For me, this love began with Viva the chicken hen, followed by two turkey hens, Mila and Priscilla, and a handsome tom turkey named Milton. Then a little girl sent me a picture of her hen sitting on the porch railing. She said, “Cluck-Cluck is part of our family.” From that time, chickens and turkeys became part of my family, and they’ve been beloved family members ever since.
I did not grow up around chickens and turkeys. I didn’t get to know these birds until later in life. My first encounter with a turkey took place at a sanctuary in Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s where I worked one summer as a volunteer. Right around that time, my husband and I rented a place in Maryland where it turned out our landlady kept a flock of about a hundred white chickens who disappeared after seven weeks – all but one.
I had taken to visiting these chickens, who seemed happy to hear me coming down the wooded path behind their shed, because their little faces would be pressed up against the screen door, looking out at me, when I got there. In no time, they were comfortable sitting quietly beside me on the dirt floor while I read a book or a magazine, though increasingly I paid more attention to them and their sweetness than to what I was reading.
Then one day, they vanished, and the landlady, seeing how upset I was, pretended they’d gone to live with a farmer for eggs, but I knew different because by then I knew they were “broiler” chicks destined to becoming dead meat in their infancy. Already they were abnormally heavy and large, and several were lame.
The one left behind was crippled and thin, which is probably why they didn’t take her away. It’s possible they didn’t notice her. I picked her up gently and carried her into the kitchen, where my husband said we should call her Viva, because she was the one who lived.
Viva died a few months later, but she has lived on, not only as a beloved inhabitant of my memory, but as the inspiration for the nonprofit organization I founded in 1990, United Poultry Concerns, dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl.
One of the great myths of our time is that chicken and turkey are nutritious alternatives to red meat. I’ll be polite and call this a “white lie.” The birds who become “poultry” are forced to live and breathe in excrement, day in, day out, not only the waste on the poultry house floor but the toxic ammonia fumes that arise from this waste. These poisonous fumes penetrate egg shells and enter the birds’ airways and immune systems, exposing them to pathogens that are treated with antibiotics, leading to bacterial resistance to antibiotic treatment in birds as well as in humans, including people suffering from food poisoning as a result of handling and consuming poultry and egg products.
A number of people are looking to free-range poultry and eggs as alternatives, thinking that a free-range or “cage-free” chicken spends the day outdoors, enjoying sunlight and fresh air. But this is rarely the case on a commercial farm, although there may be a few “show birds” out and about. More likely, the birds are kept in a crowded building with hundreds or thousands of others, breathing polluted air. While less cruel that living in a cage, such a life is not truly humane for a chicken or a turkey, and egg production, regardless of the label, always involves destruction of the male chicks as soon as they break out of their shells, because they don’t lay eggs. All commercial animal production involves violence, mutilations and killing for which there is no nutritional need at all.
Over the years, my love for birds has centered on chickens and turkeys in ways I would not have guessed before getting to know them. The idea of these birds as friends may seem strange to some, but for others it’s a natural and delightful reality. I get letters from people all over the world telling me how cherishing a chicken or a turkey is part of the family tradition. For me, this love began with Viva the chicken hen, followed by two turkey hens, Mila and Priscilla, and a handsome tom turkey named Milton. Then a little girl sent me a picture of her hen sitting on the porch railing. She said, “Cluck-Cluck is part of our family.” From that time, chickens and turkeys became part of my family, and they’ve been beloved family members ever since.