Meghan Markle’s pups, Guy and Pula, are both rescue dogs. The former senior royal is on record as saying they’ve been a great source of comfort this past year ― a turbulent one, to say the least, since Meghan and husband Prince Harry stepped back from their official duties, fought multiple lawsuits with tabloids media outlets, and experienced heartbreaking baby loss.
During a two-hour interview with Oprah that aired Sunday, Meghan and Harry invited the former talk show host to put on “wellies” and visit their newest rescue animals ― a brood of hens. The former factory-farm birds are living their best life now in upgraded digs.
“Soon enough, they’re strutting around like they own the place!”
The young family’s little red coop is no Cluckingham Palace, but it’s fittingly humble, given the new life they’ve opted to lead. It has lots of space inside for roosting, and outside ― in a safely fenced yard ― for running around. The sign on the wall, which says “Archie’s Chick Inn, Established 2021,” is a sweet touch.
While rescuing small house pets such as dogs, cats and guinea pigs, is common in North America, rescuing hens typically flies under the radar. Yet there are grassroots groups and charitable organizations on both sides of the Atlantic dedicated to giving these birds a better life after they’re no longer laying enough eggs to be considered productive on a factory farm.
What’s the appeal in rescuing hens?
Hen rescue not only changes the lives of the birds, children get a lot out of it too, according to Christen Shepherd. The mother of six has rescued hundreds of hens from battery farms — which confine the birds in small cages — since 2008, to rehabilitate on her Ontario hobby farm. Then, they’re adopted out to good homes, where they’ll have the chance to act like birds. She has also run a farm therapy program, bringing kids from a nearby group home in to help nurture the hens and rebuild their trust in humans.
Why do hens even need rescuing?
In the Oprah clip, Meghan, Harry and Archie’s hens look healthy and full-feathered ― but that’s not the case when they first leave their battery cages. It takes about two months, Shepherd said, to rehabilitate a hen.
“We typically take chickens that have been have been kept their whole lives in a cage, with usually five to seven chickens in that small cage,” Shepherd told HuffPost Canada. In this environment, where their sole purpose is to lay eggs, the hens are unable to do activities they would naturally do.
“They can’t roost. They can’t stretch out. They go quite crazy in that environment,” said Shepherd. “They’re shoved in a cage for a year; and when egg production slows down, thousands of chickens at a time are sent for slaughter.”
According to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, an organization that promotes the welfare of animals raised for food in Canada, 26 million chickens lay eggs for human consumption in Canada. 90 percent of those hens are housed in battery cages. When their time is up, most go to slaughter, but rescuers like Shepherd also step in and either buy the “spent hens” or come to an agreement with their farmer to re-home them.
“On arrival, the hens are typically quite bald from rubbing against the cages and the other hens,” Shepherd said. Many have injuries, like broken legs or wings.
“They’ve never walked on anything other than wire, so their feet may be mangled, and they often have scalds on their backs from hens pooping in the cages stacked above them. A white hen will actually come to me yellow and smelling terrible,” said Shepherd.
How hens help kids grow as humans
There are many emotional benefits for children that come from caring for another living creature. First they learn compassion and patience. As Shepherd explained, when hens first transition from a factory farm to their new life, they need some nurturing to overcome their fear of humans.
“They run into walls and scream if you even approach them at first,” explained Shepherd. “But within a couple of weeks, with kind and gentle handling, they learn to trust people and go outside. Then soon enough, they’re strutting around like they own the place!”
On her farm therapy program, Shepherd taught kids how to do tasks like clipping their rescue hen’s overgrown nails, feeding them and making sure they have enough fresh water. Watching the birds grow back their feathers from their nurturing and become more inquisitive and active each day is deeply satisfying for children. “It’s good for their self esteem,” said Shepherd.
And then there’s the compassion factor. Shepherd has observed that every child, when they encounter a rescue hen recovering from injuries or wearing a little sweater, because it’s cold from having lost too many feathers, has the same question: Why would people do this to them?
A child like Archie, born into wealth and royalty, risks being sheltered by his privilege, so Shepherd believes it’s especially important for him to learn, in age-appropriate ways, that suffering exists in the world and that he can be part of the solution.
“People who are kind to animals are often kinder to people too, and Archie will likely be in a position of leadership when he’s older,” said Shepherd. “Anyone who has helped a living creature overcome adversity automatically becomes a more compassionate person. That’s really important in a leader.”
What hens can teach us all about happiness
For Archie, having rescue chickens to care for could help him cope with stressors in his own life, which has just been turned upside down. “He and his parents are in the spotlight, and there’s a lot of disconnection from extended family right now, and he’s moved to a whole other continent,” said Shepherd. And from what she has observed, rescue hens can have a “grounding” effect on children.
While hens are not your typical pets, they are social creatures by nature, and many like to be petted, held and fed treats. They will also pick favourites among their human caregivers and show preferences to one family member over another.
“My youngest daughter, Olivia, can have a hard day at school, but then when she comes home, she feels better, because all the chickens come running to her,” said Shepherd.
And any time we have kids over to visit, going out to the coop is like a treasure hunt for them. I’ll purposely not gather the eggs that day, so they can pick them up and put them in a basket. They get so excited.”
While staring at an iPad can keep a kid distracted, it probably won’t bring them joy on a deeper level. The same cannot be said, for watching chickens. “You don’t think about much when you’re sitting there in the moment, watching the chickens dig through the earth or scratch for grubs or chase each other,” Shepherd explained.
“These birds love nothing more than to lie in the sun, stretch their wings out and bask. It’s palpable how happy they are,” she said. “And when you get rid of the noise of life and spend more time watching chickens, you start realizing how little you need to be happy.”
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