What chickens have taught me about happiness

Gretel was rescued from a battery cage last night. She has a broken wing and a bald patch on her chest where the wire has rubbed her raw. She takes her first cautious steps into her new garden and looks up to the sky.

As a cloud moves along, the sun is revealed and bathes Gretel in light. Gretel drops to her side in slow motion. She fans out her good wing. And then she basks. Her eyes close; her breaths slow.

After eighteen months in a cage, she can let go. She can take a deep breath and enjoy the sunshine. Her past still exists, but she takes a moment to experience pure joy. 

Chickens have taught me that, despite past traumas, happiness can be found when we stop to appreciate the good moments.

Kaiho was liberated from the battery cage last week. She has breathing difficulties, but she doesn’t let this hold her back. She is exploring every bit of the garden she can: digging, pecking, and trotting from place to place. She has her own area to avoid the stress of fighting with the other girls. 

One hen, Cece, decides she won’t be kept out. She is a little game hen who was found as a stray. She flies over the fence into Kaiho’s area, and I make my way up the garden, ready to break up a fight.

When I get there, I see Kaiho standing still, her eyes closed as Cece gently preens her face. Cece looks as if she is concentrating hard. She is being so gentle. Kaiho’s breathing becomes more stable.

Chickens have taught me that happiness can be found by letting others into our lives. 

Kim grabs a piece of baked pumpkin from the pile. Kim has been with us since 2018, and she is Head Human Preener and Chief Treat Connoisseur. After a past at a free-range farm where she experienced hunger and thirst, Kim is more food-focused than the other hens. She has a short beak from harsh debeaking, but she still throws herself headfirst (literally) into any food opportunity that presents itself. 

Kim runs from the group with her piece of pumpkin.

But what is this? Kourtney, Kim’s bestie, in an unexpected betrayal, grabs the pumpkin from Kim’s beak before heading off at quite a pace.

Kim races after Kourtney at a speed previously unknown to chickenkind. Her face is a picture of focus, and she’s gaining on her. Kourtney pauses for just a second to consider which side of the bush to run into, and that’s enough time. Kim snatches the pumpkin and is gone in a blur. 

After the race has been conclusively won, moods shift a little. Kim decides to share her pumpkin trophy with her bestie after all.

Chickens have taught me that happiness can be found by focusing on what you want from life—and by sharing your good fortune with others.

Rosetta (meaning protector) was rescued from a slaughterhouse at only three weeks old. At the time we didn’t know Rosetta was a boy, but I wouldn’t consider changing his name. Rosetta fits him perfectly. He was rescued with his sister Malin (meaning brave little warrior), and from the beginning he tried to protect her, even from the rescuers whom he did not yet know to trust. 

Today there is a new girl in the flock called Barbara. She is a little black bantam with fluffy cheeks who had been dumped. Pixie, a previously stray hen, decides to put Barbara in her place. I brace myself,  ready to intervene. But before I can step in, Rosetta has charged over, his bulky frame rocking from side to side. He throws himself into the middle of the fight. Pixie looks a little shocked, but as Barbara moves away Pixie tries to give her another peck. Rosetta pushes himself between them again. 

Pixie walks back to her flock. As for Barbara, she’s treated to Rosetta’s special dance: one wing pointed toward the ground and an elegant shuffle towards her. Let’s just say she’s impressed. The way Rosetta shuts down fights is worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

I hold out some corn in my hand. Corn is Rosetta’s favorite. He makes his wonderful, tuk, tuk, tuk, food-is-here, sound. He picks up a piece of corn and drops it in front of Barbara. Pixie has run over. He picks up another piece and drops it in front of Pixie. I hold my hand out, and he finally takes a piece of corn for himself. 

Chickens have taught me that happiness can be found in standing up for others. 

I’m grateful to have the chance to know these chickens as individuals; so many people know them only as food on their plates. Yet we have so much to learn from them: they are smart, social, cunning, clever, giving, loyal, and capable of so much love and affection. I hope one day the farms will close down, their suffering will end, and all humans can know chickens as I do, and know the same happiness they’ve given me. 

Catherine Kelaher was born in the UK and now lives in New South Wales, Australia. She is the author of Saving Animals: A Future Activist’s Guide (Ashland Creek Press, 2021) and is the founder of NSW Hen Rescue, an award-winning Australian charity that rescues, rehabilitates, and rehomes hens and other animals from factory farms. Learn more at henrescue.org

Feature photo credit: Catherine Kelaher

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