Fanny

For many years, the bold hen we called Fanny was the sanctuary’s official greeter, not to mention our most effective solicitor of donations.

Fanny came to the sanctuary after an 18-month term in a North Carolina egg factory. Usually, so-called “spent hens” who no longer lay eggs every day are slaughtered for low-grade meat or simply buried alive in landfills. Fanny and nineteen others were saved from that fate by a kind woman named Kay.

Like all hens from egg factories, Fanny had been subjected to the painful operation known as “debeaking.” Chicks who will later be confined to egg factories have the tips of their beaks burned off with a hot blade. This prevents the bored and hungry hens, who are crowded into cages so small that they cannot spread their wings or even lie down comfortably, from pecking themselves or each other to death in frustration. Fanny’s mutilated beak gave her face a blunted look that always reminded us of what she had been through.

When Fanny arrived at the sanctuary, she was shockingly skinny and had very few of her lovely red feathers. She and her peers looked more like monsters than birds. Having spent so many months perched on wire in cramped cages, they could hardly walk. They had never seen sunshine or grass and weren’t at all sure what to do. Some were frantic while others seemed to be in a numb state of shock. Some stood still, others careened crazily, unable to control their almost-atrophied muscles.

In order to help the birds become less fearful of us, sanctuary co-founder pattrice jones sat down on the ground, spread food all around her, and sat very still. After the birds came close enough to eat that food, she put food on my shoes and pants. Very gingerly, some of the birds began eating that food too. One bold bird jumped right into her lap.

The song “The Weight” popped into her head:

Take a load off, Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off, Fanny
And put the load right on me

We started calling the bold bird “Fanny,” and the name stuck.

Fanny with pattrice and cats

This was the first group of hens from an egg factory that we had taken in, so we spent a lot of time observing them as they were observing us. We noticed that Fanny was bold—and a little bit bossy—not only with us but also in relation to the other hens. In that, she was different from Scout, a curious explorer who was courageous in relation to me but deferred to the other birds, and from egghead Simone, who was much more cautious and thoughtful.

As part of our campaign to encourage the hens to be less fearful of us, we offered them food by hand whenever we filled the feed bowls. Fanny got the idea that the food came from our bodies and would scratch at our jeans and work boots, as chickens scratch in the dirt, to try to get the food to flow. Eventually, she figured out that the food was coming out of the containers we carried and started ducking her head into them. But, for the rest of her life, Fanny always preferred food from the hand over food from the bowl, even if it was exactly the same food.

Fanny liked to hear her song (or, to be honest, any song). She came running if we called her name, not because she was being summoned but because she wanted to see what was going on. Unlike many of the birds, whose feathers got ruffled by any departure from their favored routines, Fanny liked visitors and excitement and changes of pace.

In her later years, Fanny greeted visitors from our front yard, where she spent her days once she got too old to deal with the hustle and bustle and randy roosters of the main chicken yard. She was joined by Carmen, who had been with her in the egg factory, a younger hen called Darwin, who had lost a wing in a freak accident, and a delicate but tenacious half-blind hen called Felicia.

Fanny, Darwin, and Felicia

Carmen and Darwin were gregarious red hens like Fanny, so the three of them hung out together. Felicia, a shy white hen, spent much of her time alone until a feral hen had chicks and decided to let Felicia help out with them. The mother hen wouldn’t let any other chicken near her chicks, so that was quite a compliment to Felicia, who became very attached to her new family. Eventually, the chicks grew up, and first Carmen and then Darwin died. Fanny then became fast friends with Felicia. They were like next-door neighbors who don’t have a lot in common at first but become close over time due to shared experiences.

Felicia was a remarkable bird who had several times been so sick that we were sure she would die but recovered and went on to enjoy more times around the seasons. But when the cold weather came again, her little body finally gave out. That was very sad for us and for Fanny, who had lived to see all of her closest friends die.

Fanny kept up her usual routine but just didn’t seem herself anymore. Sometimes we would see her standing out in the yard alone. She spent some time with the elderly roosters and a juvenile rooster named Dizzy, but didn’t seem to have the same bond with them as she had had with her hen friends. “We’ve got to get Fanny a new friend,” we said, but she didn’t hit it off with any of the other red hens with whom we encouraged her to spend time. Luckily, a red hen named Rosalita moved in from Washington, DC and she and Fanny hit it off right away. Fanny’s mood improved overnight.

But nobody lives forever. In the summer of 2005, Fanny started slowing down. Each day, it took her longer to get going in the morning, and she slept more during the day. She still came running for treats and visitors, but she drooped a bit in between those moments of excitement. We knew what was coming.

On the morning of what would be her last day, Fanny had a slow start but came running when sanctuary cofounder Miriam Jones mixed up her favorite treat for breakfast. Later in the day, pattrice noticed Fanny drooping and brought her some mulberries. She ate one berry eagerly but dropped the next and couldn’t find the rest. Seeing that she was slipping into a stupor, pattrice gathered Fanny into her arms and sat down under a tree with the little hen held close to her chest. Fanny fell asleep within that embrace as the life ebbed from her body.

Fanny spent five years at the sanctuary after two years in an egg factory. She survived her friends Simone, Godiva, Carmen, Darwin, and Felicia. She was survived by hen friends Rosalita and Sparrow; rooster friends Dizzy, Lola, and Fauna; and the cats with whom she used to huddle in a dog house when waiting out rainstorms. Fanny also left behind a host of human admirers and two deeply grieving people.

Fanny expected to be greeted whenever we saw her, just like any friend who would feel snubbed if ignored. Miriam and pattrice did say “hello” to Fanny, every morning and several times each day before saying “goodnight” every night. When we had to say “goodbye” to her forever, it was hard to believe we would never say “hello” to her again. Of course we knew that she would not, could not, live forever. But her spirit was so strong that it felt like she would never die.

The little red hen we called “Fanny” was one in a million—literally and figuratively. Fanny was just one of millions of hens crowded into tiny cages in egg factories. And, like every one of them, she was unique in the sense of having her own characteristics, her own likes and dislikes, and her own way of looking at the world. If, by speaking and writing about Fanny, we can help people to see hens as individuals and stop treating them like objects, then Fanny really will live forever.

But we will still miss her.