He was calling the sanctuary hoping to find a home for the chickens he had been ordered to dump in the woods. The birds were deemed "too old for the pot", too "stupid" to keep as pets, and too "ugly" to use as yard decoration, so the ranch owner decided to use them as coyote bait instead.
It was not something Pablo wanted to do but he feared that openly refusing to harm the chickens would not only jeopardize his already tenuous job as a handyman at the ranch where he worked in exchange for a room to crash in and a meager pay to live on, but it would also prevent him from finding a way to protect the birds. So he kept putting off the grim task, using every excuse he could think of to buy time for the condemned chickens, while he secretly searched for a safe home for them.
But time was running out and, with no internet access, no family or friends to call on for help, and under explicit threat of being fired, he found himself forced to appease his increasingly irate boss with a show of partial compliance: he resolved to take only one chicken into the woods that night, promising he would return in the morning to catch and dispatch the others.
And that's how it all began, one frigid winter night when Pablo was forced to decide which of the six innocents would die. Under his boss' watchful eyes, he took the one bird who was easiest to catch -- the black rooster who was the least afraid, the one who was the most confident and talkative of the six, the one who was always patrolling the edge of the huddle that his family, frightened and suspicious of humans, often clustered in for protection. The bird who had taken a special interest in Pablo, keeping him company when he worked around the coop, allowing him closer to his family than anyone else, and offering a constant stream of comments and observations in sounds whose meaning the man did not understand but whose substance he recognized as trust.
The rooster did not move when Pablo entered the yard. He just stood there, as if waiting for a friend, and he didn't protest when the man picked him up, held him, tucked him in his jacket and carried him away. He was not afraid, this fragile bird, he trusted the gentle human whose proximity he had welcomed in the past, and whom he always greeted with a high pitched purr, a unique sound reserved just for Pablo: his "name" for this man.
The walk from the coop to the truck was the longest 30 yards of Pablo's life. He didn't want to think of what he was about to do, he didn't want to feel his own sadness, or imagine the despair that would soon engulf the doomed rooster, he just wanted to get the dreaded task over with as quickly as possible, hoping that the pain of harming this defenseless soul would be brief, that the memory of his dark deed would fade soon after the job was done, and that the "sacrifice" of one bird would buy him time to save the others.
He drove the rooster far into the woods, set him on frozen ground and left him there. He didn't linger as night fell, didn't look back, didn't want to think of the next hours, or perhaps days, in the hapless bird's life. He just hurried back to his truck and sped back to the ranch as if fleeing a nightmare.
But the nightmare followed him home. Back in his room, Pablo couldn't stop thinking about the rooster. He was worried, he was sad, he was ashamed. The bird's eyes haunted him, what he had done to this fellow being haunted him. He imagined the bird shivering in the bitter cold, frozen in fear, blind and helpless in the utter darkness, screaming in terror as powerful jaws crushed his bones, as he flapped his broken wings in a last, desperate effort to fly away, as his bloody feathers covered the ground like the leaves of a strange tree.
Everything Pablo had refused to see and feel as he took the rooster to his death earlier that evening, was now rushing back into his mind with haunting, unrelenting precision. He remembered every detail of the rooster's being. The warmth of the bird's chest against his, the living current of his breath as he huddled inside his jacket, the brave drum of his heart, the deep pools of his eyes, the unbearable gift of his trust. By midnight, Pablo jumped out of bed, grabbed a warm jacket and a flashlight, and drove back to the woods. Even if the bird was going to be killed at the ranch, Pablo could not, would not, be the agent of his death.
He searched everywhere, looked up and around every tree, reached under the thorny crown of every bush and shrub in the area where he had abandoned the bird, called out in soft whistles and gentle words, and then waited silently for the faintest stir, the faintest sign of life. But there was no response. At dawn, Pablo abandoned the search and drove back to the work site claiming he was there to "finish the job" but in reality planning to gather the remaining chickens and hide them somewhere until he could find a refuge for them (where? for how long? He did not know, but he knew he could not abandon them).
Bleary-eyed, ragged, exhausted, Pablo thought he was dreaming when he saw the black rooster standing in front of the coop. And when he heard that high pitched purr, that sweet trill that was the rooster's name for him, it brought him to his knees, not because the call was uttered in anger or recrimination but because -- unbearably -- it was voiced in joy, in friendship, in forgiveness, and in trust. There he was, this brave bird, standing in front of him like a small earthly miracle, like a prophet of life.
It was at that very moment that a ranch visitor Pablo had never seen before stopped by to chat and, in the course of their casual conversation, she mentioned Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary.
Pablo called the sanctuary right away and left a long message explaining the situation in tones of great urgency. When we finally connected, we agreed to take the birds and bring them to safety. We talked at length. He lives from paycheck to paycheck (when and if he can find work), his bright mind was never given the academic stimulation it craved, he didn't have a home to call his own, he scraped a living working at remote sites that offered a room to crash in and a menial pay. He is a genuinely kind, strong, and fair-minded person.
When the details of rescuing and transporting the chickens were finally in place, he had only one question: "What is vegan?" He explained that he had first heard the word on our answering machine and was wondering what it meant. In conversation, we conveyed that being vegan means living one's life without depriving others of theirs. It means not only having the understanding that harming others is wrong, but acting on that understanding by refusing to harm ALL animals, not just the ones we meet face to face, but the ones we never get to see, the invisible ones who are bred and butchered for products none of us needs.
He listened with an open mind, free of prejudice and defensiveness. We offered abundant information, resources, immediate help and support as well as the assurance of future help and support during his transition to veganism. Before he hung up, he added in a soft voice, as if talking to himself: "I think I've always been a vegan at heart, but now I will be vegan in real life. I've always loved animals but I never knew I could live without hurting them for food and other things. Now I know. Thank you."
Pablo has since expressed a desire to rescue as many of the animals captive at the ranch as possible. He has read all of the literature we provided and is hungry for more. He said that the day he saw the rooster -- now named Pablo in honor of the man who saved his life and who, in the process, dared to reclaim his own -- when he saw Pablo standing in front of the coop after having miraculously survived the freezing cold and the all-engulfing darkness, it was like seeing a road sign that pointed the way out of the woods, out of the cold, out of the darkness. THIS WAY, it said. And he followed.
The six chickens are now safe, loved, and free to fulfill their lives at Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary. They still huddle in their little family clutch, and they still keep to themselves in the corner of the yard they claimed as their own. And Pablo rooster is still protecting them from everyone -- from visiting sparrows and fellow chickens, to wondering sheep, goats, pigs, cows, and llamas. But they are a very happy family, a very harmonious group, these three "broiler" hens and their three "laying breed" roosters. They are gentle, and patient with one another, and the hens struggle to nurture everyone in their family despite the burden of living in bodies that are killing them.*
Pablo, the man, is free now, too. Free from prejudice and denial, free from the soul-killing practice of violence. Free to heal his own heart, to act on his own deeply held values of justice and compassion, free to follow the road back to his own true humanity, a road that started with one simple act of conscience. A conscience is all it takes to be vegan, after all. Doing the right thing takes no special skills, no special resources, no special privileges or support. Just a conscience and the will to act on it.
© 2015 Joanna Lucas
* "Broiler" chickens are bred to grow morbidly large, morbidly fast in order to reach "slaughter weight" by the age of 6 weeks. As a result, they are doomed to suffer crippling diseases of the heart, lungs, and bones.
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.