(Originally published in the Nov/Dec 2004 issue of Satya Magazine)
Glancing out the window, I see two elderly roosters drinking from a water bowl in the front yard. Fauna has lived with us since 2001, when he arrived in the midst of a colorful crew of roosters who had been evicted from a Pennsylvania farm. Soon after, he struck a love match with Flora, a former egg factory inmate who was one of a group of hens we called “the Anarchists” in honor of their knack for jumping over fences and redistributing wealth.
Flora and Fauna were a devoted couple until she died prematurely, her body weakened by her experiences at the factory farm. Like many aging widowers, Fauna grew socially isolated, spending more and more time indoors and less and less time doing the things he used to love to do.
Chili arrived a couple of weeks ago from DC, where he had been living in a city park for the past few years. He seemed tentatively relieved by the safety of our sanctuary but we wondered if he missed the homeless man who had done his best to care for him back in the city.
Who can explain friendship? Is it an intuition of compatibility or some kind of chemistry that draws two beings to each other when they have only just met? Whatever the reason, Chili and Fauna began to spend time together and the resulting change in Fauna’s behavior has been remarkable. He’s back out in the front yard, sunbathing, dust bathing, and making the most out of every day.
Are you surprised by this story? Do you believe that roosters are inherently aggressive or cannot get along with each other? If so, you’re not alone. The most common fallacy about roosters is that they cannot live together in groups without fighting. This misperception is rooted in propaganda put forward by proponents of cockfighting, a “sport” that is itself rooted in thousands of years of projecting human ideas about sex and gender onto chickens.
Cockfighting began in Asia Minor more than 2,500 years ago. It was brought to Spain by the Moors and carried to the New World by the European invaders of the Americas. Those who portray cockfighting as a proud Latino tradition tend to conveniently forget to mention that it is a legacy of the same Spanish Conquistadors who slaughtered and enslaved the indigenous peoples of South and Central America.
Studies of modern-day “cockers” (as they call themselves) show that these men and boys do see the birds as expressions of their own masculinity. They feel shame if one of “their” roosters behaves normally, fleeing from an aggressor or declining to attack a retreating bird. In contrast, unnaturally aggressive birds are accorded an almost totemic respect.
Here at the Eastern Shore Sanctuary, former fighting cocks coexist peacefully with each other and with hens rescued from egg factories. Both groups of birds are physically and psychologically scarred by the specifically gendered forms of exploitation they have endured. The tops of the roosters’ combs and the tips of the hens’ beaks have been cut off. Both suffer feather loss: hens pluck out their own feathers due to hunger or frustration during months in over-crowded cages; fighting cocks lose feathers (and eyes) when forced to fight and are sometimes shaved to make them look fierce.
In each case, the natural sex role of the animal has been perverted and exaggerated for purposes of human pleasure and profit. Eggs are, of course, a component of the reproductive process of the female bird. White Leghorn hens have been bred to bear far more eggs annually than their wild jungle fowl ancestors. Factory farming practices such as forced molting increase the pressure on their bodies, leading the hens to suffer abnormal rates of reproductive system ailments.
Similarly, combat is natural for roosters, but not in the way that cockfighting enthusiasts say. With few exceptions, roosters fight for defensive rather than offensive purposes. In the wild, male jungle fowl squabble over pecking order and territory but do not inflict serious injury. The same is true of feral roosters and the roosters here at the sanctuary.
Roosters will fight to the death to protect the flock from a predator. Cockfighting perverts this natural and honorable behavior into a parody of human masculinity. The roosters who have been “trained” as fighting cocks cooperate because they have been so traumatized that they are terrified, seeing every other bird as a potentially deadly predator.
Fighting cocks are typically caged or tethered to stakes for most or all of each day. This isolation prevents them from learning to recognize and react appropriately to the social signals that chickens use to maintain the peace within and between flocks. Isolation also prevents the establishment of normal peer and sexual relationships, thereby warping their social development and emotional stability.
Our sanctuary began by accident, when my partner and I found a chicken in a ditch within weeks of moving into an epicenter of industrial poultry production. I’d always admired birds from afar but assumed that it would be impossible to cross the mammal-avian divide in order to form a meaningful relationship. I surprised myself by feeling a strong kinship with our new family member and she surprised me by becoming attached to us, waiting on the back porch for us to come outside and following me around as I went about my outdoor chores. I called her Mosselle, after my beloved departed grandmother, because they shared a certain stubborn charm.
One morning, Mosselle suddenly made a loud gargling noise. “Maybe she laid an egg,” we thought, and ran around after her, looking for where she might have hidden it. Another time, we heard what sounded like choking from the makeshift coop early in the morning and worried that she might be sick. Luckily for us, somebody with some sense showed up and said, “That bird’s a rooster!”
I struggled with the realization that our beloved friend (who we renamed Viktor Frankl) was a rooster rather than a hen. Even though he hadn’t changed at all, it was hard not to feel differently about him. This was my first inkling of the ways that gendered preconceptions can alter one’s perceptions of chickens and other animals.
Contrary to popular opinion, both male and female chickens are raised for meat. Because we take in any local bird who manages to evade the chicken catchers or jump off the truck headed for the slaughterhouse, we cannot control the sex ratio of the birds coming into the sanctuary. We were forced by necessity to learn how to manage multiple roosters.
After Viktor came Chickweed (male) and Violet (female). When Viktor first met these young additions to our makeshift family, he didn’t know what to do. Should he treat the juvenile rooster as a relative or a rival? Should he court or protect the young hen? In a matter of minutes, he veered wildly from one instinctive behavior to the next, clucking like a mother hen one moment and dancing like a suitor the next. Finally, he settled on the role of single parent, assuming responsibility for the instruction and protection of the young birds who had so suddenly come into his life. At sunset, he would usher them into the coop, where he would sleep between them and the door. If they got out of line, he would administer a sharp peck on the head.
As we brought in more and more birds, both male and female, Viktor assumed the role of top rooster, which is a very demanding job. He spent his days scanning the skies and the horizon and made it his business to inspect any changes to the coop or yards. Once we saw him placing his body between two young roosters and a potential predator, almost daring the intruder to attack.
The next year, Fauna and his crew of 24 rowdy roosters moved in. Every other sanctuary had rejected them, expecting them to bring nothing but trouble. Instead they brought great joy to many of the hens, who had never seen such spectacular feathers, and still more learning opportunities for us. Many of them preferred to sleep in the trees and a number of them preferred each other’s company now that they had the opportunity to mingle with hens. None of them ever bothered the slower and less physically fit roosters from the meat industry.
Then came our first frantic call about confiscated fighting cocks who would be euthanized if we didn’t accept them. Rather than condemn them to death without even trying, we decided to use what we had learned about roosters to create a rehabilitation program. Upon arrival, the new roosters did try to attack any bird they saw but their high heart rates and dilated pupils told us that they were terrified, not angry. They seemed relieved to be soothed by us and then put into a safe place where they could see and meet, but not attack or be attacked by, the other birds. They responded so well to our behavioral program of gradual introduction to the flock punctuated by time-outs for aggressive behavior that they were able to be on their own among the other birds within three weeks rather than the three months we had predicted.
So far, the program has worked with every former fighter who has come to the sanctuary. We’re working on a “how-to” manual for other sanctuaries to use. Because we have little land and even less money, we are sharply limited in the number of birds we can accommodate. By publicizing our methods, we hope to convince existing sanctuaries to take in more roosters and to inspire more people to offer sanctuary to chickens. We’ve learned a lot from observing and being with the birds and we owe it to them to share their stories with the world.