At the Autism and Behavioral Spectrum School in Ballwin, Missouri, a woman with purple-streaked black hair walked in with a stroller containing a plump, white chicken.
Erica Camp brought Jo the chicken to meet a few dozen children, who petted and held Jo in their laps. The visit is part of Camp’s efforts to spread word about her organization, Second Hen’d, which helps people adopt older chickens from commercial farms that don’t want them anymore.
Jo, a spent hen from a commercial egg producer, is one of 180 hens that Camp has saved since starting Second Hen’d last year. Owning hens can be therapeutic, she said.
“I’m a disabled veteran, and my big three are PTSD, anxiety and depression,” Camp said. “They are the thing that keeps me calm. If I’m having a bad day or things are just not going right, I need to get outside and be able to spend time with my chickens.”
From Raising Chicks To Raising Older Hens
Camp has loved chickens since she was a kid, having grown up with them at her family’s farm. After spending several years moving around in the military, she and her husband settled down in St. Louis. She knew she wanted to raise chickens, so she began with baby chicks. But she discovered that one was a rooster, which are prohibited in St. Louis. Others became sick and died.
“I had started thinking, 'Well, what if I rescued some chickens so you knew they were female and they’d gotten past that vulnerable stage that bad things can happen?'” Camp said.
After doing some research online, she learned there were some active organizations that save spent hens, but there weren’t any close by in St. Louis. Camp spread the word to some friends who were interested in owning older hens, and her list of people who wanted hens kept growing. But she hadn’t yet found a farmer who’d want to give her chickens.
“That was kind of a push for me, like there’s a lot of people that want these chickens,” Camp said. “So that was kind of my motivation to keep trying, keep trying.”
Farmers either ignored or rejected her requests. She sensed that while some commercial egg producers liked the idea, others feared Camp was an animal rights activist who was trying to expose them. So Camp decided to apply for official nonprofit status for Second Hen’d, which she received in March 2018.
“I don’t think everyone in that industry is a bad person,” she said. “I don't like what happens. But it's something that's so much bigger than me. And it's been happening for so long. There's nothing I can do to change that. But if I can instead find a way in to earn their respect and to get them to listen to my ideas and work with me, small changes can start to happen.”
In July 2018, she convinced a farmer to give her first batch of 40 chickens.
Adopting Spent Hens Means Recognizing Where They Came From
Second Hen’d carefully selects who can adopt spent hens, much like animal shelters do with rescued cats and dogs, Camp said.
“They have to understand where these birds are coming from, meaning that the birds are going to be scared, they’re going to look rough and it’s going to be a process,” she said.
Adopters can expect the hens to look bald due to molting, when chickens lose feathers and stop laying eggs, Camp said. Some might still lay eggs; others may stop altogether. They’re also likely to be cautious of people and other animals.
“There may be some that are always going to be a little nervous or keep their walls up,” she said. “But for the most part, you put the work in, it’s going to come back and they’re going to end up really sweet.”
Paul Whitsitt, owner of Kitchen House Coffee in St. Louis, adopted two hens from Second Hen’d, which live in the backyard of the shop’s Tower Grove East location. He named them Cream and Sugar.
Camp had prepared him and his staff well for how the hens would look, Whitsitt said.
“You see the big floppy combs on their heads? So Erica warned us about that. I think that comes from having lived the first part of their lives in a hot, humid environment,” he said.
Cream and Sugar have lived at Kitchen House Coffee since last spring. They look healthier and are getting along well with their coop mates, Cardamom and Tarragon, Whitsitt said.
“I don’t know if it’s true, but I feel like the two hens that were already here had sensed that the girls here have already been through a lot,” he said.
Seeing the hens recover from their time laying eggs at the farm is part of the therapy involved in taking care of them, Camp said.
“They get to feel sun for the first time; they get to feel grass,” she said. “They can stretch their wings; they can, you know, sunbathe and do all that actual chicken stuff.”
Camp, the group’s vice president Rebecca Clark and a small band of volunteers run the organization. She spends a large portion of her time contacting farmers and transporting as many hens as she can.
For Camp, saving the hens is much like aiding someone who is leaving tough duty in the military.
“It’s almost like [some hens] have completely given up,” Camp said. “And you can’t explain to them, ‘Just hold on. You know life’s going to get so much better.’ So some of them, they passed because they’re just so far gone. But the majority is terrified. You can tell they’re curious about things and they start to explore their freedom. I get reports from adopters about the cool stuff that’s going on, and it’s just really sweet to see all the different transformations.”
Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org