I have always loved eating chicken.
Then I fell in love with a chicken and things got really complicated.
I am a baby boomer who grew up in the bustling borough of Queens, New York, and spent my working career in the hard boiled profession of print journalism. So all I ever knew about chickens is that they were dead, and sitting delectably on my plate. And did I ever love chicken, whether boiled, broiled or baked. There was chicken marsala, chicken sandwiches, chicken on a skewer, chicken fingers and, of course, chicken soup. Dinner companions never bothered to ask my order. “You’re having the chicken,” they would say with a laugh.
But all of that was before Judy came into my life.
I divorced in the early 2000s and moved into a small, one-bedroom cottage on Long Island’s North Shore. My cottage shared a large backyard with a bigger, white house next door. The occupants, Theo and his wife Annie, were pleasant, polite and friendly. We fell into the practice of always doing one another small favors, like picking up something at the supermarket, helping out with shoveling snow, or giving a boost to a stalled car.
Then, one day, I watched as Theo, a slender bald man about my age who is very into yoga, meditation and nature, (wholly unlike peripatetic me), build a pen in the rear of the yard, and in it, a wooden house large enough to fit four small dogs. But instead, four chickens arrived, despite zoning regulations that prohibited farm animals in this deeply suburban neighborhood.
“Aren’t those illegal?” I asked.
“Yeah, but who’s going to tell?” Theo said.
Not me. I liked the sounds the chickens made. Their squawks gave the place a country feel, allowing me to forget that our houses were so close together, and that we were not far at all from busy main roads.
Theo gave the chickens names: Luba, Christine, Marybeth and Judy.
One day, Theo asked me to care for the chickens while he and Annie were away on vacation. Theo showed me how to provide them with food and water, how to open and close the pen door so they would not slip out, and when to take the fresh eggs from the coop. Theo said the eggs were mine to keep. But eggs are the only chicken product I cannot eat. I need to watch the old cholesterol, a family disorder.
The first day went well. I let the chickens out and watched as they carefully and comically stepped down a six-step wooden platform to the pen. I placed down their food and fresh water, and watched as they happily gobbled up the grain. At dusk that first evening, like little automatons, they climbed the platform back into their sheltered home. All I had to do was make sure the door was locked, so the roving raccoons could not get them.
The problems started the second day. And the culprit was Judy.
I didn’t think chickens could fly. But Judy managed to get herself over the five-foot wire mesh fence Theo had constructed. I tried to get her back in, but Judy had ideas of her own. She scooted away and headed toward the driveway. I walked slowly after her, hoping to usher her back to the pen. But she moved further toward the street. The others were raising hell in the pen, vicariously enjoying every moment of the freedom Judy had acquired.
How would I explain to Theo and Annie if Judy made it to the street, got hit by a car, or got pounced on by a dog or cat? They trusted me. Theo and Annie ate the eggs and sometimes gave them away. The eggs and the chickens had value to them.
So I pursued Judy, with my panic growing as I followed her to the street. Despite my love for chicken lunches and dinners, I am a fervent animal lover. I would have hated to see a dead Judy. I managed to position myself at her behind, and used my hands and arms to wave her back toward the pen. I finally won this battle, but there would be many more like it, and worse, in the days to come.
Judy would manage to get over the fence again, and there I would be, chasing a chicken down a suburban street, the other neighbors leaning out their windows.
“Hey, you want a net?” one of them yelled one time.
“No, what he needs is a carving knife,” said another.
Chasing chickens was something my great-grandfather, Moshe, would have done back in the shtetls, the crowded warren of old Jewish neighborhoods, in Eastern Europe. What would he have thought of his great-grandson, the retired, hard-headed newspaper man who now teaches at a local college, tearing after a chicken on the street?
Oy vey, he would have said. For this I left Europe? Yes great grandpa, for this you left Europe! I had to keep Judy safe, even if that meant chasing her down the street, even if I was in my underwear.
Which is exactly what happened. On a particular chilly morning, I had awoken early and let the chickens out, just before sunrise. I sat sipping coffee and watching the news on television, when I heard clucking under my living room window. I looked out and saw a white tail rush by. It was Judy. She was headed toward the street. This was not the first time Judy flew the coop, of course. But it was the first time I was totally unprepared to serve as chicken-chaser.
There was no time to dress. She might get struck by a car. I ran out the door after her, clad in nothing but boxer shorts and a tee shirt. Judy was already on a main thoroughfare. Cars were whizzing by. Judy was squawking at the drivers, who slowed to get a better look at a real live chicken by the side of the road.
When I got to her, drivers spotted me and began honking their horns.
“Hey, put on a pair of pants,” a woman screamed.
“Hey,” I yelled back, “don’t you see I’m trying to catch a chicken?”
The woman made a circling motion with her finger beside her head, and drove off. I could have cared less. Judy was out here.
“How much are the eggs?” a guy asked as he drove by.
“They’re not for sale,” I yelled back.
“Well how much for the chicken?” he asked.
“She’s not for sale.”
“Too bad,” he said. “I like chicken soup.”
Then, just my luck, a police car rolled by. “I could bust you for indecent exposure,” the officer said, rolling down his window. He looked at me, and then at Judy. He was not smiling.
“But you know what? I’m not going to. Nobody would believe me,” he said, before gunning his patrol car and taking off.
I got behind Judy again, and began to coax her back toward home. Cars were still slowing down. A few kids in a blue van made clucking noises. Their mom whistled.
“Great legs,” she said. I knew she was not referring to mine.
I was making progress. Judy was heading back home. She got back into the pen. I caught my breath and flopped into a chair. I was exhausted. But the important thing, I thought, was that Judy was safe.
Theo and Annie returned home, and I filled them in on Judy’s activities. Theo said he would build the netting a little higher, to make sure she would not get out again. He did just that and, yes, Judy found her wings and landed on the backyard grass, again. There she was, clucking away, scaring a neighborhood cat who patrolled the area but had never before come up against a chicken.
Theo built the netting to over six feet. But Judy was not deterred. She clawed her way underneath the netting and was able to roam free. All this took place while her owners were home and caring for her.
The next time the couple went away and asked me to “look after” the chickens, I was reluctant.
“I’m obviously no good at it,” I said.
“Come on,” Theo answered. “You’re great. You catch Judy every time.”
Almost as soon as they pulled out of the driveway, Judy was out of the pen and heading to the main road, to the cars, the people, the dogs, and whatever else was out there. And there I was again, pursuing her, this time in pants and a shirt, but armed with a stick, perfect for tapping behind her to get her to move in the right direction.
It was then that I began to realize two things: Judy was desperate for her freedom, and I had to admit that I had fallen in love with Judy.
Her refusal to stay penned in, her wish to go where she wanted, her desire to see the outside world, all endeared her to me. Her fine, soft brown and white feathers, her white tail and red beak, also tugged at my heart strings. This was truly a beautiful bird, one I needed to protect, and one I loved.
I could no longer claim that this was a burden, that I did not want to do it, that Judy was nothing but trouble. I came to realize that not only did I love Judy, but I now had a huge question to answer: how could I ever eat chicken again? Could a broiled chicken ever look tasty again? Could I possibly down a cup of chicken soup?
What could I substitute for chicken dinners? I was not a big meat eater, and I was not crazy about a plate of veggies. Cereal for the rest of my life?
Figuring out my diet would have to wait. There was a larger question: what to do with Judy? She obviously would never be happy cramped into a pen in the suburbs. She needed her space, the freedom maybe to spread her wings, and fly, somewhat at least. I had to find an appropriate home for Judy.
I was told of a farm about 150 miles north of where I lived. It sounded ideal for Judy. She could roam at her heart’s content, peck away at the grass, dig her claws into the earth and no cars would be around to harm her.
But I did not own Judy. I had no rights to her. I approached Theo and told him that the right thing to do was to re-locate Judy to this farm, where she could be Judy. He was reluctant. She was, he said, one of his best egg producers. I told him I would buy him another chicken. After some consideration, he agreed.
On moving day, I packed Judy into a crate and put her in the back seat of my car. She did not utter a sound, as if somehow she knew she was going to a better place. We made the drive in record time. The farm was a beautiful place. The owner, who really did look like a farmer in his blue overalls, large hat and boots, came out to greet Judy and I.
He was a man of few words. He took the crate, said, “She’ll be in good hands,” shook my hand, turned away and walked toward the barn.
There was a lump in my throat as I watched Judy in her crate, her head bobbing and darting from side to side. I got back into my car for the long drive home. What would life be like without Judy? Would I miss even the hair-raising chases?
You bet I would. A few days later, I found it hard to focus on my work. I was worried about Judy. Would it be too crazy to call the farmer and ask about the welfare of a chicken? He probably already thought I was a bit strange. Then I recalled that once, my ex-wife called a vet from a Paris hotel to ask how our cat was doing in boarding. The call was expensive, but I thought that was nice.
I decided to call the farmer.
“Oh yeah,” the farmer answered. “Your chicken. She’s fine. Took right to the place.”
I swallowed my pride and asked if he would mind if I visited. There was a pause.
“Ah, no, no. I guess that would be okay,” he said, before hanging up.
The next day, I got in my car and headed upstate, the thrill of seeing Judy making me press a little harder on the accelerator than I should have.
When I arrived, I noticed her immediately. She stood out with her white tail. I called to her. She waddled over to me, looked up, and squawked. I rubbed her neck and she bent her head toward me, and then hopped away, re-joining a scrum of other chickens feasting on new grain.
I took one more look and saw that Judy and another chicken had taken to what looked like necking. I felt I’d done my job.
At last, Judy was free.
Author: James Bernstein
Image: flickr/the dabblist
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock; Nicole Cameron