7 May 2023

Sarah, the Hen: Her Legs Were Made for Walking

Thinking Like a Chicken Podcast
News & Views!

Sarah explores in the house while Karen watches
Watching Sarah walk. Photo by Frank Johnston - The Washington Post

Of all the cruelties inflicted on hens forced to live in battery cages, one of the worst, perhaps even the worst of all, is preventing them from standing up on their legs and feet and walking. Unconfined, chickens walk constantly and often pretty fast. And they run! Today I will tell you about a hen rescued from a battery cage who we feared would never be able to stand up let alone take steps and walk. But she had a mind to do just that. Tune in to hear Sarah’s story.

Thinking Like a Chicken Overview


Sarah, the Hen: Her Legs Were Made for Walking

Hello, and thank you for joining me today. I’m Karen Davis, the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes compassion and respect for chickens, turkeys, ducks, and other domesticated birds. Thursday, May 4th, was International Respect for Chickens Day, an annual project of United Poultry Concerns since 2005. I take this opportunity on behalf of that very special Day for Chickens to tell you something about these wonderful birds.

Now that the weather is warming up, I’ve taken to sitting on the back steps once again with the chickens on late afternoons. I love it when they choose to sit next to me on the red bricks on either side of the steps. It’s mainly the hens who do this, while Kahlua, the rooster, moseys about nearby. They express absolute contentment, often closing their eyes, preening their feathers, and expressing happiness quietly in their voices. Another thing that endears these hens to me is watching them walking about in the yard on their sturdy legs. Often they break into a run if something catches their attention – like maybe one of the hens has something of interest in her beak and the other hens chase after her for it, in and out of the trees. The legs and feet of chickens are essential to who they are and what they like to do. Stuffing hens in cages and in crowded “cage-free” buildings is a violation of Chickens, however monstrously legal it may be.

Watching our hens from my perch on the steps, I am reminded of a hen we once rescued, whose story goes like this.

Sarah came to our sanctuary with twenty or so other hens rescued from a battery-cage facility in Ohio. They all had missing feathers, spiny feather shafts and bare body parts. Their eyes had the murky look that battery-caged hens develop from living in ammonia-filled air arising from the manure piles in sunless gloom. Sarah was the worst off. She could not stand up. She had bone fractures that hadn’t healed properly, and her skin was all but featherless. Our veterinarian determined she had a broken leg. While the other hens from her group were soon living outside with our other chickens, we kept Sarah, naked and crippled, in an enclosure on the porch. We did not expect her to stand up, let alone walk, or even live very long. We were wrong.

Over the years, we’ve adopted hundreds of hens straight from the caged environment, which is all they ever knew until they were rescued and placed gently on the ground where they felt the earth under their feet for the first time ever. Because their bones have never been properly exercised, added to the relentless demand for calcium for eggshell formation, these hens suffer from varying degrees of osteoporosis when they arrive at a sanctuary.

The egg industry calls their osteoporosis “caged layer fatigue.” Affected hens have difficulty standing and spreading their wings. Their bones are very fragile, often fractured and sometimes broken. They have a washed-out appearance in their eyes and combs. The comb, which is the red crown on top of their heads, turns yellowish-white in the battery cage. Their toenails are long and spindly from never having scratched vigorously in the ground like normal chickens. Hens fresh from an egg-production facility look like ghostly ballerinas exhumed from the underworld.

Over time, Sarah began getting up a little bit on her deformed legs. She began moving, cautiously, on her feet. Her feathers started coming back, and her expression changed from lusterless and defeated to alert and interested. We began letting her out of her enclosure to move about freely on the porch. One day I brought her into the house. The personal attention had a huge effect. Sarah became friendly and assertive. If I was working upstairs, I would carry her up the steps so she could sit next to me.

One day I ran upstairs to get something and heard a sound behind me. I turned around. Sarah was on the third step! She stood still a minute, and then she sort of hopped up to the next step. She kept coming. She made it to the landing, went into the bathroom, and sat down behind the toilet. I thought, “Okay. Let her rest there, if that’s what she wants.” Soon after, she appeared where I was working, quite animated. I checked behind the toilet, and there was a perfect egg. This became her routine, her determination to rehabilitate herself, both physically and mentally. She would climb the front steps, one laborious step at a time, just so she could lay her egg behind the toilet in the bathroom next to the second-floor landing. This was her choice.

Sarah was a hen, remember, who had never known anything before in her life but a crowded metal cage among thousands of cages in a windowless building. Hens bred for commercial egg production are said by their abusers to be suited to a caged environment. Until she came to our sanctuary, she had never experienced anything normal, even so simple, yet vital, as walking. Everything she had known prior to being rescued was designed to defeat her personality and her will, because the egg industry dismisses any notion that these “egg-laying machines” retain natural instincts and behaviors (apart from laying a massively unnatural number of eggs). Commercial egg producers ridicule the idea that a human being could have a friendly relationship with such hens.

But Sarah was not defeated. She eventually chose to join the chickens outdoors where she held her own as a respected member of the flock, and I was lucky to have had the opportunity to spend several years with her in our sanctuary before she died.

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s podcast and that you will share it with others. Please do a special Compassionate Action for Chickens this month, as we designate the entire month of May to be International Respect for Chickens Month. And please join me for the next podcast episode of Thinking Like a Chicken – News & Views! Thank you, and please make every day Respect for Chickens Day.

KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl published by Lantern Publications & Media.

Rainbow looking into the camera. Karen smiling and looking at Rainbow
Karen and Rainbow, our beloved rooster who died peacefully of old age Jan. 21, 2023.
Photo by Unparalleled Suffering Photography.