When we left our protagonist couple in the last post, they were facing a seemingly impossible dilemma. Should the chickens get to keep their freedom in the back yard, creating havoc and hastening its demise? Or should they be forced to give up that choice territory and be relegated once again to the 185-square-foot coop and run they were limited to in their chickhood?
. . .
It seemed to me there was simply no solution. I practically lived in the back yard. Having chickens digging holes everywhere would put me in danger of a sprained ankle, or worse. The whole yard would eventually become one huge dirt pile with all the “tastiest” vegetation gone. Any slimy little pile that Terry missed would certainly present itself to the bottom of one of my shoes—maybe, with its slipperiness, also causing me to fall. Yet if we banished them from the yard, I knew Terry, with his love for animals—really, a kind of communing of his soul with theirs—would feel as though his own wings were being clipped.
But he wasn’t fazed a bit by the situation. He just said, “Let’s go look at the yard.”
There was some unused space (I later measured 70 square feet) under the oleander bush where the door to their coop and run opened.
“How about we just fence off this area here?” he said. “I could open the door in the morning and let them in. Do we have any fencing material?”
“Yeah. Nuffi stuffi.”
“Of course, in the heat of the summer, they’re still gonna have to go under the orange tree, where we set up the mister. The area would include your laundry graywater ditch. We could keep it filled with water so they could cool their feet, too.”
“Okay. I’ll go look at the fencing.”
When my friend John left town, he left me two rolls of nicely rusted field fencing. If field fencing can be beautiful, this stuff was—mostly because once unrolled it became almost invisible, the best kind of beauty when it came to avoiding visual interference within the landscape.
This idea could work.
Terry still had one more “conflict minimizing” trick up his sleeve. He showed me an area by the alley gate that was already mostly enclosed by the back fence, the neighbor’s fence, and two low dividing walls I’d put in. There were just two gate-sized openings that could be temporarily blocked by plywood or the like. He envisioned this zone as the chickies’ late-afternoon hangout, before they were ushered back into the coop and their beloved tree-branch roost.
The problem was solved! Our breakup averted!
The chickies soon mastered the routine. Usually, when the enclosure they were in was opened, they’d run right over to the next, and go in. Not too shabby, I thought. Smart.
I found one thing especially amusing. The urge to lay eggs in the box I built—actually a rebuild of a discarded rabbit hutch—was so strong that they somehow managed to escape the pen they were in and run back to the coop. They’d lay the egg, announce it with their loud, unmistakable egg call, and run back to the others. (They couldn’t always get back in, but after hearing the announcement, one of us would go help whoever it was back over the fence if necessary.)
To me it looked like they were excited to be escorted, four times a day, to a fresh but familiar zone. Is excitement in a bird really so hard to identify? I’m no scientist, but I’d see it expressed in insistent vocalizations and quick movements—in this case, the three girls swirling over and under each other just before their release, then dashing off at full speed to the next open gate. It seemed clear that they preferred this day-long “progressive dinner party” to being let loose into a larger, less manageable space, where they often lost track of each other, the lost soul calling out mournfully to the two that had disappeared. Togetherness (not necessarily good will, just sticking together) was of supreme importance. Three chickens don’t make much of a society, but our three have an order, nevertheless. Peggotty recently lost her status as top hen to Havisham. Havisham got bigger, for whatever reason. (Genetics?) Dedlock’s back turned lighter, but she wasn’t going gray—a few times we’ve caught Havisham pulling her darker surface feathers out. As if knowing she needed to counter that, Dedlock started pushing her way to the front for every food toss, becoming adept at grabbing the choicest bits—from a sister’s beak if necessary—then running fast to a dark corner to finish them off as soon as possible.
At night all was forgotten and forgiven, because they needed each other on the roost for warmth and safety.
But during the day you could recognize the different personalities: Dedlock was the Snack Snatcher, Havisham the Big Bully, and Peggotty the People Pecker (though she’d really slacked off on that; maybe because she couldn’t get to me anymore, behind those fences, or maybe because she’d lost her dominance. Now she’s sweet and agreeable.)
I’ve also watched them learn—and quickly, especially if it had to do with food. They learned the sound of dried mealworms being shaken in a bag. Or Terry could just say, “Oh, Gir-rulzI” and they’d come running up to the fence where he was standing. And if you were near their enclosure, just quietly reading or working, they would periodically let out a kind of guttural, dinosaur-like cry that was their way of whining, “Hey, please, it’s been an hour since you gave us something to eat—what are you doing just sitting there?” In fact, if they heard one of us crunch gravel on the other side of the house (possibly coming their way!), we’d hear their dinosaur roar. But these slick tricks are nothing compared to the feats of intelligence other people’s chickens have mastered. I recommend this jaw-dropping YouTube video for starters.
Are chickens what Buddhists like to call sentient? Are they conscious? Do they feel pain?
Yes, I’m sure of it. They represent yet another animal that turns out to be smarter, more socially advanced, and capable of more feeling—both emotional and physical—than previously held beliefs about them.
Our girls had a good life now—I did, too, because I had my yard back—and squawks of pain were rare. But I could tell it hurt Dedlock when Havisham pulled her feathers out. And if I stepped on a huge, scaly foot, the aggrieved party loudly let me know by crying out in pain. I couldn’t prove it was pain, but I had no doubt.
It was clear they lived on a pain/pleasure spectrum like I did, maybe different from mine but no less real. So what made their pain less important than mine as a human? Their smaller size? Their shorter lifespan? Slightly lower intelligence? I’m not sure these factors mitigate suffering. It was once believed that a human infant couldn’t feel anything. But we’re shocked and horrified by that now.
I look out of human eyes. But what if I looked out of chicken eyes? Their perception (having an eye on each side of the head) would certainly be different. But I’m not sure their underlying motivations, or their sensations of pain and pleasure, are markedly different.
Our three chickens are childlike—perhaps resembling babies in their limited (confined) knowledge of the world. They walk like toddlers who have just learned, leaning right, then left. When the Pied Piper (Terry) leads them to their next hangout–not with flute melody, but because they consider him their rooster—their side-to-side walk becomes a teeter-tottering run. I’ll never not laugh at this spectacle. I’m laughing at them, not with them. But they don’t know that. They’re innocent.
We understand these various behaviors, and so much more, when it comes to the pets we live with, but not to the creatures we eat.
I know, Nature is all about creatures eating other creatures. Nature is cruel. But also, usually swift. It takes human greed and capitalism—making the smallest possible investment for the largest possible gain—to establish industrial farms where animals suffer from birth to death. But I’m not going to go there. Enough books, articles, documentaries, and activist videos are out there, exposing the details—for those times when your stomach feels strong.
I only really want to make one point: The factory-farm horrorshow happens because these artless lives—life stock—are treated like raw material. Regarded as things. As stuff. As products, they get manipulated, concentrated, sold off, cut up, enticingly packaged and offered to consumers as “new stuff.” But they’re not stuff at all. Or weren’t. Or never should have been.
The factory farm industry goes beyond objectifying and destroying animal lives. It also poses many risks and harms to the lives of human consumers—and to the healthy environments they absolutely need to live and thrive.
This industry’s products might just represent the suckiest new stuff of all.