Jan.06.13: Epiphany with the birds at Farm Sanctuary, Acton, CA

The first surprise at Farm Sanctuary was  that we had house chickens. Knowing the crowd I was getting in with, I suspected there would be rescue animals stashed hither and thither. But I never imagined we’d have house chickens, and it just so happened we did. From day one, three little birds nestled their way straight into my heart – as well as everyone else’s at Intern House. Hazel and Piper were two tiny chickens, enjoying attention and care every day with 150 other farm animals. One of the first things we learned was how to catch, hold, carry & negotiate fences with two birds in hand, always keeping them facing away from each other!

Hazel (brown hen) & Piper (black hen) could not stay in the regular chicken barns because the others would pick on them and they were too small to adequately defend themselves. Tho, to be clear, neither had any problem pushing back. They were just outweighed by others and they, and the others, knew it. In the morning, we’d let them out of their kennels to peck around the kitchen floor for an hour, then we’d round them up and carry them down to the chicken barns … (Hazel & Piper’s limo service …) Hazel was hilarious because she didn’t like to be caught, let alone be carried anywhere – you had to corner her and be quick!  Piper was easier. All you had to do was dangle a piece of spinach or grape in front of her and she’d gladly run over and be caught. Even the smallest pieces of grape were huge in their beaks. Hazel knew the spinach/grape trick and would run in the opposite direction!

By the time we got down to the barns to start the day, all the regular chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys were already let out of their barns, and the little ones could then go in the barn, and peck, and be regular chickens for the day. At night, we’d bring them back to the house. They’d roam around the common area for an hour or two, before being kenneled for the night. During those evenings I found out how loving, curious and interactive they could be.  It was fun to watch them spend time with humans, wonderful to have them perch on the spine of the couch behind you staring you down, cocking their little heads when you spoke to them. Sometimes they’d let you cuddle them, if you gave them enough time to settle into your lap or your arms, but only on their terms.

One of the goals of spending time with Piper & Hazel was to socialize them to humans, so that they could be adopted out.  Who’d have ever thought of adopting a chicken as a house-pet? Not that I’m encouraging any new pet fads by any means,  but in my experience as a rescuer, there’s always a chicken or goose in need somewhere, and it’s a wonderful option to consider just taking one in, as opposed to searching for a rescue farm with room, etc. (NTD: Can I have one? Just a little one?)

A week later, we acquired another little house chicken named Ramona. I must say if Ramona had been able to endure the flight to Toronto, I’d have brought her home – she was just such a darling little girl.  She was picked up from a local shelter and was probably a “garage chicken” – chickens that people keep in their garages to slaughter for food. Incidentally, Toronto has thousands of garage chickens. I’ve called in many such homes in my day (and encourage others to call Board of Heath too!)   Ramona’s personality was quite calm, she took everything in stride. On the first night, she accidentally flew into the garbage can in the kitchen … I mean, flew right into it, sank, and couldn’t get out.  She wasn’t even ruffled. I just went in, and picked her out, and put her back on the floor and closed the lid.   There is no feeling on earth that compares to holding a bird in your hands. This is Ramona being retrieved from the garbage can. 

Perry and Andy are two honkin’ male turkeys, about 50 lbs each.  And they are not nice turkeys! Perry lived with Chico, a white rooster, who was also a nasty piece of work. We all had good reason to fear them.  I was ok to get in their pen and clean, as long as I had an extra large plastic rake in hand to block them with. You’d not be surprised to see a rooster fly at you, but I’ll tell you, seeing a fifty pound turkey take flight and aim directly for you, is quite another thing!  Perry especially liked trying to bite you as you undid the chain on his pen. He knew exactly where and how to hit your hands with his beak. Premeditation was Perry’s game! Here, he’s just waiting on you to enter his pen, with Chico as defenceman. 

So, yes, there were some difficult birds, just as there were difficult cows and pigs (but not the goats, they were perfect!) :) There were also some stunningly sweet birds: chickens, geese, turkeys – every color, shape, size and personality you can imagine!

Look at this golden beauty!  Does anyone remember Peter Gabriel’s song called “Excellent Birds”? That kept recurring in my head as I would watch them.
These gorgeous “domestic fowl” come from all walks of life: they are pulled from shelters, dropped off at farm gates, fall off slaughter trucks, get turned in for stupid behavioural reasons (usually unmet needs), get bought for cash and “saved” at Thanksgiving (controversial topic in rescue circles), and if they’re really lucky, they get saved by (a) farm sanctuary.  At Farm Sanctuary, every bird lives a good, stable, needs-met, happy, healthy life. They bond with others, they hang, they do their chicken, goose and turkey things. I couldn’t quite get over how, when you’d clean their waters and pools in the morning, the second you were finished 2-3 of them would jump straight in and dirty all the water up again. When you dumped the dirty water from the night before, they’d go crazy sucking it up and crunch any ice. What was particularly endearing, was that small bowls were always laid upside down beside the pools, so the smaller birds could get in using the bowl as a step stool.

In factory farms, to quote my new friend Alex, … ‘they suffer from ”standard practice” abuse. They have their beaks and toes cut or burned off and are inbred to have unnaturally large breasts. Even “free range” turkeys live in disgusting, confined spaces, often developing respiratory problems from the feces, urine and overall squalor that they are forced to spend their short lives in. When turkeys are slaughtered, they are malnourished, diseased, exhausted and stressed.’ Broiler chickens like these “Southern Belles” pictured with Mari, are the most abused animals of them all in factory farming. Read:  Kentucky fried cruelty.

Two of the most precious turkeys, Leopold and Russell, were, like Andy and Perry, 50 lb males, but they had much better attitudes. (You gotta wonder what was going on with Andy and Perry, if Leopold and Russell could be so nice…) Russell was especially endearing – he has serious trouble walking. His breasts are so large, he’s absolutely overbalanced, and to add insult to injury, his feet were badly, and intentionally, maimed by some human, as a job spec in factory farms. Such a sweet boy!  In the morning, he was always the last to leave the barn, as he was the slowest. But he was given all the time in the world he needed to negotiate his own way in or out of the barn.  He even had his own little ramp. Every caregiver, and all the time necessary. Each day. Always with respect, and genuine love. Compassion in action.

This is a batch of absolutely gorgeous turkey ladies who were dropped at the farm gates last year just before Thanksgiving. Someone obviously had mercy on them. There’s about 10 of them. I’d have given anything to decipher their language.  Especially the “pa-pa-pa-pa” sound they make. Cause they made it a lot and I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad! They seemed to enjoy being sung to. Their playlist included the “birthday song” in honour of one of my sweet friends, and a perennial favourite, “Don’t Fence Me In”.  If you took the time to sit with them, they’d come over and explore you, peck you, sit quietly beside you. Some would let you hold them.

Isn’t this girl beautiful? Sweet, fragile little lady. I’m so glad she didn’t end up as a meal. It seems a fundamental thing, that everyone has a right to keep their life. It’s all any of us ask. They are no different.



And what of laid eggs? Eggs offered up by the chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys were all taken to intern house to be boiled and brought back to the shelter office. There, the eggs are smashed up and fed back to the birds, as birds have been bred to the degree now where they are chronically calcium deficient. Sometimes eggs were used to entice animals to take their medication as well. This is a pink egg that one of the interns found. At least once a week you’d see someone with their front pockets soaked. Usually you’d pick up an egg, and put it in your pocket and forget about it. Within minutes if you didn’t deliver it to office right away, some other animal would bump into you and smash it in your pocket. Wet pockets are “standard practice” with rescuers – rather more humane take than Alex’s earlier reference with regard to “standard practices” of factory farms.

I was in the supermarket tonight, picking up some food. I do have to say that thanks to this recent exposure at Farm Sanctuary, my eyes seem to have developed a new acuity and my central nervous system has a fresh, absolutely visceral response to dairy sections and meat bins. I stopped for a moment and looked at the frozen turkeys. With my hands over my heart, I said a mental prayer, and came home to publish this blog.


Excellent birds, and one hot mess!