Those who read about my journey in the last year toward coming to Animal Place know that I was also on a road toward midwifery education. Last March when I was gearing up for a career catching babies I never would have imagined that come October I’d be catching chickens!
This morning I assisted the education director with chicken adoptions. For those who aren’t familiar, Animal Place has a second facility in Vacaville, CA called Rescue Ranch. The venue and program give them the space to do large-scale rescues without sacrificing space for their permanent residents. Since it’s inception a few years ago they’ve saved the lives of 16,000 chickens. When I read that number before I came here it just seemed like a number, but now that I’ve seen some of the chickens, maybe 30 at most at a time, I see how spectacular this is.
This past summer they rescued 2,000 hens from a large egg-laying operation who were going to be slaughtered (throats slit without even being rendered unconscious first). Every so often, egg farmers decide to “de-populate” their operations – older egg-laying hens (1-2 years old; their lifespan is 12-15 years) are considered “spent” once their egg production declines slightly. No longer worth feeding, they are sent off to be killed.
I know this sounds like a bunch of cold facts about a cold business, but I just can’t convey in words how emotionally wound up I now am, knowing these facts, having met these birds. To think that they spent their whole lives crammed together, never seeing the light of day or touching the earth. They were treated as egg-machines and that’s all. Once that production drops, they’re discarded – literally, many are gassed and thrown in dumpsters like trash. It makes me feel sick, but I’m glad I’ve been sensitized. Humanity needs some radical sensitization.
Today I was struck by two things in particular: the overwhelming urge to care for the hens that comes with meeting them in person, and the absurdity of taking their eggs.
When I started helping to catch the birds and give them to adopters to take home, I immediately felt their stress. They’ve already been through so much and now that they’ve landed in an open barn and been shown some love, they’re moving again to their permanent homes. It is great that they’re moving to permanent homes as companion animals, but in the moment when they don’t know what’s going on and they’re clearly very stressed out, the overwhelming feeling is to comfort and soothe them, to tell them that it was going to be okay. It was unfathomable to think of hurting them, taking their eggs from them, or even worse, killing them. Our culture makes it so easy for us to forget what’s on our plates, and these individuals are constantly suffering because of this. The word suffering doesn’t even come close to evoking what they must go through, and for what?
This leads to my second focus of the day, why on earth would we harm these sweet beings for eggs? Of all things. Despite all the talk I’ve heard among vegans on how weird it is to eat chicken periods, today the absurdity finally sunk it. Looking into their eyes, feeling how each is a “subject in a life” (Tom Regan), it is absolutely impossible to take from them or use them in any way. This is our sickness as a species, taking and using what isn’t ours – the basis of every injustice.
Imagine someone asking what use your cat or dog have for you? Or saying, “why bother keeping them, they’re no longer serving a purpose for you?” Seeing particular species as existing for us is precisely the paradigm that veganism seeks to overcome. If it’s absurd to see some species as existing for us to exploit, then it’s absurd to see all species this way. The only difference between our understanding of species is that some have a history of being domesticated for food and others don’t. This has absolutely nothing to do with the inherent value of different animals and everything to do with herding history.
But, out of all this darkness, there’s light here too. This remarkable tragedy is juxtaposed with the work of these wildly passionate individuals creating this sanctuary and the adopters who want to help the chickens. Today the nature of “sanctuary” really hit home. It’s a sanctuary for us too, to redefine humanity. After work I walked around the property for an hour with my camera and watched frolicking goats, grazing cows and sheep, flighty playful rabbits, and a baby fawn who thinks she’s a cow. The sun was warm and mellow, the air was hazy, all was still, I heard someone playing the saxophone faintly in the distance.
Oddly enough, this is how many people picture farms – they’re just forgetting the breeding, transporting, and slaughtering part, oh, and that over 95% of animals raised for food today are raised and killed in factories.
It is truly radical to redefine our role as human beings away from the traditional “top-of-the-food-chain” myth, “the only rational animal,” “dominion over all creatures,” “natural carnivores,” etc, etc, ad nauseum. Look where this has got us, and look at what it has done to the earth’s creatures. The violence done to them and the earth is equally done to us. I learned this when I read Will Tuttle’s The World Peace Diet, but today I felt it’s truth. Sanctuary is a place where we get to realize who we truly are: caretakers, those who literally take care, and stand in awe.