Unhappy poultry destined for the dinner table earn keep as therapy pets for troubled childrenThey are miserable-looking creatures. Featherless, off-balance, skittish to the point of terror. Also, incredibly lucky.
These are "rescue" chickens, formerly caged as egg producers in an unidentified industrial hatchery somewhere in southern Ontario. They are more than a year old. This week, they trod on grass and felt the sun for the first time.
The chickens are new arrivals at Cobble Hills Farm Sanctuary, a rescue farm about 20 minutes southwest of Stratford. Rescue farms typically save horses or goats or other large animals. Cobble Hills' proprietor, Christen Shepherd, has a few of those. Now she's trying to save these chickens – which are perhaps the most wretched of all.
Up until now, they have spent their lives in groups of a half-dozen confined to battery cages the size of a microwave oven. When they arrived here two weeks ago, they had never walked. Or roosted. Or flapped their wings.
Most of them have no feathers, their puckered skin rubbed raw against cage bars. The combs on the tops of their heads – the prime spot where a chicken releases body heat – cover their faces like hoods, overdeveloped because of the sweaty conditions inside the hatchery.
Just as they were slated to become the ingredients in soup or dog food, these birds won the chicken lottery. A middleman arranged for 43 of the thousands of over-the-hill hens in the hatchery to be saved.
Hatcheries are a frequent target of animal rights activists. Shepherd had to agree not to ask questions about the provenance of these birds.
She was told they were chosen because they lived in the middle tier of stacked cages – their anonymous saviour didn't have to reach up or bend down to grab them.
At first, they huddled in the corners of Shepherd's coop on shaky legs. They slept piled on top of each other or wedged into cat carriers. The ones who were particularly denuded were fitted up with tiny chicken sweaters, sewn by volunteers. Downy tufts of feathers are already regrowing on most of them.
Now they mill about, irritably kicking off small brawls every once in a while. It's an avian example of the after-effects of prison life.
Everything new is frightening to them, and everything's new. At one point, a cell phone goes off. All the birds freeze in place and begin emitting a high, keening sound that suggests a UFO coming in to land.
These chickens are being used as therapy animals to treat a small group of children living in a nearby group home.
Four boys, aged 8 to 12, visit the chickens once a week. These are kids in dire trouble, Crown wards so imperiled they cannot be identified in any way lest their own families figure out where they are.
Shepherd thought interacting with the chickens might help teach the boys empathy.
"But they were already so gentle with them, right from the start," she says. "They worry if the chickens are afraid or if a sweater is too tight."
Now the kids come because it makes them happy.
"They are their own little pets," says Matt Roser, the social worker who arranged for the boys to visit the farm. "They spend all week looking forward to the next visit."
No wonder. Shepherd's rickety red barn is a bit of a magical menagerie. The mercenary laws of nature and farm commerce are suspended here.
The goats were slated for destruction. So were the hogs. The pot-bellied pigs, the size of terriers when their apartment-dwelling owners bought them, now weigh about 60 kilograms. They were headed for a deserted roadside.
Shepherd took them in, though she can't really afford to. The farm isn't just non-profit – it's operated at a steady loss. It survives on a few donations and the income Shepherd's husband, Trevor, earns as a cancer researcher. Shepherd was raised near Hamilton by a family who works in the music business.
"Everybody I knew wanted to be famous," says Shepherd, a wry, energetic 36-year-old. "I just wanted to be a farmer."
Shepherd has been warned about each of her animals. The goats will die immediately, they told her. The big pigs will kill anything that gets near them, they said. The hens will cannibalize each other, they decided. Wrong in every case.
In fact, this is the Switzerland of Ontario barns, under permanent truce. One of the goats – not the arthritic one – spends his days with a duck. The cats leave all the birds alone. Most of the animals wander about the unfenced property, free to leave. None do.
Tonight, Shepherd plans to release a few of the battery hens into the grassy yard to see how they adjust. First, she has to get them through a wall hatch in the coop.
Shepherd's 16-year-old son, Michael, is the first one to try to coax the chickens out. They scatter. Michael's afraid to handle them too roughly. Shepherd jumps in, grabs hold of one and sticks her beak out the door. The bird plants her claws in the door frame and fights hard. Tough poultry.
Eventually, the chicken pops out the other side of the hatch, blinking and staggering in the fading sunlight. She looks like a drunken hotel guest who's wandered out into the hallway and locked the door behind her. Once there are five chickens in the yard, the group calms.
In time, all but four of these birds will be adopted out. Each of the boys will select one and keep her at Cobble Hills.
"Anybody who wants them will have to take a pair – they're very social animals," says Pierre Bourdeau, a Torontonian who discovered Cobble Hills on the Internet. He works as a marketer in banking. Shepherd provides the home. Bourdeau is trying to figure out the fundraising.
Shepherd, Michael and Bourdeau watch the chickens peck at grass – their first grass ever.
"When you see a chicken in the sunshine ... stretching its wings out," says Shepherd, "it's hard to deny a chicken that."