Last night I dined on a feast at my mother's house: a banquet prepared as only a doting mother can, peppered with love, one's favourite gastronomic delights and, in my case, the odd cat hair. And at the centre of it all was a chicken.
Now, a chicken as a centrepiece on the dinner table is hardly surprising or new. In fact, for me, Sunday roasts were once never complete without a roast chicken bathed in gravy, nestled by baked potatoes and vegetables.
Last night, however, the chicken on the table was very much alive. This handsome devil, my feathered friend, even has a name: 'Red Baron'.
Red Baron loves dinner at my mum's house because it is a feast for him too; in a 'win–win' situation, he gets treats and we get treated to his quirky and endearing antics, whether it is sneaking a drink from my glass of water, tucking into a bit of spaghetti, squatting down to peer at the TV or taking a snooze on my shoulder.
I cannot now imagine seeing chickens as anything other than friends. And I know I am not alone in this thought: many people, through the simple act of noticing chickens, are observing that chickens' lives are full of possibilities, if only they are given the chance.
Red Baron came to me at only a few days old, a real miracle indeed. He was hatched at an egg production facility (you couldn't really call it a farm) and, being male (as around 50 percent of the hatchlings are), he was destined to be killed. But somehow he survived, beating many apparently insurmountable odds.
Thus overcoming the worst in his life, he was set to enjoy the best, as he found himself on the doorstep of my house and heart and quickly chirped his way into both. My hair became his surrogate mother hen's wing as he would happily bounce around on my shoulder each day. Going for bike rides, working on the computer and watching over me as I brushed my teeth. Red Baron's life was rich and full. And so was mine.
Red Baron is affectionate (he loves tickles under his chin), knows his name (and occasionally acknowledges it, when he feels like it) and has found firm favourites in the chicken yard (his personal favourite is Spice Mummy, a geriatric hen, so yes, he has another chicky babe in his life!). These are pretty standard things for most people's beloved pets, except of course he is covered in feathers, not fur, and walks on two legs, not four. Yet none of those things diminish my love for him -- nor do they diminish my remorse for the days when I viewed chickens as merely a food source.
Does it not strike you as odd that, in a nation that showers an estimated $12 billion on companion animals each year, has legislation to prevent animal cruelty and has a high awareness of the negative effects of bullying, our treatment of farmed animals is apparently based on the principle of 'might makes right'?
We do the things we do to farmed animals simply because we can. We treat them not on their capacity to experience pain and suffering, or their desire for peace, calm and safety or even their will to live.
No, our treatment of farmed animals is based on our familiarity with them, the intended use we have for them and the form they have taken -- all of these things have made possible treatments, values and societal norms that a clear mind and pure heart would struggle to accept, given the plethora of alternatives we have to live happy and healthy lives.
So few people know that cows are really quite kind, they are loving mothers and they form social groups.
And pigs -- don't start me on pigs! It was, after all, a pig who trotted into my heart in 2003 and then tugged my life in a direction I could never have imagined. Pigs are clean, oh so clean, yet you would never know this if you walked into a modern-day factory 'farm'. The stench would lift your head off and the sight of the pigs covered in filth would wreck your heart. They are smart, clever, friendly and love belly rubs -- just like your dog.
And sheep -- they are gentle and endearing. With patience and kindness, they will learn their name and even offer you a hoof shake if it is their wont. And they have far more brain cells than human society would like to give them credit for.
But there is good reason many people do not know these things, because if they did, it would cause a massive reassessment of the way the largest number of animals in human care are treated -- those who are farmed for food and fibre.
There is good reason the public are not privy to the regular happenings on factory farms and in slaughterhouses, or have the opportunity to witness routine practices afforded to farmed animals, or even look into the wide-open eyes of distressed animals as they make that final journey to their deaths.
Wednesday October 4 is World Animal Day, and what better time than this to make a whole world of difference to the lives of animals? A great place to start is to allow them to feast on a banquet of human kindness as we raise their status from 'something' that goes in our stomachs to 'someone' who belongs in our hearts (or on our shoulder).