What Wings Are For: The Story of Heart

By Kay Evans

Photo by: Kay Evans

On Christmas Eve 2003 I drove past a Perdue chicken shed and saw the doors open, which meant the chickens had been taken away to slaughter. I went in and found a few living chickens huddled in small groups and many dead chickens. I gathered up what I thought were all the living ones and put them in my truck, but I continued to hear peeping inside the shed. I followed the peeping to a very small, almost featherless chicken huddled under a larger dead chicken, and I brought him out too.

I drove straight to our vet’s office feeling that a few of these birds were suffering beyond recovery. Four were euthanized, leaving me with ten chickens.

At home I settled them in with our other rescued “broiler” chickens and brought the little, nearly featherless one inside with me. The next day I took him to my mother’s house, where my sister named him Hearty, because she said he must have a lot of heart to survive as he did. It is remarkable, especially because, as the majority of the chickens in the sheds grow bigger, Perdue raises the automatic feeders and waterers higher from the floor in order to starve out the birds who lag in growth.

I didn’t think Hearty would live, he was so stunted. His feet were really big and his head and body were small. His only feathers were on top of his head and the quills at the ends of his wings. Since it was cold outside, he stayed in our bathtub on soft towels at night and on weekends. We wanted him to fit in with the flock, so on the first day the weather broke, we put him out with the other chickens, but he nearly died of even that much cold, so I put him under my shirt, against my skin, until he was warm.

On weekdays he came with me to my job on campus, and I took him outside several times a day, into the yard in front of the building. I’d walk around slowly, and he’d walk behind me, peeping the whole time. Hearty make a lot of human friends that way. Everybody who saw him liked him.

His feathers gradually came in and he acted very proud of them. He seemed to spend more time preening them than do most of the other chickens. As the weather warmed, we moved him into a small pen with a large hen who had been saved by the Eastern Shore Sanctuary from a broiler breeder operation in Maryland, and this worked well. On cool nights, they both came inside with us. Hearty liked to get underneath the hen as much as possible. He would cuddle up with her and peep because he was still a baby and wanted his mother. He liked to be picked up and cuddled, and he loved grapes. One morning I found the hen had died during the night, and Hearty was huddled against her body, peeping just like the day I found him in the Perdue shed.

So we moved another hen in with him and they kept each other company. As Hearty grew bigger, I shortened his name to Heart, and he was befriended by our dog, Jill. But in March we knew something was wrong with him. He would come over to be picked up, but as soon as I lifted him, he began struggling to breathe, no matter how gently I tried to hold him. I got a small basket so I could move him to different places in the yard, but even lifting him just briefly to put him in the basket caused him distress. His early starvation in the Perdue shed had taken its toll on his developing kidneys and liver, and he had developed the fluid accumulation in his body cavities known as ascites.*

I was never able to pick him up after that. Instead I would go into his pen and kneel down and cuddle with him as best I could and talk to him. Heart died one Saturday afternoon in mid-April, less than four months after coming to live with us. I held him then and snuggled his body like I used to, and we buried him wrapped up in flowers.

*Ascites syndrome is a disease of the cardiovascular system in young broiler chickens resulting from forced rapid growth and oxygen-deficient mechanical incubators and confinement sheds. The strain on the heart and lungs to supply the body’s abnormal oxygen requirements, combined with low oxygen and polluted air in the production environment, causes high blood pressure, weakened heart valves, and leaking blood vessels. The birds are usually found dead on their backs with bloated stomachs reflecting the accumulation of blood vessel fluid in their body cavities. A clear description of the ascites syndrome process appears in UPC President Karen Davis’s book, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, pp. 94-96.

Kay Evans lives in North Carolina, where she and her partner, Jim Robertson, give shelter to chickens abandoned by the poultry industry. Wearing her “Chickens are Too Neat to Eat” t-shirt, Kay, a vegan, won 1st prize in the Women’s Run for the Birds Race at the Eastern Shore Birding Festival in 2004. Jim Robertson’s photo of two of her other rescued chickens, Ivy the baby and Ruby the foster mother hen – “instead of just keeping each other company, Ruby adopted Ivy” – appears on UPC’s poster “What Wings Are For.”