All About Animals: Secondary Teachers: Lesson Plan 3: Listen Up!

How does this fit into the National Curriculum? To listen, understand and respond critically to others, pupils should be taught to: concentrate on and recall the main features of a reading (2a); identify the major elements of what is being said both explicitly and implicitly (2b); distinguish features of a presentation where a speaker aims to explain, persuade, amuse or argue a case (2c); distinguish tone, undertone, implications, signs of a speaker’s intentions (2d)

Teachers’ Note: This is a listening exercise. Read the passage below to the class and: a) ask them to answer the following questions from memory, and b) discuss in the classroom the main points of the reading.

From The Pig Who Sang to the Moon by Jeffrey Masson

Kim Sturla, of Animal Place, the sanctuary in California, told me about a hen she found at a city dump. This was an older chicken who had lost most of her upper-beak and much of her lower beak during a botched debeaking. This painful “operation” is done so quickly, without of course, anesthesia, that it is not at all unusual for it to result in horrendous injuries, which then go untreated since to do otherwise would be “uneconomic.” She brought Mary, as she called her, home to the sanctuary, to live out her remaining years in safety. In spite of her deformation, Mary had a remarkable confidence, a strong sense of self, as Sturla calls it. Mary became fast friends with Notorious Boy, a young rooster who was considered a gentleman, in contrast to the usual image of roosters. They spent all their time together, hardly interacting with other birds. It was a kind of love, though not sexual. They would bask in the sun together, look for food and would always sleep close to one another. The spot they selected was far from the chicken barn. They chose to sleep on a picnic table outside the kitchen window. When the first winter rains came, and it began to pour, Sturla went outside to bring them indoors. She found them huddling close together, Notorious Boy’s wing draped over Mary to protect her from the wind and rain, just as a mother hen would protect her chicks.

It is something of a clich among animal behaviorists that wild animals do not tolerate disabilities, and that animals who are unfortunate enough to be born with a deformity or fall ill rarely last very long. I am dubious. Recent research on many species has shown that young animals born with serious disabilities are nevertheless able to live with the help of their mothers and sometimes other friends and relatives. This is particularly true of elephants but applies to many species. Indeed, animals may have no concept of “disability” in the way humans do. Inspiring in this instance is the account Kim Sturla gave of Helen, a completely tame hen who was found wandering the streets of San Francisco. She was totally blind, and dogs were mauling her when a homeless person took pity on the hen and rescued her. She was taken to the city’s animal shelter, where a call was put through to Animal Place to see if they would be willing to give her a home. Helen was born with a condition called cryptophthalmos, meaning that her eyelids had never formed properly and therefore never opened. One foot was missing and one of her legs was several inches shorter than the other. Concerned on the first night that Helen might become the object of derision from the other hens and roosters, Sturla set up a special nest in the barn. But when she opened the following morning, a triumphant Helen greeted her sitting proudly on the top perch. Blind and lame, she had somehow found this spot. Far from feeling derision for Helen’s disabilities, the other birds stood in a kind of awe of her, and she lives to this day in complete harmony with the rest of the flock, preening her feathers, basking in the sun, dust-bathing with pure delight.

Many who write about animals have noted that chickens form unusual friendships. Maurice Burton, in his book, Just Like an Animal, tells of an aged hen, Aggie, who was almost totally blind and had become a pet wandering as she wished about the garden. Her owners could not pluck up the courage to put her down. She was protected by a bantam (a breed of miniature chicken) who became her inseparable companion, sunbathing and dust-bathing together. At night the bantam would lead Aggie to her roost. When Aggie died, the bantam went into a deep depression and within a week was also dead.

When I was in Australia I visited Patty Mark at her home in Melbourne, where she rescues battery hens. The yard was filled with them. Mark’s fearlessness is legendary: she will go to any lengths to protect birds who are being abused on poultry farms; for her it is a matter of moral duty. I have seen videos of Mark and her associates making their way to a vast shed containing almost a hundred thousand miserable chickens, starved of sunlight, fresh air, green grass, and blue sky. The intrepid chicken-saviors find their way inside and rescue some of the hens who are near death. She is justly proud of what she did, even if she had to go to jail as a consequence. It was said that she had stolen other people’s “property” though she believes, and I agree with her, that the day will come when this word will never again be used in conjunction with a living being.

When I met Mark, it was a beautiful sunny day, and as I stretched out on the grass, with my then three-year-old son Ilan next to me, several hens approached to investigate. One in particular sat down next to Ilan and settled into what looked very much like sunbathing. When Mark showed me a video clip of this same hen in her former life, I found it hard to believe that an animal who had suffered so severely could have survived and shown such delight in close physical contact with the same class of beings who had been her tormentors. Mark and others who live with chickens claim on good grounds that chickens recognize certain people and have good memories for who has been kind to them and who has not. It would seem these hens showed a remarkable ability to forgive, or perhaps they were just able to discriminate.

We have attempted to crush the spirit of the domestic chicken, hoping the hen will not obey an instinct to roost in a tree. When she is in a cage with ten other birds, unable even to spread her wings, of course she cannot give expression to this instinct. But we have not succeeded in crushing her spirit. This we see the minute she manages to escape from her prison. In general, whenever chickens are allowed to revert to feral life, they reveal behaviour that had not been seen or expected in the domestic chicken. What we have failed to see is therefore not because it does not exist but because the conditions we have created are so artificial that, instead of chickens, we are seeing in effect some kind of deranged bird, a sort of distorted version of the real chicken. Of course, as Karen Davis reminds me, they are no more artificial than are humans released from prison camps. They are living beings, infinitely more complex and interesting than any machine ever created, and unlike any machine now or probably ever, they suffer.

Questions to answer from memory:
1. What is debeaking? Why do you think this is routinely done on chicken farms?
(Teacher: Farmers routinely cut off the beaks of birds with a red-hot blade to prevent the birds from damaging one another when stressed by the conditions they live in.)
2. How did Notorious Boy protect Mary from the rain?
3. What disabilities did Helen have when she was found wandering the streets?
4. How did she surprise the sanctuary worker when she opened the barn door the next day?
5. What instincts do chickens reveal that they were unable to show inside factory farms?
6. How far will Patty Mark go to rescue birds?
7. Why does the author think that chickens can discriminate between different people?
8. Why does Karen Davis compare chickens to detainees in prison camps?

Discussion Points

  • Given that chickens clearly form strong social bonds and friendships, show intelligence and can suffer, should we amend the way we treat chickens on farms?
  • Is it right for people to break the law to rescue severely ill chickens from their cages and barns?
  • Should we learn lessons from how chickens deal with disabilities within their society?