Hello, this is Bill Crain from Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary, located a few miles from Pawling. My wife, Ellen, and I founded the sanctuary to provide a permanent home for farmed animals rescued from slaughter and abuse.
A major issue we face at the farm is how much freedom to give the animals. We don’t like them to be confined, but we also must keep them safe from hawks, weasels, and other predators. We especially worry about our chickens, who are very vulnerable to predation.
When we first opened the farm we erred on the side of safety. We kept all the chickens in enclosed spaces—in barns with attached aviaries. After a while, we began to experiment with allowing the chickens time in open pastures.
Our first “experiment in freedom” was with a group of 19 chickens—mostly hens—who came from Harlem. A homeless man felt sorry for the chickens awaiting slaughter in a live meat market. Whenever he got together enough money, he purchased one and lifted her over a fence into a vacant lot. Neighbors often tossed vegetables into the lot for the chickens to eat, which kept them alive. But some neighbors worried about their health and called the ASPCA, which saw that the chickens were malnourished and lacked protection from the elements. So the ASPCA was happy to learn that we would adopt them, and four ASPCA volunteers drove them to our farm.
There were many signs that the chickens had endured very hard times. They were scrawny and missing many feathers. They also were missing the fronts of their beaks, a sign that they had initially been raised on factory farms. Factory farms pack chickens so tightly together that they fight with their beaks, which means they damage the owners’ products. If the owners would just give the chickens a little more space, the fighting would stop. But the owners make more money by crowding them together. So the owners prevent damage to their products by severing their beaks, usually without anesthesia.
After a few weeks at our farm, the chickens had gained weight and were in good physical health. But they were constantly irritable. They walked around aimlessly and made angry clucking sounds. They became very upset if they saw any human visitors.
One sunny spring morning Ellen and I decided to let them out of the barn into the adjoining pasture. I opened the barn door, and a few tentatively ventured out. The rest followed. I sat on rock to keep an eye on them. Within a few minutes they were eagerly foraging, scratching the ground to see what they could find. They especially liked digging under leaves. After an hour or so, I steered them back inside.
Then came a big surprise. Back in the barn, all their irritability disappeared. As they walked about, they uttered lovely, contented sounds.
Later that day two people visited the chickens, and whereas the chickens had previously hated all visitors, the chickens weren’t disturbed in the least. Freedom had transformed them.
After that, we have given our chickens time in open pastures whenever the weather permits and we can keep an eye on them, and they have always seemed happy.
I would add that I don’t think it was just freedom, in and of itself, that altered our chickens’ emotions. I have observed so-called “free range chickens” who are free, in the sense that they have space to move, but can’t really forage. They can only move on a hard dirt surface. And they hardly seem happy. They don’t emit any sounds of contentment. It’s not just freedom, then, but the freedom to engage in natural behavior such as foraging, that leads to deep contentment.
Freedom, of course, is also important to human beings. Our country places a premium on it. Our national anthem calls us “The Land of the Free.” But I have been concerned about the extent to which we deny freedom to our children. For example, schools have become so obsessed with test scores that they have reduced young children’s opportunities for free play and rarely permit children to choose their own classroom activities. School life is highly regimented.
A great educator who believed in giving children considerable freedom was Maria Montessori. Montessori argued that children have an inner need to work on tasks that enable to perfect their capacities, and if such tasks are available, children will freely choose to work on them. It as if children possess an inner guide that steers them, entirely on their own, toward tasks that help them develop their potentials.
Montessori observed, moreover, that when children find such tasks, they work on them with intense concentration. And when they are finished, they are happy and calm. Their serenity is like that of the chickens who were given a chance to forage. Perhaps such happy emotions emerge in the members of many species after they are given a chance to perform activities that are important to them.
Thank you for listening.
I have written about animals and children in my new book, The Emotional Lives of Animals and Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary. Our farm also has a website, www.safehavenfarmsanctuary.org. The link to our most recent video, “Summer at the Farm,” is https://youtu.be/kXLF9ZioBrA