I had an unexpected visit from a new neighbor and her two children who were really interested in meeting the Free from Harm chickens. The mother, Joanna, had taken her children to a working farm called Prairie Crossing where they have “free range” organically-raised hens. This gave them an opportunity to compare what life is like for chickens on a small organic working farm to my backyard urban sanctuary, as I like to call it.
Joanna and the children were moved at how friendly, unafraid and approachable the chickens were here. The chickens living in Prairie Crossing are skittish, she said. I explained to her that chicks bred in hatcheries, referred to as the “breeding stock” that farmers purchase, are raised as “orphans” in artificial incubators. The absence of imprinting on their mothers is linked to behavioral problems throughout their life. A mother hen teaches her young, not only basic life skills, but also very complex life lessons, modeling her behavior for her young and teaching them how to interact with others in a complex social group. We’re not even close to fully understanding this complex relationship.
I could tell that Joanna was quite aware of different breeds and she seemed to be able to attribute certain personality traits to different breeds. I explained that while there are certain breed traits, chickens are individuals. Becoming aware of their highly individual personalities is only possible through close observation and under conditions where they feel safe to fully express themselves. Chickens on farms have expectations placed on them and often many other physical and psychological constraints that inhibit free expression.
Joanna was also surprised to learn that chickens can live 10 to 15 years. She pointed out that the hens at Prairie Crossing are offered up for adoption after only a year or two. I filled in some blanks here, explaining that the farm was simply using them for the prime yet brief egg-laying window of their lives and replacing them as soon as they started to decline in egg laying. The “adoption” effort was limited to a day or two. Those that aren’t adopted are systematically sent to slaughter plants.
I also got to show her and the kids Sweet Pea’s distended abdomen and the surgery she underwent and explain how this condition results from laying more eggs than their bodies can handle. Doris showed them how sweet and loving a hen could be, and she wasn’t shy or nervous around them like she is with others. And Danita was in the coop in her nest laying an egg. So we snuck a peak and watched her for a moment in what is a very private time for chickens.
I felt good that I could show them how chickens can be our most lively and loving companions rather than egg laying machines that are cruelly discarded when they are no longer of any use to the farms.