The spring of 2013 arrived without a single bird sharing living or barn space with me. In spite of the sorrow and emptiness left behind when my animal companions cross over, I work hard at not actively looking for ways to fill the void with another animal. The biggest reason I’m successful at keeping this resolution (aside from what should be the obvious motivator of living with lots and lots of others), is that animals have a habit of finding me.
Birds have been no exception. Last May, while I was busy with work related travel, and Don was commuting to my place daily to take care of everything at the ranch, a note was left on my door.
I need a home for my chickens, it said. There are 20 of them. Two roosters and 18 hens. They are my sweet pets and I love them, but I’m moving to Steamboat Springs and they need a new home as soon as possible. Would you take them?
Chickens. I live in the middle of coyote, fox and weasel country. I have to travel a lot to pay for the privilege, and am not home every night to shut a flock of chickens safely into a coop. But finding the note was almost as compelling as finding a pigeon blown into a nearby snow bank.
On May 11, I cajoled Don into taking a ride about six miles down the road to meet the pet chickens. Just to look. Just to let me ask questions and think about maybe helping out with a home for a few of them.
As we pulled into the yard of the narrow trailer I’d been directed to, I could feel my own sinking feeling matched by the heavy silence coming from Don. Lost hope rose up from the remnants of trash, empty beer cans and rotting garbage littering the path to the back door. Defeat tugged at the edges of the eyes of the couple who greeted us. Having just come from my own enormous, scattered junkyard of a place, I felt humbled by how the people coming down off the rickety back stairs were enveloped in a kind of barrenness I would never know regardless of how difficult my life might become.
While greeting the man and woman who perked up at our presence, I kept trying to find the chicken coop out of the corner of my eye. I’d spoken with the woman by phone a couple of days earlier. She’d reiterated how sweet and adored her flock of chickens was. She’d assured me they’d built shelter that was predator proof for her beautiful birds. I would be welcome to take pieces of it with me if that would help. All I could see now that I was actually there, was muddy sagebrush, a small open corral full of horse manure (thankfully empty of horses), and a tiny tool shed leaning into an embankment a few yards away.
“They don’t look as beautiful right now as they did last summer,” the woman told us. “They’re molting.”
Then, predictably, she and the man led us to the tiny tool shed. There, behind three twisted tin walls and a door on the end made from a patchwork design of construction cloth and chicken wire, was the flock. They stood on a three-foot high mound of manure, pressed tightly against each other in an area no larger than three feet wide and four feet long. Twelve square feet for 20 chickens who, we learned, hadn’t left the confines of that space since arriving there a year earlier.
“It wouldn’t be safe,” we were told. “We have weasels.” By way of proof, the woman stepped away, dug into a pile of trash, and pulled out a dead weasel. “I killed it,” she said. Nothing was going to hurt her beloved chickens.
Don and I were silent and transfixed as the man opened the door to the shed. The chickens immediately rushed to the far corner, piling madly on top of one another, and stared out at us. Almost all of them were nearly featherless and raw. Several had lost their combs. The crowded conditions had led inevitably to compulsive pecking of each other, not molting.
“They’re so sweet,” the woman was saying. “I used to hold them and pet them all the time. I’d go in there and show you, but I don’t want to step on that filthy floor.”
She and the man continued to chat about how much they loved those chickens, and about how much they were going to miss them when they moved to Steamboat Springs. I couldn’t seem to speak. The excursion had suddenly changed from a “let’s just go see them and do a little research about what it would take to have chickens here,” to “I have to get these birds out of here right now.”
I didn’t say anything out loud. I had no coop, I already prevailed on Don’s help far too much, I wasn’t even sure how to get the chickens out of there.
“We’ll be back in a couple of hours,” I heard Don say over my private, internal reverie. “I just need to get a place set up in Gayle’s barn.”
That was the beginning of the great chicken rescue. We climbed back into my truck.
“You just rescued 20 chickens,” I said as soon as the doors were shut.
“I was only saying out loud what I knew you were thinking,” he said. But his claim was pointless. As far as I was concerned, Don had become a hero to chickens.
True to his word, in less that two hours Don turned a 10’ x 20’ section of my barn into a chicken coop. When we went back for the chickens themselves, their owners were nowhere to be found, their pickup truck gone. I’d brought Hercules’ giant one-time puppy crate and a cat carrier with us. With Don as door guard, I held my breath, bent myself in half, and stepped gingerly onto the mountain of chicken manure. I’d never caught a chicken in my life, but I slid across the slimy slope under my feet and one by one, grabbed up a chicken then gently pushed it through the kennel door Don was operating for me. I dodged several dozen uncollected eggs, stepped over a half buried empty food tray and around a rusting, bone dry water trough. Sometime in recent memory, the challenges in the lives of the people who claimed to love these chickens, had swallowed them up. My heartache and anger were tempered only by the knowledge of the trouble they’d taken to find a good home for the birds they could no longer care for.
Throughout the summer, the chickens spent nights in their large airy coop. It took several weeks for them to learn they didn’t need to pile on top of one another in the corner to sleep, but once they caught on to the pleasure of the multiple layers of perches Don set up for them, they began to spread out in luxury. During the daytime, they wandered throughout the rest of the barn. The first day I invited them to do so, they ran to the spots of sunshine on the floor and threw themselves into them, spreading feet and wings in every direction, literally sighing with obvious delight.
One of the chickens died the day after she came to her new home. One of the roosters was adopted by a free range egg farmer in Southeastern Wyoming who had been actively looking for a rooster to live with her 100 hens. As summer comes to its characteristically sudden close, Don has put finishing touches on the fully predator proof, 450 square foot yard the chickens can access from their coop. For further protection, the operation sits squarely in the middle of all the llamas.
Friends contribute fresh vegetable scraps that the hens come running for to my outstretched hands. The rooster pushes through the scrap container while I hold it, looking for fruit. Next summer, once Hercules understands he’s not to chase them, they’ll be able to spend time roaming the ranch when I’m around to watch them.
For now, every day, the chickens give thanks with a dozen or more eggs of various colors. My commitment to compassionate eating, my deeply vegan heart, has had no trouble enjoying these offerings.