The next time someone calls you “chicken,” you should take it as a compliment. It means that you have an unbreakable spirit — like Penelope, a chicken who lives with Vanessa and Steve Dawson in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. “She went through so much, and it was so clear that she wasn’t giving up. She inspired me,” Vanessa tells LAIKA. “Steve and I would say watching her, ‘Chicken means brave,’ not fearful.”
23 million chickens are killed in the U.S. for food every day. Or, 269 per second. Each year in New York, 50 thousand chickens are trucked in from factory farms to be sacrificed in a religious ritual called Kaporos. Penelope was one of those chickens.
She was born into industrial farming as a “broiler,” a term used for chickens raised for meat. Selectively bred by people to grow unnaturally large in a very short time, they are slaughtered at 6 weeks, still peeping like babies. It was around this age that young Penelope was put on a truck bound for New York.
Kapparot, also spelled Kaporos, is practiced by some segments of the Ultra-Orthodox population, but remains largely unknown to many Jews. It involves participants “atoning” for their sins by swinging live chickens over their heads three times while chanting a prayer. The chickens are then slaughtered in makeshift slaughterhouses on sidewalks. Thousands die while awaiting this procedure from being tightly packed together and stacked high in crates, exposed to the elements and denied food and water. The ones who make it past this stage are pulled from the crates with their wings pinned back, causing excruciating pain from breakage and torn ligaments. Dead and dying chickens, blood, excrement and garbage are left strewn around on public streets following the ritual, with no oversight for cleanup.
In the early morning hours of October 3, 2014, Vanessa Dawson, compelled by the cruelty and chaos she witnessed around her neighborhood, donned a disguise and set off to a Kaporos site in Borough Park to pull off a daring rescue. She left with a chicken in her arms — Penelope. “When I first was handed her, she was so frightened and struggled to get away,” recalled Vanessa. “She knew what they were doing in the ritual, it happens right in front of them. But when I took her and turned the corner, it was amazing how calm she was and she has remained that calm with us ever since.”
Not long after her rescue, Penelope was stricken with Mareks disease, a potentially deadly virus in chickens, that rendered her legs immobile. But she fought her way back, determined to live. “She actually dodged death about four times,” says Vanessa. “When she was unable to walk, it was clear that it freaked her out. She tried so much to push herself up with her wings that the ends became bloodied, and we had to wrap them. She is a very strong soul. I think all animals want to be here just as much as human beings do.” Today, Penelope is thriving in the Dawson household, along with the couple’s two rescued cats and a rabbit, who have not only accepted her, but befriended her.
“She is one of the sweetest, friendliest and most loving beings I have ever met,” Vanessa says of Penelope. “She will follow us all around the house. She waits for us by the door when we leave, which totally breaks our hearts. She will crawl up into your lap. She is kind to everyone who walks through our door. She is a good judge of character — like people would say about their dogs.” Earlier this year, Penelope was the subject of a short documentary by filmmaker Duncan Skiles.
“The Chickens Are Crying.”
Rina Deych is co-founder of the organization Alliance to End Chicken as Kaporos and has been protesting the use of chickens in Kaporos since the 1990s. A life-long resident of Borough Park, where every year at least eight Kaporos sites are erected within a 10 block radius, she comes from 18 generations of rabbis. “Many rabbis point out that the ritual, which is not mentioned in the Torah or Talmud, violates several mandates and imperatives in both works, not the least of which is “Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim”, the Torah mandate not to cause suffering to animals,” Deych told LAIKA. Since the ritual’s resurgence in the 1970s, an increasing number of Orthodox rabbis have spoken out against it, urging the use of coins instead of chickens.
In July of this year, the Alliance, along with 20 additional plaintiffs including area residents, concerned individuals and activists, filed a lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court New York to issue an injunction against Hasidic rabbis and synagogues in Brooklyn from using chickens in Kaporos. “I think people are under the misconception that the First Amendment, which does assure religious freedom, protects anything done in the name of religion. It doesn’t,” said Deych. “It protects freedom of belief, thought, not action. One still must work within the confines of the law.” The plaintiffs argued that the ritual is a public nuisance that violates multiple health and animal cruelty laws. On September 14, a state judge dismissed the case, saying that it was up to city officials to enforce sanitary codes. The ritual was allowed to proceed again, with hundreds of people converging in Brooklyn to protest the bloodbath. Another court hearing will take place next month to address other illegalities connected to the practice.
Over the years, Deych, along with a rising tide of activists, have witnessed and documented countless disturbing scenes during Kaporos. “You can see small children crying and hiding behind their mothers’ skirts while older children torment the birds,” says Deych of the kids who are brought to the ritual. “The little ones say to their parents, ‘The chickens are crying.’ The parents lie to them and say, ‘The birds are not crying, they’re singing. They are happy to do this for you.’ The kids grow up to doubt their own instincts. This, in my opinion, is child abuse.” Last year, Deych managed to secure the release of a group of Kaporos chickens, known as the “Boro Park 17”, from a site she described as one of the most egregious. “Half-dead dehydrated birds [were] thrown like sacs of garbage, after being swung and having their throats cut, onto the ground and landing upside-down, with wings breaking,” she recalls. “Blood and feces were all over the street, and the stench was overpowering.”
A registered nurse of 36 years and a new grandmother, Deych is deeply concerned about the public risks posed by the unsanitary and hazardous conditions of the ritual. “Aside from the obvious unimaginable suffering involved, with avian flu, salmonella, and other zoonotic diseases in the news these days, these operations are inviting a huge potential health crisis,” she says. And while practitioners claim that the slaughtered chickens are donated to the poor, activists have repeatedly documented dead chickens discarded into trash bags and thrown away.
“It didn’t take long before I quit eating chicken after I went to work there.”
With thousands of chickens trucked into New York City for Kaporos, and each bird sold to practitioners for about $12, area synagogues rake in millions, making the torture and killing of chickens a lucrative business.
The same holds true for the rest of the world, year-round. Chickens make up 95% of all land animals slaughtered for food: 50 billion are killed globally. In the US, sales of poultry exceeded $40 billion in 2013. Chicken processors are among the country’s richest companies. Koch Foods, for example, made $3 billion in revenue last year. Each week, they slaughter, ship and sell 12 million chickens. Its CEO Joseph Grendys is a billionaire. Companies like Koch also exploit the vulnerability of their predominantly immigrant, rural, poor and uneducated labor force. The undocumented immigrants among them are stripped of virtually all workers rights. Similarly, the chickens that are killed by the workers are excluded from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which cultivates a climate of rampant animal abuse.
In the early 2000s, former Tyson Foods worker Virgil Butler chronicled his experience at a Grannis, Arkansas chicken slaughter plant in his blog The Cyberactivist (Butler passed away in 2006). In it, he recounted routine procedures, like a nine-person team killing 92,000 chickens in 8 hours. “They try everything in their power to get away from the killing machine and to get away from you,” he wrote of the chickens. “They have been stunned, so their muscles don’t work, but their eyes do, and you can tell by them looking at you, they’re scared to death.” Nightly sadism by fellow workers included tying chickens’ legs together in a knot. “It didn’t take long before I quit eating chicken after I went to work there,” he wrote. “That was my first form of protest.”
Butler’s stories blew the lid off industrial chicken farming and inspired countless readers to change their eating habits, including then-Cornell University senior Josh Tetrick, who became vegan thanks to the blog. “Before reading it, I never thought about how meat came to be on my plate,” he told the LA Times in 2003. Tetrick went on to found Hampton Creek, a vegan food startup with a hugely popular flagship product, Beyond Mayo. His company was recently subjected to an attempted takedown by the USDA-appointed American Egg Board, who were worried about Hampton Creek’s impact on the U.S. egg industry.
For Tyson, one of the largest chicken producers in the US with 45 slaughterhouses in operation, as well as other chicken processors, it’s still business as usual. In September, the non-profit Animal Legal Defense Fund released undercover video footage taken inside a Tyson slaughter plant in Carthage, Texas that showed systematic abuse of both animals and workers. And it’s just one of many (in July, the animal advocacy organization Mercy For Animals exposed horrific conditions at a chicken farm that contracts with Tyson).
“Working at Tyson Foods for 21 days made me physically sick,” the undercover ALDF investigator said, who developed eye infections and carpal tunnel syndrome. Over the years, as processing line speeds at plants have accelerated due to consumer demand for chicken, the use of toxic chemicals that cause severe health problems in humans has also increased. On the impossibly fast-moving line, the ALDF investigator saw workers routinely mishandle the chickens. “The overall attitude towards the chickens at the Tyson plant is that they were thought of as objects and not living and feeling beings.”
“Clever Marketing Hides a Harrowing Reality.”
Juno was on her way to slaughter, when the truck she was on overturned on a highway in Spain last December. Thousands of chickens tumbled out, most of them still trapped inside their cages. Activists from nearby Leon Vegano Animal Sanctuary rushed to the scene, finding mangled and dead birds crushed in cages; those strewn across the road were being grabbed by locals to take home and eat. Yet amidst the devastation, 314 were still managed to be saved, making this the biggest animal rescue in Spain’s history.
“When we heard about what had happened, we drove through the night to bring as many as we could fit in our car back here,” recalls Abigail Geer to LAIKA, who is the co-founder of Mino Valley Farm Sanctuary in Galicia, Northern Spain. Juno was among the 45 lucky ones brought to the sanctuary.
These were egg-laying hens, who had spent their lives confined to small cages, which prohibited them from spreading their wings and expressing basic instincts. “Clever marketing and deceitful labeling hides a harrowing reality,” says Geer. “The modern egg laying hen is a debeaked, tortured bird who is jammed into a tiny prison, squeezed together with 5 to 6 other tormented hens in pitch black sheds holding anywhere up to 125,000 other terrified birds.”
They arrived at Mino Valley with a litany of injuries and ailments and, in the beginning, were too terrified to even emerge from their houses. But with love, nurture and freedom, they have completely transformed within a year. “Now they charge around like crazy, going wherever they want, which is usually to take a drink from the pond, dust bathe in the sun or nestle down for a rest in the hammock,” says Geer. The hens have easily befriended the other animals at the sanctuary and are particularly adoring of Fernando the donkey. “Every day, you will find the same group of hens snuggled up beside Fernando, climbing on his back while he’s taking a nap and, of course, trying to steal his breakfast!”
“She’s Stronger Than Me.”
“If you’re having a bad day, just go near Ellie, and you’ll feel better,” Wendy Stura tells LAIKA. Along with her husband Michael, she runs Skylands Animal Sanctuary in Wantage, NJ, where the doting copper-hued hen resides. “Ellie is definitely a ‘people chicken’,” says Wendy. It’s a remarkable characteristic, given all she had endured at the hands of people before her rescue last summer.
Ellie was found on a residential street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn by area resident Lori Barrett. Based on the fragile chicken’s breed and feather condition, she had likely been an egg laying hen, who had escaped from a nearby live kill market. A few days after her rescue, I had the joy of meeting Ellie and wrote about her in my Editor’s Note in Issue Four of LAIKA. “On the way home, two people asked me if I was going to eat her,” recalls Lori of the day she saved her. “When I told them that I was going to take her to a sanctuary so that she could live in a nice place, they seemed so happy. It was almost as if they had no idea that a farmed animal could be treated with love and, when they found out, they embraced the idea immediately.”
In spite of being emaciated and exhausted, Ellie relished life. “Ellie’s joy in eating and being stroked on her head showed that she wanted to live,” recalls Lori. “She loved berries and squash and wanted to be petted, and she preened my hair.” When Barrett gave her a bath, Ellie responded to being gently blow-dried with pleasure. After spending a week with Lori in Brooklyn, she went on to a more permanent home at Skylands.
Wendy is amazed by how quickly Ellie regained her strength after she first arrived. “She still had that spirit. She still had that little happiness,” says Wendy. “Their little bodies have been through so much, and she’s with us for a couple of months and totally recovers. I admire that. She’s stronger than me.”
Ellie spent a year at the Stura’s home while construction was being completed at the sanctuary, giving her and Wendy a chance to develop a close bond. “Chickens kind of squat down when they want to be pet, and Ellie would always do that,” says Wendy. “She would sit on my lap. She was always looking for us and always talking to us.” Like other companion animals, as well as people, chickens enjoy having a space of their own to retreat into. Now at the sanctuary’s new chicken barn, Ellie, like the other chickens, has her own small carrier with hay and shavings to spend time in. But at the Stura’s home, her favorite cozy hideout was a cardboard box. “She doesn’t need much,” says Wendy. “She’s very simple. She just wants love, that’s really what she wants. She sees me and Michael and she makes this little peep. She loves us, she definitely does.”
“Roosters Love Being Cuddled.”
Tabitha and Letty are two chickens who went to college. Well, sort of. Last fall in her senior year at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, long-time vegan Rocky Schwartz learned online of two young chickens who were going to be slaughtered unless they found a home. Rocky plugged into the Facebook group “Vegans with Chickens” for some advice and, given her large dorm room, knowledge of chicken care basics and the life-or-death nature of the situation, decided that Tabitha the rooster and Letty the hen would become her indoor roommates until the spring.
“We developed a routine, and I think our life together looked pretty similar to the setup people have with any other companion animal,” says Rocky of their college days. Although they were only toddlers when rescued, the chickens’ distinct personalities emerged quickly. As the more adventurous of the two, Letty was first to figure out how to fly up onto Rocky’s bed. She was also strongly protective of Tabitha. “She used to scream whenever I’d pick him up,” says Rocky. Tabitha turned out to be the snuggler. “Many people are surprised to learn that roosters are usually more cuddly than hens are.”
Throughout the winter, Tabitha and Letty loved perching themselves on Rocky’s bed to watch the snow fall outside the window. “They also loved it when I’d bring in a bowl of snow for them to munch on as a special treat,” remembers Rocky.
These days, the trio resides at Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary in Montague, NJ, where Rocky is an animal caregiver. Life has come full circle for Tabs and Letty. You could say they are now educators themselves, teaching compassion to sanctuary visitors. In the Big Barn, their companions are other rescued chickens, like a flock rescued from Kaporos, and a hen named Polly, who was found in Prospect Park after escaping a live-kill market. “Tabitha and Letty love Polly,” says Rocky. “Sometimes at bedtime, I even spot Tabitha sleeping with one wing around her.”
Meet Your Meatless Meat
In recent years, the marketplace has exploded with vegan products that successfully achieve the texture, taste and appearance of chicken and other animal-based meat. The “fake” meat revolution is very real. Beyond Meat‘s range of satisfying chicken-free strips comes in a variety of flavors. Gardein has an extensive line of chick’n that includes everything from tenders, to patties, and even barbecue wings. Boca, Tofurky and Yves all provide an array of chik’n nuggets, patties, pot pies and strips that are high in protein. And mother nature, of course, makes for a reliable source. Maitake mushrooms, for example, also known as “hen of the woods,” have an uncannily chicken-like shred. Try frying them or searing them for maximum flavor. There are countless reasons for making room in your heart for living chickens, while still keeping your stomach full. “I am so fortunate to get to know chickens as individuals,” says Lori Barrett, who since rescuing Ellie has also saved a baby rooster from Kaporos. “I think people who eat them miss out on the joy of helping them thrive.”
by Julie Gueraseva
Top image of Penelope and Vanessa Dawson is a still from Penelope: A Rescue Story by Duncan Stiles.