Julie Vegani writes about a remarkable campaign to see chickens granted companion animal rights
In the largest public gardens in Bologna, Italy, I Giardini Margherita, tourists, children, the inquisitive, and the perplexed, make a beeline for the two friends soaking up the sun on a picnic blanket. When asked about their friendship, one of them answers in Italian and the other in Henglish–a language currently understood by few. There are around 30 different vocalizations in Henglish and native speakers can, among many other things, succinctly warn those nearby of exactly where a possible aggressor may be about to attack from: from above, below, the left or the right. Simona and Gertrude may not speak the same language but they are the best of friends, and while Gertrude’s life will not be long it will be happy.
At the age of just three days old, Gertrude and her siblings knew how to add and subtract but Simona’s maths prodigy companions only live, on average, about one year and seven months due to skeletal, metabolic, heart and circulatory disorders which are a result of selective breeding and which they soon succumb to, despite their healthy lifestyle.
Sometimes, people talk to Gertrude and Simona, start to walk away then stop and walk back, with tears in their eyes, because they have something to add: “I will never eat chicken again. I will never eat any other animal again. I couldn’t after what I’ve just seen.” Another victory for the Hen for a Friend (Una Gallina Per Amica) project, which Simona has been promoting since 2014 and which aims to see chickens legally recognized as companion animals.
She has appeared on two national TV stations to speak about the project and encourage people to sign the online petition* as the more signatures she manages to collect, the more chance she stands of bringing about this change.
Gertrude and the rest of the feathered girls saved as chicks or adults from factory farms by Simona live at her sanctuary and enjoy persimmons, figs, cherries and grapes straight from the plants that grow there while she herself puts in the legwork and distributes about a thousand leaflets a month to promote a plant-based diet. “By opening the shelter, I wanted to send out a clear message: all animals can be our friends, all animals deserve our love and protection because they’ve never done anything to us. It’s always been us that have harmed them.” The hens sleep in cosy baskets when they’re not out and about with their human companion enjoying the view from a bus or train window, sunbathing and raising awareness in parks, or sitting on her knee watching TV.
Simona became vegetarian at the age of eight, when she was given a chick to look after as its mother had been killed by a dog, and vegan in 2006. She gives the eggs laid by the hens to her neighbours so that they don’t fund exploitation by buying them from the supermarket. Five years ago Simona, who works as a lawyer, founded the anti-slaughter league ‘Lega Anti-Macellazione’ (LAM) after watching footage of what goes on in abattoirs and hearing about unspeakable ways chickens were often killed in the Italian countryside until quite recently. One method involved stabbing them in the eyes with scissors so that they would bleed to death through their orbits as this would supposedly make their flesh paler and more tender.
“People are usually amazed at how affectionate and sociable the hens are,” she says. “They seek out attention, play readily, and never say no to a bit of vegan chocolate cake. They can also tell how you’re feeling and, if they see me crying, they’ll come and sit on my knee to keep me company and help banish all the sad thoughts. They even purr when you stroke them.” Indeed, unhatched chicks will purr from inside their egg to let their mother know they are contented or emit cheeps of distress to get her to provide more warmth. Chickens can also distinguish between and remember over a hundred individuals across species and will greet their friends: “Gertrude, long time no see! Come and share this corn I’ve just found.”
This impressive memory also means that adult chickens show long-term gratitude to humans who rescue them, running to greet them, wings outstretched, even when they know there’s no food to be had. Just before Christmas last year, Simona rescued an adult hen, Mery, who was living in the usual dire chicken-rearing conditions and was days away from being slaughtered and took her to her new adoptive home in Livorno by car. Mery divided the car journey between gazing at her rescuer from the dashboard and snuggling up to her with unmistakable acknowledgement.As our understanding of these intelligent and sentient animals increases, so does the need for education, awareness, and compassion.