Friday, June 28, 2013

How 53 Chickens Made Me Feel Better

I love you, Chicken. 

I didn't feel ready for the world on Tuesday morning.

The cat and I uncurled at the sound of the alarm, but the space beyond my bed seemed too harsh, too unsympathetic -- a grinding sameness that I had not signed on for. There was nothing I could do but resort to autopilot and plod into my morning routine.

When I got to work, I approached the door gingerly, hoping to ease myself into another long day. But almost immediately, a surprise sound echoed through the building -- a piercing, perfect, cock-a-doodle-doo.

I burst out laughing.

This week, the organization that I work for was called to assist in the rescue of 61 birds. This is how I came to meet 53 chickens for the very first time.

That Tuesday morning, those of us who "had some spare time" were invited to help with the mass cleaning of chicken cages. I wanted to laugh at that suggestion. We're not an organization that allows spare time, and the weight of relentless deadlines was part of what had made the day feel so daunting when I woke up. Still, chicken-cage-cleaning sounded like an adventure I couldn't pass up.

The chickens had arrived in poor health, and you could see lice crawling all over their faces and feathers. The chickens smelled terrible -- a sweet, sweaty, garbage scent.

I followed instructions to put on scrubs and to wear a new pair of rubber gloves between each chicken. Then, I got to either wipe out soiled cages or take on the fantastic job of holding chickens.

Holding chickens -- in some cases, impressive, imposing-looking roosters -- is much easier than picking one up. I have yet to successfully do that. Their wings can break if you struggle with them, so, terrified that I'd break a chicken, I'd panic and back off as soon as they started to squirm.

One time, I came close to pulling a rooster out of the top of a two-story pen. But, he spun wildly and struggled against my face. I quickly placed him back down -- but after that, I smelled like chicken for the rest of the day. An oily, smelly sheen was  smeared across my cheek and clothes.

However, none of this is meant to be read as a complaint. Once one of my co-workers would hand me a chicken, I'd hold him and feel mesmerized. Each time, the chickens would struggle and fuss and then, properly pinned against my chest and supported underneath, they'd surrender. From there, I could feel the warmth of their bodies in my arms. I could feel their hearts beating against mine.

I learned how to soothe a flustered chicken by gently stroking  its head or chin. Sometimes, my co-workers and I would find ourselves unconsciously swaying as we held our chickens, as though we were rocking babies. My friend Christy held a chicken that nestled into her bosom. He lay his head across Christy's chest and slowly closed his eyes.

After a while, Christy and I walked her sleepy chicken and my restless chicken over to a window.  Both chickens craned their necks in focused curiosity, eager to see what was going on outside. Christy and I looked at each other in shared delight. She said, "They're looking out the window." The chickens were scared, confused, and not feeling well. It meant something to us that we were giving them a small but meaningful moment.

The chickens are all headed to local farm sanctuaries, where they'll spend their lives clucking and crowing and eating and digging in hay.

I'm really glad I got to meet them. I'd love to work with chickens again. Now that I've mastered chicken-holding, I'd like to practice chicken-picking-up.

Once again, I find that the best way to recover from sadness is to help someone who's worse off than yourself.

See what it looked (and sounded) like to clean the chicken cages: