Sunday, August 16, 2015
A chicken rescue we were involved in with Robert Grillo from "Free from Harm" a chcicken rescue organization
The orphan chicken came to Robert Grillo in the usual way.
A woman who'd found the injured bird slumped on the side of the road on Chicago's South Side scooped up the chicken, came across Grillo's name online and sent an email. It happens about five times a week to Grillo, a soft-spoken, part-time graphic and Web designer who has a pet white king pigeon named Elba and a chicken run in his backyard.
Grillo rescues chickens, a mission that exposes an unsettling consequence of the popular backyard poultry movement. For a number of reasons, would-be urban and suburban chicken farmers ditch the birds in significant numbers.
But Grillo is attempting to do something more than save a few chickens from a catastrophic end. He's using the rescues as marketing device, trying to foster widespread compassion for an animal he says is largely underappreciated and mistreated.
"Backyard chickens need to be rescued for the same reasons as other animals we care about need to be rescued," Grillo said one recent afternoon in his backyard. The rescued South Side chicken, who Grillo named Rosa for the reddish hue of her feathers, rolled in the dirt in her enclosure.
"They have the same kind of needs," Grillo said. "They have the same capacity to form companionship and lifelong bonds with us." When those bonds are established, he added, humans value the birds differently and care for them more deeply.
"And, that's the vision we're aspiring to," Grillo said, "a different vision for chickens; not just as resources but as animals that actually have tremendous capacity to be loving, affectionate, wonderful companions with us."
Precisely how many chickens are abandoned is unclear. News reports as recently as 2013 said hundreds were being returned each year to individual sanctuaries and rescue centers across the U.S.
In the Chicago area, Cook County animal control reported it receives very few calls to pick up abandoned chickens. A spokesman for DuPage County Animal Care & Control said the office has received five calls this year. But Richard Weiner, CEO of the Refuge for Saving the Wildlife, a parrot rescue nonprofit based in Northbrook, said he gets one to two calls a week from people who want to get rid of a chicken.
Grillo is selective about which chickens he brings to his neat, brown shingle house in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood. Each month, he said, he receives nearly two dozen calls from various sources for rescues and ends up taking on two or three that are in the most dire need. There was a badly neglected hen a farmer abandoned after the animal stopped laying eggs; a severely injured chicken found in an alley on Chicago's Northwest Side; a rooster that lost its feet and part of a leg to frostbite and gangrene.
In most cases, Grillo arranges for treatment with Dr. Peter Sakas, a veterinarian at Niles Animal Hospital who has been working on birds for 32 years. Once the chicken is on the road to recovery, Grillo often houses the animal in the enclosure behind his back porch for a few days until he places the bird in a compassionate setting.
And, for each rescue, Grillo composes a blog post, including photos and, if possible, video, of the entire experience. That message delivery system is aimed at promoting sympathy for the birds.
Each individual story, he said, is much more effective at creating affection for chickens than video of hundreds of them on a farm.
"It's important," Grillo said, "because reconnection is the key step in overcoming the prejudice, the obstacles that we have, the biases that we have, the reasons these animals are treated the way they are. If we can reconnect with them, that's the first major step to progress in that direction."
Born and raised in Chicago, Grillo came to the work in 2009, when "on an impulse" he adopted three chicks from a teacher friend who had used them in a classroom program.
"It was baptism by fire," Grillo, 50, said, adding that his perceptions of the animals as dirty, mean and stupid changed quickly. The chickens followed him around his place, hopped in his lap and took naps.
"They just bonded with me," said Grillo, who practices a vegan lifestyle. "They became members of the family, like a cat or dog."
The same year he adopted the three chicks, Grillo established Free From Harm, a nonprofit charitable organization that its Web site says promotes "farmed animal rescue, education and advocacy." And, he started rescuing chickens. He estimates that he has saved about 45 of them.
The conventional explanation for why abandonment occurs is that the would-be caretakers were caught up in the popular movement of raising backyard chickens and then became decidedly less enthusiastic after discovering — too late — that the birds require a fairly complicated commitment.
But Jennifer Murtoff, an urban chicken consultant in Oak Park, said the reasons vary. Some chickens wander away; chicken owners move to an area that prohibits the birds; hens stop laying eggs and the owners no longer want to care for the chickens; people mistakenly purchased a rooster.
It's a problem that worked its way up to the governor's mansion. In spring 2014, then-Gov. Pat Quinn welcomed nine chickens to a pen in the home's rose garden. When Quinn left office, the chickens were left behind, and Gov. Bruce Rauner returned the birds to the woman who had provided them.
The solution to the problem of chicken abandonment, Murtoff and others say, is taking a class on raising them before acquiring a bird, or reviewing various websites.
Grillo's efforts also include an online educational component, part of which he uses to cast a critical eye on the commercial poultry industry. It already has a dubious reputation in the U.S.
The Humane Society of the United States reports that "hundreds of millions of chickens" in the egg industry spend their entire lives in extraordinarily harsh, filthy conditions, many packed in spaces so tight they are unable to spread their wings.
"It's a moral race to the bottom," said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society.
At the same time, recent research indicates that the birds are smarter, more social and more complicated than had been thought.
"Our attitudes toward these animals may stem in part from simple lack of understanding," the society stated this year in a report on chickens, "and this has largely led us to disregard their suffering as they are raised for meat and egg production."
The U.S. Poultry & Egg Association disputes those depictions, contending that the animals are raised in spacious, sophisticated, climate-controlled barns where they have 24-hour access to clean water and feed, spokeswoman Gwen Venable said. Chickens also benefit from professional veterinary attention, advances in nutrition and protection from predators and disease, she added.
Against that backdrop, Grillo wages his campaign, one chicken at a time.
Rosa, his latest, is making progress. A couple of days after he retrieved her from the animal hospital, Grillo let the chicken roam his fenced backyard while he sat on a lounge chair.
The bird hopped in Grillo's lap, made herself comfortable and started purring. When he went to place her in the coop, she resisted, climbing up his arm.
"You can't help but be moved by their connection to us," Grillo said, "when we open ourselves up to the possibility."