A few years ago, I adopted a hen about whom I knew very little except that a farmer did not want her anymore because she had stopped laying eggs. The rest of her past was a mystery, but clearly her life before we adopted her had not been a good one. For one thing, her physical condition was harsh. Her feathers were scant and coarse to the touch. She had been badly debeaked at some point, making it impossible for her to pick up seeds from the ground. The comb on top of her head was deformed and mostly gone, perhaps from an injury or frostbite. She also had a deformity on the side of her face, most likely the result of an untreated skin infection at some earlier time in her life.
And on a psychological level, Sandye had clearly become hardened. She was wary and guarded, and avoided any attempts to handle her affectionately. From the very beginning, the day I first picked her up and placed her in a crate for the car ride back to my house, I sensed in her an air of both resignation as well as caution. She did not trust easily. She was stoic and strong in character. I admired these qualities in her. She looked me in the eye with a combination of curiosity and shrewdness, even in her vulnerable state.
Over the course of the next two years in my care, Sandye softened a little bit, but I had come to accept that she was who she was and would probably never change. She had things that brought her happiness and contentment— sun bathing, sitting by my feet, sleeping late and in her own room, and keeping the other rescued hens in line— but she still recoiled from being held or petted. I handled her only when absolutely necessary. If I wanted her to move from one spot to another, all I had to do was stroke her back and she flinched, squealed softly in her characteristic way, and slithered away in the opposite direction.
All of this changed suddenly and completely one chilly December afternoon. It was on this day that I decided to give all of the girls a bit of frostbite protection by rubbing their combs and wattles with almond oil. I saved Sandye for last, knowing that she would fight me on it. Sure enough, when I picked her up, she whined and squirmed. I brought her into the basement and set her down on my lap, wrapping one arm around her length so as to keep her as still as possible while I applied the oil gently to her head and face area. Within minutes, she was in a trance. Cautiously, I stroked her neck and back, and she responded by nestling deeper into my lap.
I was dearly touched by this unexpected moment of physical bonding and wanted to prolong it, but I was on a deadline and needed to get back to work. After a few minutes of holding her, I attempted to pick Sandye up, but her body resisted and she purposefully sunk deeper into my lap. She did not want to leave this cozy and companionable spot! At that moment I realized that I had been dead wrong about Sandye’s intentions all that time. Like the other hens in my care, she too had a yearning for affection and love; I just had never given her enough of a chance to express it. In fact, this was very likely the first time in her life that she had experienced a kind touch from a human being. And it was clear that she really enjoyed it.
This triggered some nagging questions for me: How many others had I misjudged in my life, both humans and animals? How many other billions of chickens just like Sandye, who yearn for companionship, will only know humans as violent and cruel tormentors, or indifferent consumers, rather than loving caretakers? How many people will ever come to understand and value chickens for who they truly are? These questions have sometimes led me into a state of deep despair, but they have also given me great resolve to find ways to help these vulnerable animals, and to build awareness about them.
That day, for the first time, I worked with Sandye in my lap. Later she settled on the rug and instead of taking her back out to her coop, I left her there where she lay so contentedly watching me, and wrapped a blanket around her to enjoy a warm night’s sleep. I brought her some leftovers from dinner, cooked brown rice and black eyed peas. My heart was aglow with a feeling that I don’t think I’d felt since I was a child. Sandye had responded to a kind touch for perhaps the first time in her life; the experience was a kind of therapy for both of us. I got to give something back, however small, to a bird whose fellow kind continue to endure the greatest suffering of any species at human hands. As the sun set that evening and frost climbed the windows, Sandye looked up at me one last time, and then slowly closed her eyes like a little angel off to sleep.