Crossing the Road–A Chicken’s Journey

While I’m posting old articles, I thought y’all might enjoy looking back at this one–also from the Pulse.

“The ground was frozen solid so I couldn’t bury her,” she began slowly. “It was during that week of sub-freezing weather…” Her voice trailed as she thought back to the trying morning in question. “It took awhile,” she continued. “But I managed to break open the compost and bury her there… underneath a cushaw cross…”

Candice Dougherty, assistant manager at Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga, went on to explain how she had been the only one at the farm that morning—a “snow day,” she called it. She worked in the office for a while before deciding to check on things in the greenhouse. When the big white chicken she lovingly called “Chicky,” didn’t meet her at the door, she began to worry. She scanned the greenhouse. She didn’t have far to look. On her left, a few white feathers stuck over the edge of a fifty-gallon water bucket.

“That bucket is big—about two-and-a-half feet tall.” Dougherty said, her brow furrowed with disgust. “She had to put some effort into getting up there, but she couldn’t get back out…she was stiff as a board. I saw her and just started cussin’.”

I wondered how a fat and awkward bird like that could get to the top of such a big bucket, so I asked Dougherty if she ever saw her fly. “No, not really,” she responded. “If you’d walk away (from her), she would scream. “I’m comin! I’m comin!” She went on to describe a big bird with a wobbly gait that would run after her, flapping its wings, never getting off the ground.

Around the corner from us, Farm Manager Joel Houser was listening to our conversation. “We went from being repulsed by her to falling in love with her,” he added.

“Chicky” went by many names in her last 30 days, but most folks called her Chicken Little. Her odd way of wobbling when she walked, the curious way she cocked her head and looked up at folks, and the way she followed farm workers and visitors around like a puppy made her irresistible to almost all who met her.

Chicken Little’s journey to Crabtree began on the morning of December 3rd, 2009. Allison Fellers was driving home from taking her son to school. It was 7:45 and the self-proclaimed “not-a-morning-person” was still in her pajamas when she saw something wobbling around in the middle of the road. “It didn’t know if it should go right or left. It was stuck there in the road…” When a man in a minivan slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing the confused bird, Fellers pulled over, turned on her flashers, ran to the middle of the road, knelt down in her multi-colored, polka dot flannel pajamas and down slippers, said a prayer, scooped up the chicken, and ran back to her car.

Chicken Little was “near death” and “covered from head to tail in chicken poop” When Fellers found her lost in the middle of Broad Street in front of the Pilgrim’s Pride processing facility. She put the chicken in the front seat, but it immediately jumped to the floorboard where it sat, unmoving, eyes closed, all the way to the farm.

Chickens were not new to Fellers. Before she and her husband John moved from Signal Mountain down to the Southside neighborhood of Cowart Place, they kept egg-layers for a while, but this was unlike any chicken she had ever encountered.

“It didn’t have the natural shape of a chicken. I don’t know if it was the lack of feathers…” Fellers recounted how her whole car reeked of chicken feces and how the chicken was “practically bald with just a few sparse feathers here and there.”

Speaking of factory farm chickens in general, Mike Barron, greenhouse manager said, “They have a tough time standing on their own. They are bred for muscle size but don’t develop strength.”

In spite of the fact that Crabtree is a vegetable farm and doesn’t raise any animals, Chicken Little was not the first chicken dropped off at the urban farm. “Someone brought us a rooster that didn’t like kids,” Said Joel Houser, farm manager. “We fattened it for a few days and then ate it, so when (Fellers) called, we thought, Great, another one to eat! When we saw it, though, we knew we couldn’t eat it.”

When the folks at Crabtree first saw (and smelled) the disheveled chicken Fellers delivered, nobody thought it had a chance at survival.  Dougherty opened the passenger door and looked down at the smelly mess in the floorboard. The chicken didn’t even open her eyes as she reluctantly wrapped her arms around it and lifted it out of the car. Eager to distance herself from the filthy bird, Dougherty immediately set it down in the parking lot. Looking for a response, she poked it. The chicken fell over. According to Dougherty, “You could touch her eye and she wouldn’t even blink.” The crew had plenty of reservations, not the least of which was disease. But since the farm had no resident chickens whose health they needed to worry about, and since they were certainly in a better position to keep her than was Fellers, they let the sickly bird stay, and despite their less-than-positive expectations for the pitiful-looking fowl, they decided to do their best to care for it.

“We put her in the greenhouse to protect her from Hawks…put in a bowl of water and a winter squash, and she didn’t touch it. She didn’t know what real food was. Didn’t recognize it,” said Dougherty, clearly disgusted by the state of the chicken.

For the first couple of days, the poor, disheveled and disoriented chicken hunkered under the protective cover of the greenhouse without eating a thing and barely moving. Then Dougherty decided to try something different; she scattered a little multi-colored popcorn on the ground in front of Chicken Little and the bird immediately went for the yellow corn, devouring it but ignoring the other colors. “Must have looked like whatever they fed it where it was raised,” Dougherty reasoned.

With limited feeding success now under her belt, Dougherty gained some hope and started experimenting. She offered a worm, but even when she draped it over the chicken’s beak, it wouldn’t eat it. Then she put some popcorn on a cushaw squash. Chicken Little ate the popcorn and when bits of squash stuck to the corn, she quickly discovered she liked that too.

Realizing that the chicken had the capacity to be taught, Dougherty waited for a sunny day, then shooed now-named “Chicken Little” out of the greenhouse. Again, she tried showing her an earthworm. This time, the more alert and less hungry chicken saw the wriggler and pecked it right up, so she gave her a handful of soil filled with worms. It worked…to a degree. Chicken Little watched the dirt and pecked out anything she saw moving, but she made no effort to scratch at the dirt, to uncover more food.

Dougherty started leaving seed, a squash, an apple or some popcorn out in the greenhouse at night. During the day they let her out, gave her free-range access to the farm.After being introduced to her new menu, Chicken Little started following Dougherty around the farm. Surrounded by enough quality food to feed an army of chickens, this one was interested only in what Dougherty would give her. One day, while weeding, Dougherty found a slug. Since her friend stood by looking for a treat, she tried tossing it the slug. The chicken took one sideways glance at the pest and pecked it up. Dougherty realized that she had a great tool on her hands and encouraged to chicken to go everywhere with her.  She took her in the hoop house (a plastic sided, tunnel-shaped greenhouse for winter growing) and Chicken Little followed along, eating whatever she threw her. Dougherty made the mistake of tossing a wilted piece of kale to the eating machine.  She loved it and couldn’t be stopped from eating it, so Dougherty imposed a new rule on the chicken with the growing appetite. No Chickens in the hoop houses! Chicken Little didn’t seem to mind the imposition, though. Dougherty taught her to eat clover and as long as she kept talking to her, the bird followed along outside hoop house, waiting for her friend to emerge, all the while stuffing herself on clover. By the end of a long day, Chicken Little’s crop looked like a baseball. “Overnight, her gullet would shrink, but the end of the day, she would be fat again,” Houser observed.

It was the following Wednesday when Dougherty says she really fell in love with the bird. The crew was pulling privet (an invasive European hedge that thrives in edge habitat) at the margin of the property. Chicken Little was right alongside. She was awkward at first in trying to eat the berries that are a favorite of songbirds, but she soon learned to scratch at the berries to reveal the inner seed. What little Chicken Little didn’t know was that she was doing the farm a huge service because unlike songbirds who spread the invasive plant when they eat the berries, then drop them in scat along power lines and fencerows, Chickens are able to totally digest the seed so that it comes out as rich fertilizer, no longer viable for reproduction.

As the chicken continued to gain strength, she started taking care of herself, too. For the first time they saw her preening—slowly transforming her previously caked feathers. “We didn’t clean her, but by the time she left here, she was beautiful and white,” Dougherty said with a proud smile. “She had cleaned herself up…her beak was a mess though—all covered with dried squash.”

I learned firsthand what a quick study the new mascot was on a visit to the farm in the middle of December. At the end of my stay, several of us chatted under an oak tree in the gravel parking lot. Chicken Little heard Dougherty’s distinctive laugh and came running over. She turned her head, pointing one of her eyes up at her companion. When Dougherty didn’t respond with an expected treat, Chicken Little just hung out with us.

Surprised the chicken wasn’t scratching the ground for food, I asked Dougherty why her chicken wasn’t eating the smashed acorns that were all around us. “Too sour?” I speculated. “No. She just doesn’t know its food,” she responded with a chuckle.
That’s all I needed to hear. Kneeling down, I picked up a broken nut and crumbled it in my hand, which I then extended towards the chicken. After the same sideways look she had given Candice moments before, Chicken Little pecked the seed bits from my palm. I pointed to the ground to show her that there was more where that came from, but she just gave me that same look. Again, I crushed up a seed in my hand. After a few of these offers, I let Chicken Little see the nut, then dropped it at her feet. That was all it took. As she ate the one I presented, her little head jerked to one side and then the other as she began to recognize the smorgasbord at her feet.  For the rest of our conversation in the parking lot, Chicken Little was fat and happy in acorn heaven.

According to Houser, Chicken Little maintained her love for acorns. A few days after the acorn discovery, he pulled in the parking lot to see a flock of doves under that same oak tree, foraging for nuts. In the middle of them, one odd, white bird stood out, towering over the rest of the smaller gray birds. “She was one of the flock,” he said with a smile.

Reflecting back on the relationship she forged with her companion, Dougherty commented that she “didn’t know chickens could understand like that… She learned the sound of my voice.” And Chicken Little didn’t just recognize her voice but “knew when she was being called.”

Dougherty told me how they were out taking pictures of the farm in the snow, and she called Chicken Little so they could get a photograph of her. “As soon as she heard me call, she came running.”  The next morning Dougherty stood in the door of the greenhouse, calling for a friend who didn’t answer.

I called Pilgrim’s Pride in an attempt to learn the prehistory of Chicken Little. I wanted to ask them how she might have come to wandering around in the middle of Broad Street, covered in feces. I wondered how a chicken could live to maturity without learning what “real food was.”  I had a lot of questions.

My first call, to the corporate office in Texas, resulted in the voice mailbox of Ray Atkinson, where I left a message. I tried the local plant.

“Hello. Pilgrim’s Pride.”

“Hi, my name is Jim Pfitzer. I’m writing an article about a chicken…”
    “I’ll transfer you.”

“Hello, Rick Bailey.”
    “Hi, my name is Jim Pfitzer. I’m writing an article about a chicken…”
    “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to call Ray Atkinson. I can give you his number”

“He’s in Texas, right?”
“That’s right.
“But the chicken is in Chattanooga…”

“I’m sorry, but you have to call Mr. Atkinson.”

“But he’s in Texas…”

“Correct.”

“But Chicken Little is right here in Chattanooga. It’s a feel-good story about one of your chickens, who got a new lease on life. I was hoping…”

“Sir, you have to call Ray Atkinson His number is…”

“But Ray Atkinson hasn’t met this chicken. It’s in Chattanooga. Perhaps you have. If I could just have a minute of your time….”

“I’m sorry sir, but it is company policy.”

“Pilgrim’s Pride has a company policy dictating that community interest stories about Chattanooga chickens can only be addressed by Ray Atkinson in Texas?”

“That’s correct, Sir.”

“You won’t talk to me at all?”

“No Sir. It’s Company Policy.”

“Can we talk about…”
    “No Sir. We cannot talk about anything.”

Perhaps it’s just as well that they wouldn’t talk to me. According to their website, Pilgrim’s Pride has the capacity to process 45 million birds per week. Even if he had talked, I doubt … would have been able to tell me about one, specific bird.

After our non-conversation, I drove over to the intersection of Main and Broad, just a half block from where Fellers and Chicken Little first met. Looking at the flatbed trailers stacked with thousands of chickens in tiny, individual cages, I couldn’t help noticing how they all looked alarmingly like the poor white bird that was saved by Allison Fellers on that chilly morning in early December, and I remember something Fellers told me about how that little bird affected her. “I changed my route taking my son to school because I can’t stand to see the trucks with all those chickens packed together…” She was quiet for moment, then added, “They’re like children. They’re innocent. God made them to do certain things…scratch in the dirt and eat bugs.” Before driving away, I thought about how different Chicken Little looked after just a couple of weeks of good food and sunshine.

Dying alone in the middle of the night, in a bucket of cold water is certainly a horrible death for a lovable bird that became the mascot of an urban farm, but at least this one bird out of 45 million found some redemption in her final days. It is certainly safe to assume that she was the only one of those millions who was loved enough to have an obituary.

In an email to friends and admirers of Chicken Little on the afternoon after her death, Houser eulogized her this way: “After many trials and tribulations, Chicken Little succumbed to a bucket of water in the greenhouse. She was a tough chicken, full of personality, who loved company. After being raised by the devil, rescued by a woman in pajamas, she found herself in her later weeks. She may not have come to us a chicken, but she died a chicken.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s