No matter what you might have heard, most chickens never get a chance to cross the road. Their lives often begin and end in the cold, dark confines of a coop.
But every now and then, a chicken does open a door — and changes everything.
Janet Holmes met just such a chicken in early 2017 while volunteering at the Wild Bird Fund, a New York City clinic for sick and orphaned wildlife.
At the time, the hen didn’t seem like she would stick around long enough to do much of anything.
"She probably didn’t have a long time to live," Holmes tells MNN.
She was, after all, a commercial hen, bred and fed to produce hundreds of eggs — something like 300 per year, and not in good conditions.
"Their bodies just can’t keep up with all of the egg-laying," Holmes explains. "So one of the things that happens is they don’t make enough calcium and they can’t put a shell around their egg."
In this bird’s case, egg matter had built up inside her stomach, becoming trapped there over time and rotting. It took intensive — and expensive — procedures, but eventually, clinic staff were able to drain the toxic sludge.
But once the hen was healthy enough to leave the hospital, Holmes was met with a daunting dilemma: How do you find a home for a chicken? Especially one where she would be treated as a friend, rather than food.
It can be challenging for a big sanctuary to take in new animals with costly, chronic health conditions because it must also care for all its current residents. And there are so many, sick hens in need of rescue.
The power of one hen
But then that chicken did more than cross a road. She built a bridge to a community Holmes had never met before. In her quest to find a home for the recovered patient, Holmes discovered groups of people on Facebook who not only save chickens from dire circumstances, but live alongside them as equals.
They’re not pets — there’s too much ownership baggage surrounding the term. But rather, the birds are considered companions.
And, most strikingly to Holmes, those rescue communities were made up primarily of women.
It didn’t take long for Holmes to see a link between these women and the chickens they saved — particularly the idea of reproductive health not being in their own hands.
"This issue of a body out of control was really kind of a significant moment," she says. "I discovered there were these people who were rescuing the chickens. It was primarily women. Not exclusively, but primarily women. And I thought that would be a really interesting parallel — to look at women and chickens."
Documenting a special connection
And so Holmes, who owns frogoutofwater photography, came up with a novel idea: Why not bring these woman and the chickens they love together for a photo book, perhaps one that challenges the popular perception of these largely unsung birds?
The book Holmes ended up producing — "Why Would Anyone Rescue a Chicken?" — isn’t just a celebration of chickens and the women who love them. It’s also a rare look at the lives of birds that aren’t typically afforded lives outside of the food chain.
"I feel in some ways when it comes to the issue of animal advocacy and animal liberation, that animals are the ultimate 'other'," Holmes says. "If we can view animals as our equal, we’ve got no reason to be discriminating against any human."
Along the way, she got to meet a lot of chickens that had overcame impossible odds.
There’s Bree Rooster, a bird probably bought as an Easter prop before being dumped in a city park to fend for himself.
"I’d say if they’re similar to anybody they’re somewhat similar to cats," Holmes says. "Some of them are aloof. Some of them are super affectionate. All of them are incredibly curious. Some of them have been quite traumatized and don’t want a lot of contact.
"And others are very cuddly and really crave contact with their bird companions and also with people and other animals."
In all, Holmes has photographed around 30 chickens, along with a dozen women and a few men.
All of it, ultimately, inspired by a hurting hen carried into a clinic early last year — a hen who has since found a happy home. And a way to pay it forward.
Half the profits from the book will be donated either to a funding initiative that helps rescuers get reproductive health care for chickens or directly to individual rescuers to cover vet bills.
But more than that, Holmes hopes the book will contribute to a new understanding and appreciation of a chicken’s place in the world.
"I’d like people to think about the place of chickens in their lives," Holmes explains. "I’d like them to think why does this seem strange to have a chicken in my kitchen looking out my window when there's a chicken on my counter-top and a chicken in my fridge."
"I’m not going to change the world over night. I just want people to start asking those questions of themselves. Because that’s what I did."
With a little help, of course, from a chicken who opened her eyes.