Interview with Sanctuary Volunteer Marissa Bell
By Hana Low
I’m pleased to call Marissa Bell, the mother of my partner and the guardian of many special nonhumans, a member of my family. Her transformation from animal eater to animal activist after deeply connecting to a local sanctuary speaks to the power of individual animals to inspire us to build and fight for them. The sanctuary, which shall remain unnamed for privacy, is operated by two volunteers (and supported heavily by Marissa) who both work full-time, unrelated jobs and donate their salaries to the 350+ animals’ care.
Note: Monica, one of the sanctuary residents mentioned in this article, has passed away since it was written. Debeaked at a young age, she was a mother to many generations of chicks who were sold to feed stores so humans could raise them and eat their eggs. At the rooster sanctuary, she was able to carry out her natural behaviors and form friendships with other survivors, but she was still trapped in the prison of her own body. Even the tiny fraction of animal agriculture survivors who are rescued and brought to sanctuary usually don't live for long. More often than not, reproductive disease kills them. The wild ancestors of chickens lay only 10-15 eggs per year, while domesticated birds have been genetically manipulated through thousands of years of selective breeding to lay nearly one egg per day. This causes tremendous strain on hens' bodies. Stuck eggs may burst inside the reproductive tract and cause systemic infection. Monica died from reproductive cancer, a leading cause of death in hens. As long as humans feel entitled to breed and eat animals' bodies and the things that come out of their bodies, this will happen. Nonhuman animals are persons, not commodities. (To learn more about "humane" eggs, read this.)
HL: How did you get involved in volunteering at the rooster sanctuary?
MB: My daughter, Alexis, was going up to volunteer one day and I asked her if I could go with her. I don't really know why, but I was really compelled to go. I love to be around animals and I love to hang out with my daughter, and I thought it would just be something fun to do, not knowing that I would get as involved as I did.
HL: So, what happened after you started going there? How did it affect you?
MB: After the first time I went – it was hard work. We cleaned coops and cleaned up around the sanctuary, and I got to hang out with a lot of hens, roosters, and ducks, as well as a pig. When I went home, I thought a lot about the animals that I had spent time with that day and I couldn't fathom ever eating meat again, because I felt like I had made a lot of friends among the animals, and I felt like I couldn't go home and eat my friends.
HL: Is there something unique or interesting you’ve observed about chickens that the general public might not know?
MB: I hadn't spent time around chickens at all, in my entire life. I, like so many people, thought of them as food, and when I went up there and started spending time with them I realized that they are very intelligent little beings. They can remember up to 100 faces, and roosters can make thirty different calls to alert their hens— to predators from the sky, predators from the ground, "I found you a treat," "Here's a nice place for you to lay your egg," etc. And I could not believe how funny and curious they are. Some of them, like humans, were really standoffish and still are, but there are some that every time I go up there, they come running to greet me because they know me.
HL: There's one that you know much better than the others, since he's come to live with you. Can you tell us that story?
MB: Maui was a rooster that was part of a rescue. The owners of the sanctuary had gotten word that there was a cockfighting bust in Wyoming and he was one of 70 roosters who were rescued. They lived in tiny little kennels in Wyoming for three months, while they waited to get the bloodwork and paperwork necessary to cross state lines.
Once the owner of the sanctuary got word that they were ready, we made the initial trip up there and got the first twenty-six roosters and we brought them home. We had been furiously building and getting ready for their arrival at the sanctuary and when he (Maui) first got there, he was fine. He moved into a run of his own and he seemed perfectly normal and happy to be out and free, very happy.
Over time, however, he started to show signs of depression that the owner noticed. I didn't particularly notice because I didn't know what to look for. She moved him into the house. He started to jerk his head a little bit. Not much, just a little bit. And over the next few days it got worse and worse and worse and it looked like a neurological disorder. So the owner took him back to the vet and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with him. He had trouble eating, he couldn't drink water at this point. He was sleeping away most of the day. Every time we held him he would either seize or he would hold his head upside down. She was tube-feeding him, giving him subcutaneous fluids and giving him supportive care. There are so many animals at the sanctuary and it was difficult to give him the attention that he really needed.
It was at that point, because I had bonded with this rooster and whenever I went up to the sanctuary the first thing I wanted to do was see Maui and hang out with him, that I started to consider adopting him. I was able to get him to eat when I was there, a little bit of watermelon or strawberries, and over a couple of weeks he started standing and he crowed a little bit here and there. The owner of the sanctuary asked me if I wanted to have Maui come and live with me, because she knew that I would be able to give him a lot more one-on-one time and attention. (The sanctuary doesn't work like that. The animals that go to live there are – that's their forever home, they will never leave. I felt really good that she trusted me enough to let me take him home.)
We waited a few weeks because he was on some medications, and the vet had put him on steroids in hopes that that would help him. It didn't; it actually made him worse for a while, but after he stopped taking the medication he seemed to get better every day and one day I was up there working and we decided that that was the day that he would come home to live with me. I'll never forget it because my daughter Alexis was with me and he was in the back of the Jeep and I kept making her check on him. "How's Maui, how's Maui? Is he okay? Does he look happy?" Everyone in my family welcomed him with open arms.
HL: Who's in your family? Who's living in your house?
MB: My husband Jackson, and he said that he wondered how long it would be before I brought either a hen or a rooster home. Because I spend so much time there now and I talk about them constantly. He knew that I would probably bring somebody home eventually to live with us. And then our son Jack, who has MS (multiple sclerosis), lives there and we have another friend who lives at the house.
HL: Do you have any other nonhuman companions at home?
MB: We do, we have two dogs. Loki is a chihuahua and Beylah is a beagle.
HL: How has everybody responded to having a rooster live in the house now?
MB: I thought it would take a lot more time for them to bond than it actually did. My husband is very much in love with Maui and is very concerned that he has fresh fruit, and a variety. Jack has bonded with Maui in a different way than anybody else because he feels that Maui's possible neurological problem is much like his own neurological problem. He thinks that the rooster probably feels the same way that he does about his disease: confused, angry, and upset. As a result, Maui has brought him out of his shell in a way that nobody has been able to do.
Everybody was really worried, especially with Loki, that they wouldn't get along or that there might be problems and I just made sure that I introduced them in harmony. In the beginning, Loki and Beylah were pretty scared of him, especially when he would make warning calls or stretch his wings. Now, they live harmoniously. They are curious of each other, Beylah and Loki show no signs of being scared anymore and even approach Maui regularly to smell him. In the garden, Loki sticks pretty close to Maui and is always aware when Maui makes his alarm sounds.
HL: What does Maui do when he's at your house?
MB: He gets to do whatever he wants. He doesn't walk very much, but he will spend time walking around on the floor. He gets to go outside several times a day and play in the garden, sunbathe, dustbathe. He has two different kennels, one for sleeping and one for daytime use, if I know that he needs to be secure. He gets to perch on the back of the couch. He gets to perch on my shoulder. He gets to eat whenever he wants. He's like a spoiled child.
HL: Does he like both being indoors and being outdoors?
MB: He does. Like most roosters, when I first started taking him out I was excited because he seemed to really enjoy it and perk up when he was outside. I discussed every little thing with the owners of the sanctuary and come to find out that the sickest of roosters will act normal when they are outside, because they don't want to show their weaknesses to predators. I didn't know that. When I found that out I was a little more careful not to take him out for extended periods of time, just little by little, until he got used to it. Now he's at the point where he's fine. He's fine falling asleep outside and he's not as aware like he was before. He was very concerned about what was going on around him instead of what was immediately around him like the ground, or digging for bugs.
HL: How does the vet think that he's doing these days?
MB: I took him to the vet last week for a little minor eye infection and the vet couldn't believe the improvement. Nobody really knows what was wrong with him, what was causing his problems. He gets stronger every day. He doesn't have seizures anymore. I think it's because of how much he is loved, I really do. We don't know whether he sustained an injury during a fight, or what happened. Maybe he was born with a problem... we have no idea, but the most important thing is that he's getting better every day. He's stronger now and all he wants to do is roost— mostly on me.
HL: Are there any quirky, fun, or special things that he does?
MB: Everything about him is special. He's very silly. When he is with me on the couch, he'll usually turn around several times, kind of like a cat when they are getting ready to nest in for the night. He'll go around in circles until he finds a comfortable spot and then he'll lie down and go to sleep. He does this little thing with his beak, he makes kind of a little tiny clicking sound. It's a sign of comfort, we think, or at least that's what the owner of the sanctuary told me. It's much different from the stressful, open beak breathing. It's adorable. So he'll make these little clicking sounds with his beak and then I do it back to him and he'll look at me and put his face real close to mine and he'll do it and then I'll do it and then he'll do it and then I'll do it. Just the way that he looks at me, he looks at me and has complete and total trust. He loves to be held. When I open his little kennel door in the morning he comes lurching out because he can't wait to come into my arms. He's a very special bird. I feel like a new mother.
HL: Do you feel like one day you'll adopt somebody else?
MB: I feel like very soon in my future there might be a microsanctuary. I've already started putting the idea in my husband's mind that I want to move to a smaller house with land so we have our own microsanctuary. It would be great to help with the overflow of the sanctuary that I volunteer at now. Like if they hear of a rescue that needs to be made and they can't do it, that I could instead, or I could provide supportive care to sick roosters and hens, or ducks or whatever. I don't think I could ever do it the way that they do it because they have so many animals and it's their whole life. Not that I wouldn't want to, but it's a lot of work. I would rather be the one who provides the supportive care, and takes in the absolute, you know? It's either, they find a place to live or they're going to be euthanized, and I would rather never have that happen.
HL: So you would like to take care of the really sick?
MB: I would. Not just the sick. I would like to have a smaller microsanctuary, but I would like to focus on that, yeah.
HL: Some people in your life still eat animals. What is your strategy for talking to them and coping with that?
MB: It's very difficult. I just try to lead by example. I share my experiences with them. When I go to the sanctuary and I take photos or videos of interactions with animals and I come home and I make sure that I show my family and my friends the kind of joy that I get to see every day when I'm there. I talk to them about, you know, this animal was very lucky that they didn't get slaughtered for somebody's dinner. Or when we talk about Maui, had he been on a farm or even part of that cockfighting ring, if he had shown any sign of illness they would have killed him right away. How lucky he is to be with us and have the freedom to go walk around outside and not have to fight. I think little by little I'm getting through to people, but in a non-aggressive way. What worked for me might not work for somebody else. Everybody reacts differently.
I remember showing my son Andy a beautiful statement that a man made in Chicago about people not knowing— that they just don't know what's happening— and it was that video that really made Andy start thinking. So maybe Jack, just being with Andy, will make him never eat meat again. They're all doing really well and they're really approaching full veganism and I think that, as a mother and as a wife, I just need to support that and make sure that I'm providing only good, healthy vegan food in our house. And then to just continue talking about it!
HL: So what would be your dream situation, either five or ten years from now? What would you like to be doing?
MB: I would like to be living on at least 50 acres of land with a small house. Doesn't matter what the house looks like because it will be full of animals anyway. I'd like to spend my days just taking care of animals and building and making them nice homes and hanging out with them. And of course, you would come to volunteer, right? As would Alexis. It's funny how the smallest little thing can change your life. I look back on the years that my daughter talked to me about being vegan and wanting me to be vegan and I always used to say, "I love animals so much." But now I look back and realize that everything she told me was right. It was that one small thing, that day, when she told me that she was going up to volunteer at a sanctuary and I said I wanted to go that changed my life. It changed everything about me, my outlook on animals, and my understanding of their lives. That's what it took for me, and I think that everybody should spend time with animals—really, and with all different kinds of animals, because it will really change your viewpoint on eating them.