By Jennifer O’Connor
I recently came across a food article that suggested celebrating the change of seasons by dishing up a roasted “spring chicken.” Seriously? I would no more eat a spring chicken than I would eat the Easter Bunny.
Back in October 1990, I volunteered to “babysit” for my friends’ animals while they were out of town. These were no friendly dogs in need of a walk. The family companions were chickens — an entire flock of them.
I knew nothing about chickens or birds in general, for that matter. My sole qualification was that I was available to spend a week at this country farm. But how hard could it be to feed a few dozen chickens for a week? My pals assured me that I was in for a pleasant surprise. I was convinced that they just wanted to shift the focus away from the fact that I was working for free. But off they went—and with no cable television or Internet in their house, I headed to the barnyard to kill some time.
What I found there could have been called the “Real Housewives of Farm County.” There were loud birds, shy birds, pushy birds, hilarious birds. Within minutes, it was clear that cliques counted and that I was still an outsider to some and a novelty to others. One inquisitive hen walked right up to me and looked me straight in the eye in careful assessment. The grain in my hand must have helped me to pass muster, because she led me across the yard and “introduced” me to her crew.
Most were decidedly unimpressed. However, one hen, whom I dubbed Hailey, took an abiding interest in my socks, which were covered with orange polka dots. She rubbed her beak across them and followed me around the yard. I found it mildly amusing. I was still trying to wrap my head around how unexpectedly complicated and interesting the whole flock was. I spent the day enjoying the sun and reading, watching the chickens gossip and hunt for snacks in the grass, squabble and make up, take dust baths and snuggle under each other’s wings.
That evening, after putting the birds to bed safe inside the barn, I hung my load of laundry out on a clothesline. The next morning, both polka-dotted socks were missing. The door to the barn was shut, and I hadn’t seen any of these birds actually fly. They had been rescued from factory farms or had fallen off transport trucks, so their bodies were unnaturally heavy, and many had crippled feet from spending their early lives in wire battery cages. Some struggled to get around. Yet the socks were nowhere to be seen. Where were my socks?
It took me most of the morning to find them. It still seems unreal to me, but Hailey had somehow absconded with the pair, laid an egg and carefully wrapped the socks around it. I stood there with my mouth agape while she watched me with a very real look of pleading in her eyes. She wanted those socks and was imploring me to walk away. So I did.
I stopped eating chicken that week and, not long afterward, eggs as well. I could no longer disassociate the wings, legs and breasts that used to be on my plate from Hailey and the other hens. Soon, I switched to eating completely vegan.
Chickens—like other animals—are far more complex than we tend to imagine, with social lives as involved and active as our own. Mother Nature gives us plenty to celebrate each spring―there’s no need for us to condemn these gentle beings to death.