One day my wife, Ellen, greeted me with the words, “Congratulations, you’re a new grandfather.” I was puzzled until she explained that one of our chickens, a smallish hen we called Chicken Little, had hidden two eggs that had hatched. My new “grandchildren” were two chicks. Our staff named them Charlotte and Chuck.
Many of the chickens on our farm sanctuary have escaped from factory farms or slaughterhouses. Others have come from homes in which the owners could no longer care for them. Chicken Little came with a group of hens who had lived a very different life.
These hens had been roosting in trees outside a small town in rural New Jersey. The trees overlooked a camp established by homeless people, who tossed the chickens some of their food. But the town officials drove the homeless away. Two animal rescuers worried about the welfare of the chickens without the food from the homeless. So the rescuers captured as many as they could–Chicken Little and seven other hens–and brought them to our sanctuary.
The hens, whom we called The Jersey Girls, weren’t like our others. The Jersey Girls were much warier of us. They also were slim and athletic. They could fly to the top of tall trees and dart through the air at high speeds.
Chicken Little soon demonstrated her independence. Instead of spending nights in her coop, she took up residence in our back barn. That is where Chuck and Charlotte were born.
Chuck grew into a large, handsome rooster. Charlotte, however, was born with a deformed leg and barely grew at all. But she was spunky. She hopped energetically about, exploring pastures with the other chickens. And when other chickens came near her food, she pushed them away. All the humans on our farm admired and adored her.
As an adult, Chuck kept on eye on the whereabouts of Chicken Little and Charlotte. When, after two years, Chicken Little died, Chuck watched over three other hens as well. With the chivalry of a true rooster, Chuck made sure the hens ate before he did. He and Charlotte also took a friendly interest in Violet, a very old dwarf Nigerian goat who slept next to them.
At the age of five years, Charlotte began to weaken and spend more time resting in the barn. Then one morning, Edwin, one of our staff members, discovered Charlotte lying motionless. Next to her was Violet, curled around Charlotte in an awkward position. Edwin asked two other staff members, Joy and Donna, to look at Charlotte, and they confirmed Edwin’s fear that she had died.
Violet’s unusual position, curled next to Charlotte, puzzled our staff. It occurred to them that Violet might have moved next to Charlotte to provide comfort or protection.
Donna and Joy wrapped Charlotte in a blanket and took her into the cottage until a grave could be dug. But when Donna returned to the barn, she saw that Chuck had entered while she was away, and Chuck was very upset. He was standing behind a bale of shavings and staring at the wall.
Donna wondered if Chuck might need to see that Charlotte had died and mentally process this fact. So, she brought Charlotte’s body back into the barn. Chuck then walked out of the corner and looked at Charlotte’s body for at least 15 minutes. Finally, he crowed and walked away. He then acted normally and has done so ever since.
Chuck’s reactions call to mind another death, several years earlier. When Katie, a very caring hen, was dying, the hens, partridges, and bantam rooster in her aviary stood next to her. When Katie actually died, the bantam rooster crowed and walked away.
Chuck’s behavior was similar, and it adds to growing observations that nonhuman animals sometimes need to spend time watching over the recently deceased. They need, that is, to engage in the kinds of wakes and vigils that are part of human rituals.
Bill Crain founded, with Ellen Crain, Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag.