We didn’t set out to steal the chickens, but fate has a way of stepping in. It was a confluence of circumstances that lead the Beatnik and I to be cruising north on a nondescript highway that Saturday morning. The fact that it was a Saturday and morning was surprising in itself, because the Beatnik isn’t known for early rising, but I was on a mission.
I’d been wrestling for months with an invasion of Kikuyu (the grass, not the people) and I had long decided that if I didn’t want to poison my entire eco-system the only way to go was a chook tractor. This ingenious device is a portable chicken coop that you move from section to section of the garden to keep the weeds under control. I had acquired a set of instructions for building one, but these were filed along with recipes, exercise programs and various DIY sheets in the “one of these days” section of my filing cabinet. Chooks meant commitment.
Then I read a report in Choice which convinced me that not only were the “free range” eggs I had been paying a premium price for phony; they were probably also stale, since the “best before” date was often decided on whimsy.
This was bad news because I’d felt that by choosing “free range” I was doing something to stop the inhumane production of “cage eggs”, in which hens are crammed together into small wire cages to live out their miserable lives with barely enough room to stand. The barbaric cage system is a cheap and efficient way to produce eggs and accounts for more than two-thirds of the eggs sold in Australian supermarkets. I knew my paltry (pardon the pun) effort wouldn’t make a difference, but thought that if enough people voted with their trolleys, things would change.
Choice found that despite the marketing guff the reality is that many “free range” eggs are produced on a truly industrial scale. The hens may be housed in huge high density sheds, never setting foot outside, their eggs rolling off conveyor belts.
We are being left behind with our animal welfare policies. The European Union has enforceable regulations for “free range” labelling and is phasing out caged egg production, which is already banned in Switzerland. In Australia we have only voluntary standards set by the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA) and animal welfare organisations, such as the RSPCA. Without a clear national definition of “free range” and meaningful regulation, the term is just a marketing gimmick, and a misleading one at that.
I had to get my own chooks! A call to the council revealed that even on my tiny inner city block I was allowed to keep up to 12 hens. A quick surf of the web turned up a couple of places that shipped chook tractors in flat packs so I chose the closest one. The “Princess Pen”, as it was called, arrived promptly and I managed to put it together in about an hour and a half, with very little swearing.
It is designed for two to three chooks and, with a floor space of just over two square metres, it is compact enough for small gardens. In comparison, although the FREPAA recommends no more than seven birds per metre, the Australian Egg Corporation’s quality assurance scheme allows producers to cram 18 birds into every square metre.
A visit to the local produce store saw me stocked up on wheat, pellets and comfy looking hay. All I needed now were the chooks.
After driving up and down the highway looking for a turnoff, the Beatnik suddenly spotted the ominous humps of the battery sheds crouching in a distant paddock to our left. We found an exit and meandered until we found ourselves pulling into the driveway of the egg farm. We had taken along a couple of pet travel crates and duly took our place in the queue with people waiting to fill their egg cartons. I looked up at the price board. Eggs cost $4 a dozen, bags of chicken manure, $5. I reached the front of the queue.
“How much for live chooks,” I asked.
“Two bucks each,” was the desultory reply. I was shocked that a life was worth so little — less than half the price of a bag of excrement.
“I’ll take three,” I said, wishing I could take the whole lot.
The woman stuck her head out the door and yelled “Ted, these people want three culls.” She jerked her thumb towards the enclosure. “He’ll fix you up.”
A man stuck his head out the door of the shed, glanced at us and disappeared back inside. The Beatnik slouched over and followed him, ignoring the “keep out” signs. He took one look at tier upon tier of cages above a conveyor belt and came out ashen. “My god, don’t go in there,” he said taking my elbow. “The noise, the smell — it’s like a something out of a nightmare.”
Silent Ted re-appeared, dangling three chooks by their legs. He started stuffing them in the crates, oblivious to an outstretched wing that was caught on the gate of the cage.
“Stop it, you’re hurting them,” I said, snatching the chook from him. He just dropped all three and wandered back inside without a word. We loaded the chooks and I looked at the Beatnik. We were both thinking the same thing. He shook his head. “It’s only six bucks, just go in and pay so we can get out of here.”
I went back into the shop, but it was empty. I shrugged and returned to the Beatnik. “The chooks are free.” We jumped in the car and shot off down the road with our precious cargo.
When we got home I put the chooks in their new pen. They were a sorry looking bunch: no tail feathers, chopped off beaks and pale, floppy combs. At first they just stood in a huddle, looking dazed, but within half an hour they had begun to tentatively explore their new surroundings. One of them started to stretch her wings — a strange contorted motion, obviously developed within the confines of the tiny cage she had lived in. Suddenly she seemed to realise that she was free and she stood on her tiptoes, stretched her wings to their full span and flapped them triumphantly.
As time passed they got back their chickenicity. Their feathers grew back, their legs became steadier, their combs developed a healthy blush and stood up pertly. Finally, they rediscovered their voices. At first, they had been silent, apart from the odd hushed “brrrrk”, but now they call excitedly whenever they discover a juicy worm; cluck at us when we talk to them; and proudly announce the arrival of every egg.
While I’m not advocating chook rustling as a regular activity, I would encourage anyone who wants to bring some sunshine into their lives to liberate a chook today. For a couple of bucks you can solve a multitude of problems in one go.
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