find a way to be happy. I will never know how genuine that seeming happiness really is, for I can’t really and authentically communicate with chickens, not to that degree. Besides, plenty of humans act plenty happy when really, they are just resigned to their fates, knowing there is no possible way they can alter the trajectory of their lives — those people aren’t happy by a long shot.
In the meantime, we will keep on keeping on. We all do the best we can for as many as we can at animal sanctuaries. Right now we have hundreds of those for whom we do the best we can, and we’ll keep on doing that for as long as possible. Will it eventually ease the anger, the rage, at a world that cannot perceive the beauty in all of us being truly free? A world full of lunatics who want to murder those who dare to claim the same freedoms they have? Medication might blunt the edges, but nothing takes that shit away.