Bearing Witness focuses on the plight of individual animals. Our mission reminds that a species is made up of a multitude of individuals, each unique and integral to a web of relationships. While many are rescued, millions remain fated to suffer without relief or recognition. Here we pay tribute to these valiant heroes. With your help, we can make the remainder of their lives peaceful and filled with respect and care.
Christina and Sonny
This issue of Bearing Witness features Kerulos faculty member, Christina Risley-Curtiss, and the story of Sonny, who taught her about being a rooster.
I never asked to live with chickens. Though I grew up on a non-working farm, my experience with chickens had been a few trials with baby chickens who had all drowned in a waterer that was apparently too big for them. So my childhood experiences were short and rather disastrous.
Now I live on 1.5 acres of what is called "horse property" outside Phoenix, Arizona. I inherited a bunch of chickens when my neighbor moved and left them behind. Eventually, they migrated to my farm, and being who I am, I had to take care of them. It's not easy to do so, since I know little about chickens. I also have way too many roosters (they fight), but chickens are great for bug ( i.e., scorpion) control and they are fascinating creatures to watch; the moms are ferociously protective of their young, blowing up their feathers until they look twice their size and attacking the threat.
Sonny's story starts on an early spring night when, as I got ready for bed around 10 pm, I heard this distressed chirping right under my bedroom window. With flashlight in hand, I stepped outside to explore what was going on and found two baby chickens who had just hatched within the last hour or so...one tiny brown one who seemed dead and a tiny yellow one on his back that I thought was dying. No mom in sight. I picked up the brown baby to bury him, and to my surprise he moved and struggled a little. So I got out my bird cage I'd bought for rescuing baby birds, collected the little yellow chick and took the two babies into the guest bathroom.
I immediately put them into the cage with a heating pad under its floor and a soft blanket inside. Then, I turned out the light and went to bed. I awoke the next morning fully expecting to find two dead chicks in the bathroom—not an uncommon happening every spring at my small farm. Instead I found two very active bright-eyed chicks, full of life. What to do?
I decided that my guest bathtub would be a good place for them at this point. I rarely have human guests, the chicks would not be able to get out of it, they could not hurt themselves in it, and the tub had space for them to move around. I lined the tub with layers of newspaper, put in a heating pad and covered it with a towel, eventually finding a lamp at a thrift store that I taped to the side because I had learned baby chickens need warmth from the top as they get it from their mothers by snuggling under her feathers. I also fashioned a little nest on the heating pad section for them. This is where they learned to drink water, scratch for food, and become chicken as they grew. As I realized I would be raising them by hand, I soon wanted to name them. Not being able to "sex" them I gave them names that would suit them no matter what their gender. Sunny, later to become Sonny, was for sunshine as he was just a little ball of yellow fluff. His sibling, who turned out to be a girl, was named Tera for terra firma, as she was brown like the earth.
I spent as much time with Tera and Sonny as I could, given a fulltime job and an already big animal family. They would come to my "kissy" noises and sit in my hands. I watched them grow and became so attached. As they got bigger I would take them outside and put them in a concoction I made of my dog pens and shade covers (it's hot here in Arizona) so they could learn to be chickens and get fresh air. Finally it came time to move them outside so I put them into an outdoor enclosure my ex-partner had built a few years before for a sick feral cat. It worked well and soon I would open the door and let them out during day bringing them back in at night with a call of their names and a few lettuce leaves.
They roosted in the rafters. Tera, especially, blended well into the other hens and seemed to individuate from me while Sonny still came to me when I would sit outdoors. He would often do a little dance ruffling his feathers up and dancing sideways towards me. It was like he was flirting with me, but I did not know for sure until I was at my veterinarian's one day and asked the staff if anyone knew what his behavior meant. One of the clients standing next to me said that this indeed was typical rooster behavior and that he was courting me. I have since observed this behavior by other roosters when they approach a hen. So I had a rooster boyfriend! Actually I was quite complimented and felt privileged that Sonny trusted me and saw me as one of his own—what a great gift.
All was well for a while until one morning I found Sonny sitting on a fence not moving. This was not usual behavior for him unless roosting at night. As I got closer I realized he was covered in blood and that his yellow feathers were now red. One of his eyes was swollen shut and his comb was dark brown with dried blood. He had obviously been attacked, probably by the other roosters, and he looked awful. I immediately picked him off the fence without any struggle and brought him inside. I carefully and gently tried to wash the blood off to see the extent of his injuries, but soon realized he was badly hurt. I was not sure what to do, so I called my vet to get a recommendation for an avian veterinarian.
I called, and luckily was able to get an appointment immediately, thank goodness. I gently put Sonny in a cat crate and drove him 30 miles to the vet. He was so trusting and never made a noise or showed fear through this whole ordeal! As we waited in the examining room at the vet's (who had not treated many chickens), Sonny stood on the table calmly and let them look at him without a struggle. They decided he had to spend the night as he needed antibiotics and it was unsure if they could save his eye. Worried, I reluctantly left him.
The next day I returned to good news! His eye would probably be fine and he was responding well to the medicines. When they brought him out he again calmly stood on the table as they gave me instructions on his care. I put him back in the crate, paid the bill and brought home a very expensive non-show rooster—his bill had been $1000.
Now I had a dilemma. I could not allow Sonny to be attacked again, so I decided to put him into the enclosure he had been spending nights in. But it was not a long term solution. It lacked sufficient sunlight and it was not big enough. Further, I would need it for housing the occasional stray cats I rescue. So I built him a special pen off my wooden fence with a perch where he could sit, rest, and sleep in safety, with nice grass beneath his feet. At times, I would crawl in and sit on the ground and he would do his sideway dance. Then I would hold him in my arms and he would snuggle in my neck. Over time I realized he needed company, so I caught a hen and put her in with him. But they needed more space.
When I first moved to my farm with a partner, we had three horses. For each, we had built a metal stall half-covered with what in Arizona is called shade cover. When my partner left in 1999, I was left with one horse and three stalls. I added a goat, Ralph, to one stall as a pasture pal for my horse, Cisco, but still had a second one free. So with ladder, plastic fence netting, wire and baling twine, and chain link fencing, I set about enclosing the 12' x 12' stall for Sonny and his girls. In two days I had built what I thought was a safe enclosure for Sonny, with sun and shade, dirt and space. I moved him in with the hen and soon caught another stray hen who joined his flock. Though conflicted about restricting Sonny's freedom, at the same time I worried about his safety. And as I have done with my indoor cats, I tried to make his habitat as close to what he needed for as full a happy life as possible, though I knew I was "imprisoning" him. So two years after he was born, life went on; Sonny still flirted with me, and I still spent time with him in his home sitting in the dirt "conversing."
That was until "the night."
One morning in mid-November 2008, I awoke around 7 a.m. feeling very peaceful. Ironically, that is unusual for me. Unfortunately, it was not to last, and I was very soon to enter my own private hell. I got out of bed, threw on a bathrobe and, as I do every morning, started to care for my animals before sitting down for coffee. It was just getting light out and I went out to feed my horse whom I had put in his stall over the last few days since we had flood irrigated his pasture. As I walked around the corner of the stall to say hi to Sonny and his girls, I was confronted with three obviously dead chickens on the ground just inside the fence line of their pen—Sonny and his girls. I was horrified and motionless. I wanted to scream, but could not. I wanted to undo whatever had happened—to go back in time and have them be alive. I was beyond myself, and as I sit here now in 2012 remembering, I am crying.
In a state of shock, I began to look around me. I knew not to look for coyotes, but for dogs. There have been dogs running loose in my neighborhood since I moved here. I also knew dogs had killed my neighbor's goats in the past, and dogs had gotten into my pasture through the irrigation ditches in the back. I went to the still wet irrigation ditch and, sure enough, it was full of large dog paw prints. On my way back across the pasture I found more gruesome evidence—the body and feather trail of one of my free-roaming roosters who had been chased around the pasture until he was either killed or too hurt to "play" and he died I had four dead chickens, all of whom I mourned and suffered for, but one who had been my dear friend and who had given the gift of trans-species friendship and learning. I was supposed to protect him….why did I not hear all the noise that would have been occurring that "killing night," as I call it? What terror must they have felt, and how inadequate and fearful I felt. And what could I do to undo it?
Sonny and his chicken companions are buried under a tree in my back yard right outside my bedroom. I have pictures of him in all his glory, alive and well under that same tree. I also have picture after picture of dog paw prints and a trail of feathers in the pasture in a file on my computer I call the "killing file." I had unrealistically hoped to use the paw prints to identify and find the dogs who had killed my friend. I needed to try anything, to do something to make up for what happened, to stop it from happening again… to undo it? The first three nights after the killing I slept outside in Sonny's house. I wanted to protect my horse and other animals from the dogs and I could not sleep in my own bed knowing that I had been there when I felt I should have been protecting my animals, my Sonny.
It took me two days to figure out how dogs might have pushed their way into the chicken house. I had secured it in all but one place, as it turned out. They had managed to push their way through chicken wire that was at the bottom of the gate to the house. I did talk to the police. I did try to identify the type of dog the tracks were made by. I did put up signs all around my neighborhood saying I had called the police and that they would be looking for dogs running loose in packs. I did put an electric fence along the irrigation ditch and I did not until recently put any more chickens in Sonny's house. Yet I still could not sleep and I could not forgive myself. And it was not just me who was traumatized and felt fear. The other chickens that roosted on the bars of the walls of the stalls never again have roosted there. One of their own was taken from that place of "safety" and chased around the pasture until dead. From then on, they have roosted in a tree in my back yard high above the reach of any dog.
I see the animals of the world as having to live by our rules. Even the wild animals live under our rules regarding their habitat, whether they can be hunted for clothing, food, or trophy. Because they live under our rules, I believe we must respect their animality and protect them–too often from us and our world. I am less angry at the dogs who killed Sonny than at the people who own the dogs and let them run wild to kill. And I am sorry that I live in a world where animals have to be penned up to protect them or to protect others from them. It is not their fault. It is ours, and that is why I feel I let Sonny down. I am not sure I have forgiven myself yet, but with this story, perhaps. I do want to thank Sonny for all he gave me in his too-short life. That all of you to know a little about him and that he once lived helps–a little.