— By Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —
You’d think there’d be peace on a lovely early summer morning at a wildlife sanctuary as the first rays of sun appear over the mountains. But no. It’s true that the bears are sound asleep in their hammocks. The horses and bison and burros are standing stock still, soaking in the early morning sun. The wolves are curled up, enjoying the warming rays in the cool of the dawn.
But at 5:30 a.m., I hear the chickens’ impatient squawking and feel this imperious energy calling all the way across to where I sleep—let us out, da….it! (There is no pretense of politeness there.) Unable to resist the sheer power of their outrage, I drag myself out of my blankets, open the little door at the bottom of the coop, and out they rush.
They have been waiting, crowding the door for “hours.” If I were little, like a mouse or ground squirrel, there is no doubt I would have been run over in their mad dash to get OUT OUT OUT, nearly getting stuck in the narrow door as they try to go through two at a time. (The saying “the early bird gets the worm” is apparently their motto.) There are early morning bugs! Fresh dewy grass! They are not hungry, mind you—there is plenty of organic grain in the coop, but it is dry. Bugs are juicy. Grass is juicy. Snacks from our plates are juicy (humans don’t like dry grain either). I think the operative word is “juicy.”
As I go to the grill—here come the chickens. Lay out an outside lunch or dinner—there are the chickens. Try to have a peaceful lunch—Sally jumps on the table and will not be refused. I literally have to push my chair back from the table and take my plate on my lap, but that doesn’t work either. I finally push her gently off the table—outrage. Fearless. Demanding. Utterly entitled. And she comes back.
When we need to put them away for any given reason (a wolf being walked by, for example) there are the “Grubblies”—fly larvae, for which they go nuts. All we have to do is shake the bag and they stop what they are doing, run-waddling from all corners of the ranch as fast as chicken feet will carry them, some flapping their wings in excitement. It goes from beak to gullet so fast they can’t possibly taste it.
When it’s time to feed our carnivorous animals (I guess the chickens need to be included in that), you’ll see a human with the bucket trailed by nine eager hens. Apparently chickens are not voluntary vegetarians. When you think about it, bugs—their favorite—are not vegetarian food, although they do like their fresh organic lettuce upon occasion. Heather, our office/ranch manager, has a film in mind: 18 chicken feet running in a flock as fast as they can. Tayler calls them our velociraptor herd and—as indeed they are, all birds being direct descendants of dinosaurs. But chickens really look like them in miniature as they run, a la Jurassic Park.
The sheer vitality and intensity of their scratching, their exploratory nature, is incredible. Wherever you look on the ranch, there always seems to be a hen or two, even though you can’t figure out how they got there. Despite our best protective efforts, they are always busy exploring every nook and cranny on the ranch. Under the rose bush, out in the pasture, between the feet of the bison (bison droppings are the best), along the edge of the garden where the foxes and coyotes run (the grass is juicier there, harder to mow), along the edge of the wolf area (those meaty bones are an irresistible magnet). Not a good idea, but they are so focused on food and fearless that we spend as much time wrangling chickens as any of our wild animals.
Actually, they are pretty wild. From a few days old, we let them run free and they form an uncontrollable gang. They are pretty much into themselves and their own gratification—and yet, I will look out of the office and there will be Boo the Araucana hen in Ann’s arms, obviously enjoying being held and petted. Or Sally the white hen squatting down invitingly when Patrick reaches to pick her up, and she stays there contentedly as the humans chat.
Regarding the peace: once the chickens are out squawking their demands and greeting the day with excitement, the burros, hearing this, start braying lustily for their breakfast. The bison, not to be outdone, emit their deep grunting, which says, “I want…” The wolves start their morning howl. The bears want their berries and trout. Tahi the cougar chirps for her morning liver. The foxes, jealousy being a primary trait besides greed, start loudly squabbling, sure others are getting better food sooner than they. The coyotes, annoyed by the cacophony, start their morning yips—and so the day progresses, all of us moving through the conversations, disagreements, and negotiations between animals and animals, animals and people, and people and people.
Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.