When I put them on one day back in October of 1990, little did I know that a pair of humble cotton foot warmers would change the course of that day – and indeed, the decades to come. I had volunteered to “babysit” for my friend’s animals while they were going out of town. But these were no friendly dogs needing a walk or cats needing a litterbox cleaning, these family companions were chickens, an entire flock of chickens.
I knew nothing about chickens, or birds in general for that matter. My sole qualifications were that I was available to spend a week at this country farm. I wasn’t too fazed by the task in front of me, how hard could it be to feed a few dozen chickens for a week? My pals reassured me that I was in for a pleasant surprise – of course, I was convinced their assurances were to shift focus from the fact that I was working for free. Off they went and with no cable television or internet, I headed to the barnyard to kill some time.
What I found was akin to the “Housewives of Farm County.” There were loud birds, shy birds, pushy birds, hilarious birds. Within minutes it was clear that cliques counted and I was still an outsider to some and a welcome distraction to others. One inquisitive hen walked right up to me and looked me straight in the eye in careful assessment. The grain in my hand must have helped me to pass muster, because she led me across the yard and there’s no doubt whatsoever that she “introduced” me to her crew.
Most were decidedly unimpressed. One, however, took an abiding interest in my socks, which were covered in orange polka dots. This hen, whom I dubbed Hailey (for Halloween), had a real thing for these socks! She rubbed her beak across them and followed me around the yard. I found it mildly amusing, if anything, I was still trying to wrap my head around how unexpectedly complicated and interesting the whole flock was. I spent the day enjoying the sun and reading, watching the chickens gossip and hunt for snacks in the grass, squabble and make up, take dust baths and snuggle under each other’s wings. My interest went from peripheral, to flat-out amazed. These chickens were cool! They had an entire world that I never imagined, a society as involved and active as any group of humans.
That evening after putting the birds to bed safety inside the barn, I hung my load of laundry out on a clothesline. The next morning, I went to get my laundry, and both polka dotted socks were gone, with two forlorn clips as witness. The door to the barn was shut, yet the socks were nowhere to be seen. Besides, I hadn’t seen any of these birds actually fly. They were rescues from factory farms, or birds who had fallen off transport trucks. Their bodies were unnaturally heavy and many had crippled feet from spending their early lives in wire battery cages. Some struggled to get around. Where were the socks?
It took me most of the morning to find them. You’ll have to take my word for this since it still seems unreal to me, too, but Hailey had not only somehow absconded with the pair, but she had laid an egg and carefully wrapped the socks around it. This was the days before cell phone cameras, but I would have given anything to be able to take a picture. I stood there, with my mouth agape, while she looked at me with a very real look of pleading in her eyes. She wanted those socks and was imploring me to walk away. So I did.
I stopped eating chicken that week, and not long afterwards, eggs as well. I could no longer disconnect the wings and legs and breasts that I used to consume from Hailey and the other girls. My switch to vegan eating was not far behind.
The heartbreaking end to the story is that Hailey didn’t live to see her sock-nestled chick be born. Tired and worn-out from her previous life on a factory farm, she passed away in her sleep shortly after I made her acquaintance. But I will always remember Hailey with gratitude and humor for her impact on my life, and I will go to my own end wondering how she got those socks.