Middle Child: Hatching Project Reject to Humane Educator

By: Betsy Farrell-Messenger, New York State Science Teacher and Humane Educator

Egg-hatching projects are conducted in schools all over the United States in an attempt to show school age children life cycle processes.  Fertilized eggs are placed in an incubator some of which are 18 inches square and 3 inches high.  Often, the incubator’s thermostat doesn’t have manual controls; this can lead to dehydration and cooking of the unborn chicks.  When their specific environmental needs are not met during incubation, chicks may hatch with deformities.  Some newborn chicks need help breaking through the shell because the conditions in the incubator are not optimal for growing embryos and can change the properties of the eggshells, making it difficult for the already weakened chicks to break through.  If the chicks hatch over the weekend, there is no one present to care for them.  Deformed or sickly chicks may be “euthanized” by being placed in a freezer.  When an embryo successfully grows into a chicken, the issue becomes what to do with the chicks when the project is over.  Some schools give the chicks to a farm to grow and later slaughter.  Others send chicks home with young students whose families are completely unprepared to care for the specific needs of a young chick, let alone keep a chicken – quite possibly a rooster – long term.  In urban areas, chicks are typically discarded in dumpsters, abandoned in alleys or just left loose to fend for themselves.

Middle child (MC) the rooster, along with his two brothers, was the discarded result of a school egg-hatching project.  The three roosters were found, rescued and placed at a farm animal sanctuary.  MC’s living quarters and run at the sanctuary were built in a location at the bottom of a steep hill, which flooded during a storm.  For a long while he and his brothers had to live in a much smaller area inside until his new coop was built. MC really protested this confinement; he got angry and started attacking some of his caretakers. Over the years MC grew a reputation among some staff and volunteers as an aggressive rooster; however he only attacked certain people and definitely had a preference for people he liked.  Fortunately, MC liked me. I don’t know why, but we got along great from the beginning.  He would make happy sounds when he saw me and loved to be held.

Many school groups came to the sanctuary for educational programming.  It didn’t take long for MC to take on the roll of my “co-teacher” because I recognized he was a great ambassador for chickens and especially roosters.    He helped change the perspective of many people thinking roosters are mean and violent. MC loved being out around people, he would just sit relaxed, cradled in my arms.  Then when I transferred him to the laps of visitors he just stood tall with a calm confidence.  MC was very tolerant of people touching his legs and feathers, he especially liked the underneath part of his wing petted. I felt a real trust between us. 

There was a point in which I was going to visit a school. I felt that this was a great opportunity for both of us.  Middle Child was hatched in a school setting and now was going back into the classroom to teach compassion towards chickens. MC adjusted to riding in a car almost instantly. We started by just sitting in the car together with the windows rolled down, then the next time, I turned my car on, and over time took him for short rides.  When the day came for our school visit, he just sat down on my lap in the driver’s seat; at stop lights he’d stand to look around. Yes, we got many funny looks and we loved it.  The children were amazed to see a rooster in their school. They were very attentive listening to his story and learning about chickens.  MC stood as calmly and patiently as ever as the children petted him gently and asked thoughtful questions. 

Middle Child is a great rooster and taught me a lot about not “judging a book by its cover,” recognizing and drawing out an individual’s potential, and having an open, patient heart. 

 

Whitney Hillman and Chicklett

(Poem in tribute to Chicklett by Whitney Hillman below)

In the fall of 2010, 16-year-old animal lover Whitney Hillman enrolled in an animal production class in her Concordia, Kansas high school.  Little did she know, the curriculum included a project in which students would raise chicks and eventually slaughter them.  Each student was given a chick, and Whitney quickly bonded with her young rooster, whom she named Chicklett.  By the time Whitney realized the chickens’ fates, it was too late to drop the class.  Her teacher was unsympathetic to her requests for an alternative assignment, so Whitney, seeing no alternative, took matters into her own hands. 

As the day of slaughter approached, Whitney smuggled Chicklett out of the school in a large purse, leaving behind a note explaining what she had done and why.  She asked school officials to put themselves in her shoes: “Would you not do everything in your power to keep a loved one safe? …Please do not judge what I did on the grounds of stupidity and bad behavior, but on the grounds of love and empathy for another living being. I have raised my chicken. I will not kill him.”  She agreed to accept any punishment, and even to pay for Chicklett, but, she said, “I will not apologize for what I have done, I will not regret it, and I would definitely do it again if I had to…”

Whitney took Chicklett to live out his days at a relative’s farm, where he was able to live a normal life until his unfortunate disappearance some time later.  She visited him at the farm when she could, noticing that “his legs became stronger and he seemed much happier” than he had been at the school.

Whitney received two days in school suspension for leaving school grounds, but no punishment for stealing the bird.  According to Whitney, school officials “didn't really care… to them it was a dumb chicken project.”  While her actions received local media coverage and praise by activists across the country, Whitney was harassed by students and teachers alike.  “Some students even made tee shirts,” Whitney said. “One [tee shirt design was] even sponsored by the local KFC, which I am proud to announce is closed now.”

Whitney continues to speak out against animal abuse, but feels limited by her community's closed-mindedness.  She hopes to reach a more receptive audience someday, trusting that, "God will lead me to where I am needed, ans to those that I can help learn the truth about our food."

 

Poem by Whitney written on behalf of Chicklett:

 

Poem, "Just a Chicken" by Chicklett the baby rooster
 
You think I have no purpose,
I’m just food for your plate.
I hope this facebook shows you,
Food was not my intended fate.
The world is waking up now,
I hope you will wake up too.
Yes, I am only one chicken,
But you need to wear my shoe.
I hope you learn from me now,
That happy meals and finger lickin’
Do not portray the true reality,
And cruelty toward the chicken.
 
I don’t deserve to die by a child’s hands,
And my life is not your teaching tool.
I deserve to live as a chicken should,
This “project” does not belong in school.
I hope to change this indifference,
Though I know it won’t change for some.
But my death was not a needed event
To “Know Where Your Food Comes From.”
 
You wanted us to wear for you
An “identification” head-stamp.
And live within the confines
Of your concentration camp.
When you began to plan this “project,”
Did you ever stop and ponder
That children and chickens would bond,
And their hearts would only grow fonder?
You think that my short lifespan
Makes for a fair debate.
You knew I was genetically modified.
Why did you reenact the hate?
 
So you think death is a skill
That a child needs to know?
You used me in your classroom,
And let the children watch me grow.
The weekend before the slaughter,
We would like to have been fed.
But you were not the hungry one,
We were just food, you said.
I think you could have taught better,
Taught lessons more humane.
But instead you only contributed
To sadness, death and pain.
 
I’m asking that you learn from me now,
And read the messages I’ve read from some.
I think it’s time to turn tables on you,
Do you “know where YOUR food comes from?”
You say it was all for “attention.”
I hope that makes you feel better.
But we are seeking change,
And we’ll do that … letter by letter.
You’d like this all to come to a stop,
You’d like the quiet and silence.
But don’t you see? If I do that,
I’m succumbing to the violence.
 
Whitney believed she had no choice.
She had to grab me and run.
So you sacrificed every chicken,
Every single chicken—but one.
So you think I’m just one chicken,
One less meal on your plate.
But my purpose now is greater,
And that’s a much better fate.
My final message is a gift to the world,
Please open up your eyes.
See finger lickin’ for what it really is,
One giant pack of lies.
 
 

 

Whitney Hillman’s letter to school authorities, October 11, 2010, the day of slaughter

By: Whitney Hillman

At the beginning of the semester we were told we were going to be buying baby chicks, raising them for 5-7 weeks, and then slaughtering them. When we were told this, it was too late to transfer classes. Assuming we didn’t have enough funding for the project, I wasn’t too concerned. Then all of a sudden we have boxes filled with baby chickens, and we were told to pick our own chicken. Obviously, I think this is wrong in many ways, and my intent in this letter is to explain why I did what I did. . . .

Permission slips are widely used within school systems, mainly for field trips and movies. History classes are big on this because we watch R-rated movies. These movies are not rated R because of their sexual content, nudity, or language, but because of their blood, gore, and violence. What is involved in chicken slaughtering? Blood, gore, and violence. So I think that’s a pretty good reason for a permission slip. Also, some parents might object to this all together! Maybe they don’t want their children to have this experience, or perhaps they are a vegetarian family, and don’t believe in the slaughtering of animals for food. Whatever the reason, like it or not, parents do have a say!

When the word raise is brought to mind, what do you think of? When I hear the word “raise,” I think of taking care of something or someone because they cannot do it on their own. This involves animals; they cannot raise themselves, especially not in a cage. So we chose our chickens, gave our chickens names, and found ways to remember which chicken belonged to each person. While everyone else was covering their chickens in permanent marker, I was looking at my chicken’s color. My chicken had an orange head instead of yellow, which is what all the other chickens had in my group. So I could distinctly tell the difference, but Mr. Hamilton made me color mine anyway. I didn’t want to color my chicken with a permanent marker because it felt wrong. If coloring the chicken made me feel bad, how do you imagine killing it would make me feel? So, instead of coloring my chicken, I put a purple dot on his foot. It still felt wrong, but it was a lot better than covering his feathers in purple marker. So, I had chosen my chicken, given him a name (Chicklett), and now it was time to raise my chicken. . . .

My chicken has become a loved one. No matter how stupid that sounds, he has. I am an animal lover, I have a dog and he’s like my son. I go to the zoo and it makes me cry because the animals look so depressed and lonely. So, yes I have, in fact, become attached to Chicklett, and could not participate in his death. If you cannot understand my perspective, let me put it in perspective for you. If you have a pet at home that you love dearly, or if you have ever had a pet that you loved, then look at it like this: someone throws your pet in a cage with 4 or 5 others, and says in 5 weeks you are to cut off its head, pull off its fur, clean out all the guts, bag and freeze the meat, and take it home for your family to enjoy. What would you do? Would you not do everything in your power to keep a loved one safe? Are pets not loved ones? So, please do not judge what I did on the grounds of stupidity and bad behavior, but on the grounds of love and empathy for another living being. I have raised my chicken. I will not kill him, but skipping the killing wasn’t enough, I had to save him.

Dissection is a major part of science, but there is almost always a choice of doing an online version, or watching. [However] we were told that we must do some part of the slaughtering. My job is not cutting the chicken’s head off or boiling the chicken in hot water to make the feathers easier to pull out, nor do I have to gut the chicken. My job is to pluck each feather from my chicken, and other chickens’ dead bodies. Close your eyes and imagine having someone cut off your head, and then stripping you naked: not a fun image, right? Yes, it is just a chicken to you, but to me it’s a living being and has just as much right to live as we do. . . .

So I will gladly accept any punishment you give me, but I will not apologize for what I have done, I will not regret it, and I would definitely do it again if I had to. . . . I will not be telling where my chicken is, but that he is safe. I will gladly pay any cost that is asked of me, because I did take the chicken, but please, all I ask is that you understand why.