What I Learned from the Hen Who Survived
Life in a cage-free farm is deadly. Three things allowed Scarlett to survive.
By Wayne Hsiung
I am in a massive, two story egg farm with a Direct Action Everywhere investigatory team. And I see something that brings a collective gasp of horror. A living bird crushed into the hard wire floor.
I see the up and down of her chest, as she struggles to breathe. Her head and eyes show a flicker of life. The rest of her body is not doing so well, trampled by the weight of thousands of feet. Her left side had been smashed so deeply into the flooring that it’s flattened like a pancake. We can see her flesh protruding from the other side of the wire.
And this is all happening in a cage-free, humane Safeway farm.
In the midst of this suffering, we find hope in the power of rescue. Another little bird, skeletal and half blind, is being crushed against the metal perches. She can’t see from her right eye, which is swollen shut due to the merciless pecking of the crowd. My friend Matt picks her up, and we spirit her into the night.
Rescuers like Matt are often called heroes. What people don’t know is that our rescue mission was just the last step in a months-long struggle for survival. And the greatest hero, in Scarlett’s miraculous recovery, is Scarlett herself. Here are three things I’ve learned from her.
Seize your opportunities, or they might disappear.
As a relatively small hen, Scarlett couldn’t fight her way to the food bowl. So when a window presented itself, she would rush over to get whatever food she could get. If she didn’t take advantage immediately, the hole would close up. Scarlett survived, in short, because she understood the importance of seizing opportunities.
As humans, we live in relative abundance. We lack the urgency of survival. A promising job opportunity presents itself, but we forget to apply. An important event is happening, and we sleep in. Or we’re given the chance to do something great in the world – like join an open rescue mission, or move to an animal rights hub – but we put it off because “there will be other occasions.”
Scarlett should teach us an important lesson. Seize your opportunities, especially when they’re important. Because you never know when your opportunity will end.
Scarlett could have given up on countless occasions. When her eye became swollen from being pecked by the mob. When she started losing her feathers. Or when she fought to the food bowl, only to find the food was all gone. Indeed, we find many such animals in farms, animals who are so defeated they no longer even bother to escape the pain. But to make it out alive, Scarlett needed to be tenacious, to realize that it was possible for to overcome the obstacles she faced. This is why, when her body was swept under a mass of stampeding feet, she kept fighting. And invariably, she would find a way to slip through and survive.
We, as animal activists, also face obstacles. A mostly indifferent public. An industry many times as wealthy and powerful as us. And a government that sometimes seems hell-bent on punishing acts of compassion. But we have to cultivate the same tenacity that Scarlett had. We have to see every obstacle as a challenge and every setback as a chance to try again.
If we give up, our movement will die. But if we are tenacious, our movement will thrive.
Hold out hope in others, even when things seem dark.
Every human Scarlett met, before DxE, was a killer. The workers would walk through the barns, beating the sick birds to death, and snapping the necks of birds who were failing to produce eggs. You could understand, therefore, if Scarlett assumed that all humans were violent monsters.
But Scarlett had hope. When Matt took her into his arms, she settled down quickly. She seemed to sense, as so many abused animals sense, when a human being means well. If Scarlett had allowed her fear to overwhelm her, her cries and her flapping wings would have made it impossible for us to carry her out. But she allowed herself to hope, “Perhaps this time, the humans mean well.” And because she held out hope, she survived.
It’s easy, too, for us to become cynical. In turbulent times, we dismiss the “other” as evil, based on our experience with a few of their kind. But this is self-defeating. By assuming the “other” means to wrong us, we miss out on opportunities to offer mutual aid. In contrast, if we hold out hope, we can find allies in the most unlikely of places -- and perhaps even save a life.