Nettie, who was rescued from a cockfighting operation. Photo by Marji Beach

Nettie, who was rescued from a cockfighting operation. Photo by Marji Beach

Chickens. Intelligent, inquisitive, loving, loyal, courageous. They’re also victims of some of the worst abuses in animal agribusiness. From battery cages to the broiler shed, chickens suffer to feed humanity’s hunger for cheap animal protein. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, chicken flesh has become the most frequently consumed meat in the US, and consumption continues to increase every year, with nearly nine billion chickens slaughtered annually in the US. Egg producers, meanwhile, confine egg-laying hens in cages so small the birds cannot move a single wing. As you read these words, about 300 million hens are languishing in battery cages in the US. (For some idea of how a battery hen lives, please see this virtual battery cage.) Moreover, laying hens are forced to endure such painful mutilations as debeaking and detoeing. Chickens raised for meat (“broilers”) face brief but grim lives in which they pack on so much weight in 45 days that their legs and organs cannot properly support their bodies. Just six weeks old, these birds are still babies when they are slaughtered.

Agribriz isn’t the only abuser of these sensitive birds, however. Cockfighting, though illegal throughout the US, still goes on, pitting one rooster against another so their exploiters can gamble on the outcome. The outcome is often death for one or both of the birds. To maintain their supply of fighting birds, called gamecocks, cockfighters keep breeding hens and raise the male chicks to become fighters.

Fortunately, activists around the world are not only campaigning against the cruelties inherent in agribusiness and animal fighting ― they’re helping to provide loving homes to birds rescued from these enterprises. Here are a few of their stories and the birds who have touched their hearts.

Apricot – Rescued from a Broiler Shed

“We did a broiler rescue on April 20,” says Patty Mark, founder of Animal Liberation Victoria, “and one of the birds had what I refer to as ‘splayed legs,’ meaning both legs are not able to function at all, and the legs just sit out in front of the bird, and she or he can’t stand or bear weight or walk. The vet always puts these birds down, and I’ve lost count of how many of them we’ve rescued over the years who are basically fairly healthy; they just can’t bear weight or walk and tragically, they get put down.

“This splayed-leg bird from April 20th I called Apricot. I felt so sorry for Apricot, as the other 13 birds were all in pretty poor condition but all mobile, including the three with badly twisted and crippled legs who couldn’t and still can’t use their one crippled leg ― they hop around on their other leg. And poor Apricot just sat in her basket watching the others every day. I had to hand feed and water her and clean her bottom daily. She was always so grateful and made such sweet little noises. So I started to get attached to her and put off taking her to the vet.

“On about day 12 after the rescue when I got up one morning she wasn’t sitting in her basket. I freaked and thought, ‘Where’s Apricot?’ I looked about and noticed her amongst the others, and she was standing! Only for a few seconds, but she stood up and held her weight. I got teary eyed. Anyway, as the days have passed, she is walking about with a hobble, but walking around, and right now she’s outside enjoying a mild autumn day with the others in the sunshine. I’m overjoyed.”

Nettie Rescued from a Cockfighting Operation

“Her plight became public after police broke up a large cockfighting operation,” says Marji Beach of Animal Place, a sanctuary and education center in California. “Hundreds of roosters from across the state were pitted against one another in deadly fights. She wasn’t a fighter but a breeder; her existence served to create more fighters.

“All the roosters were euthanized ― an unfair end for such beautiful birds. Animal Place was given custody of the hens and chicks remaining at the property. It was with sadness and hope that we arrived, nets in hand, to capture more than a hundred birds. The going was rough: exposed wires, broken fencing, sharp metal and glass all posed serious hazards to us and the birds.  

“Toward the end of the second night, I spotted her in the corner of a barn stall. She was white with brown speckles. I stayed silent and watched her, knowing that she associated human voices with terror and fear. As I approached, she made deep growling sounds and fluffed her feathers. She wouldn’t move, rooted there by a deep, maternal drive to protect the three babies cheeping beneath her. It was easy to pick her up, but not so easy to remove her beak from my hand!

“Chickens from fight busts are different than the hens we’ve rescued from egg-laying operations. They aren’t petrified of the world, they have their beaks, they know how to survive. But they have also been exposed to more disease and parasites. We lost half the chicks to respiratory diseases and several of the adults

“The birds have never known that they could have a constant supply of good food and clean water. They’ve never known people to be nice to them. It was just as miraculous watching these hens learn to trust as it was watching former egg-laying hens learn to dust bathe for the first time. It was harder finding homes for these hens. They are normal chickens who produce a normal number of eggs per year, maybe 40 or 50. Adopters who picked these hens did so out of a desire to save a life, not because they wanted eggs.

“I named the white hen Nettie. She liked to perch on my shoulder or knee but wouldn’t let me touch her. All her chicks died and she mourned them like any mother. It took months for her to become a healthy, thriving hen. When she did, she found a wonderful home with other hens and a beautiful rooster. Selfishly, I wish she had stayed at Animal Place, but I’m so glad that she and all the other birds found permanent homes. It means we can rescue more.”

Fanny – Rescued from a Battery-Egg Farm

“Fanny came to the sanctuary after an 18-month term in a North Carolina egg factory,” says pattrice jones, co-founder of the Eastern Shore Sanctuary. “Usually, so-called ‘spent hens’ who can no longer lay eggs every day are slaughtered for low-grade meat or simply buried alive in landfills. Fanny and 19 others were saved from that fate by a kind woman who brought them here.

“Like all hens from egg factories, Fanny had been subjected to debeaking. The painful operation burns off the tip of their beaks to prevent bored and hungry hens, crowded into cages so small that they cannot spread their wings or even lie down comfortably, from pecking themselves or each other to death in frustration. Fanny’s injured beak gave her face a blunted look that always reminded me of what she had been through.

“When Fanny arrived at the sanctuary, she was shockingly skinny and had very few of her lovely red feathers. She and her peers bore little resemblance to birds. Years spent perched on wire in cramped cages meant they could hardly walk. They had never seen sunshine or grass, and weren’t at all sure what to do. Some were frantic while others seemed to be in a numb state of shock.

“To help the birds become less fearful, I sat very still on the ground and spread food around me. After the birds came close enough to eat that food, I put food on my shoes and pants. Very gingerly, some of the birds began eating that food too. One bold bird jumped right into my lap. The Band song instantly popped into my head and I began singing to her:

Take a load off, Fanny,

Take a load for free.

Take a load off, Fanny,

And put the load right on me.

The name stuck. From that moment, this bold bird became ‘Fanny.’

“Fanny loved to hear her song ― or, to be honest, any song. She would come if we called her name, not because she was being summoned but because she wanted to see what was going on. Unlike many of the birds, whose feathers get ruffled by any departure from their favored routines, Fanny liked visitors and excitement and changes of pace. She expected to be greeted whenever we saw her and, just like any friend, would feel snubbed if ignored. We made sure to say ‘hello’ to Fanny every morning and several times each day before saying ‘goodnight’ every night.

“When she got too old to deal with the hustle and bustle and randy roosters of the main chicken yard, Fanny began to greet visitors from our front yard, where she spent her days. She was joined by her friend Carmen, who had been with her in the egg factory; a younger hen called Darwin, who had lost a wing in a freak accident; and a delicate but tenacious half-blind hen called Felicia. Carmen and Darwin were gregarious red hens like Fanny, so the three of them hung out together. Felicia, a shy white hen, spent much of her time alone until a feral hen had chicks and decided to let Felicia help out with them. The mother hen wouldn’t let any other chicken near her chicks, so that was quite a compliment to Felicia, who became very attached to her new family. Eventually, the chicks grew up, and Darwin and then Carmen died.

“Fanny then became fast friends with Felicia. They were like next-door neighbors who don’t have a lot in common at first but become close over time due to shared experiences. Felicia had once been so sick that we were sure she would die. But she recovered and went on to enjoy two more times around the seasons. When the cold weather came again this past winter, her little body finally gave out. That was very sad for us and for Fanny, who had lived to see all of her closest friends die. She kept up her usual routine but just didn’t seem herself anymore. Sometimes we would see her standing out in the yard alone. She spent some time with the elderly roosters and a juvenile rooster named Dizzy, but didn’t seem to have the same bond with them that she had had with her hen friends. Luckily, a red hen named Rosalita moved in from Washington, DC, and she and Fanny hit it off right away. Fanny’s mood improved overnight.

“On the morning of what would be her last day, Fanny had a slow start but came running when my partner mixed up her favorite treat for breakfast. Later in the day, I noticed Fanny drooping and brought her some mulberries. She ate one berry eagerly but dropped the next and couldn’t find the rest. Seeing that she was slipping into a stupor, I gathered her into my arms and reclined with her resting on my chest. She fell asleep as the life began to ebb from her body. Just before she died, her wings began to flap, as birds’ wings often do when they go into their death throes. I wanted to say ‘No, don’t go,’ but instead I said, ‘Go, fly away with the wild birds. You’re free.’

“Fanny had almost five years here after two years in an egg factory. She survived all of her original hen and rooster friends, and the cats with whom she used to huddle in a dog house when waiting out rainstorms. Fanny was one in a million, literally and figuratively. She was just one of millions of hens crowded into tiny cages in egg factories. And, like every one of them, she was unique in the sense of having her own characteristics, her own likes and dislikes, and her own way of looking at the world. If, by speaking and writing about Fanny, we can help people to see hens as individuals and stop treating them like objects, then Fanny really will live forever. Still, she leaves two deeply grieving people and a host of human admirers.”

Rescue Groups

There are a number of groups around the world that rescue chickens. If you can help one or more of these nonprofits, I know they’d appreciate it. And I’ll bet you’ll feel great knowing you’re helping birds like Apricot, Nettie and Fanny.

Animal Liberation Victoria (Australia)

Animal Place (US)

Battery Hen Welfare Trust (UK)

Befreite Tiere (Germany)

Cambridgeshire Hen Rescue (UK)

Eastern Shore Sanctuary (US)

Farm Sanctuary (US)

Harvest Home (US)

Hillside Animal Sanctuary (UK)

Little Hen Rescue (UK)

Peaceful Prairie (US)

United Poultry Concerns (US)

Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary (US)