I grew up with a fish, Marshmallow, who disappeared one day when I left town. My neighbors had dogs, and my parents replaced me with a trouble-making Tibetan Terrier named Jake as soon as I moved out. I live in Oakland now and haven’t gotten to know many animals since moving out west, so when I heard there was a brood of hens living in my backyard, 20 minutes up the road near UC Berkeley, I had to go see for myself.
The house is tucked away at the end of a quiet road that winds all the way up into the Berkeley Hills near Tilden, a 2,000-acre park that spans the crest of the San Pablo Range overlooking San Francisco and the surrounding cities.
Over the past two years, the house has transformed behind its wiry hedges. The outside still looks the same: the house is white with wooden window trim, red-brown shingles, red-brick chimney, and a garden so overgrown it reaches into the road. Past the pile of shoes where I stopped to put on a pair of plastic booties and behind the wooden gate, I could hear 10 mother hens purring quietly.
Deirdre Duhan and her daughter Rachel Arima look after the hens in their backyard-turned-microsanctuary, called the Hens of the Hills. The hens – Ariel, Pellie, Pearl, Persimmon, Galena, Yirah, Saffron, Strawberry, and Little B – were all rescued from abuse on factory farms and animal exploitation facilities. They found the tenth hen, Sophie, next to a lake not far from their house, abandoned by her owner.
Pellie and Pearl were the first two rescues to move in. They have a special relationship. Hens learn how to live in their environments, so naturally, as more rescues started showing up, Pellie got to watch her daughter, Pearl, become the savvy lead hen.
“We’re capped at ten, sadly,” said Deirdre with a twinkle in her eye. She and Rachel know as well as anyone that their work isn’t over once the animals leave the farm.
Rescued animals need a place to go – a place to make their home.
I followed Rachel and Deirdre around the corner of the house and into the backyard, where the hens were waiting. I was a little nervous, to be honest. I had never met a brood of hens before.
Deirdre opened the gate to the backyard, and I turned my head sharply to the right. A small stampede of hens came running at me. The wood chips under their feet made a light tapping noise. The hens stopped in front of us and turned their heads to one side. Chickens are very curious birds, Deirdre told me. They always know what’s happening around them. I was curious too. They kept pecking at my shoes and looking up at me like they knew something I didn’t.
“It’s a very eclectic group,” she said. She meant that in the most human sense of the word. Then I heard it. Short and sweet. There it was again. I don’t know how to spell the sounds she was making. It wasn’t a chirp or a peep. I still don’t have the words for it.
“That’s not her usual voice,” said Rachel. The noise was coming from one of the hens, Sophie, who was brooding. She had spent the past month on her nest inside a sun-lit room in the back of the house that used to be Deirdre’s studio, waiting for her eggs to hatch.
Most of them still lay eggs, although they’re not fertilized and will never hatch. It’s a process Rachel and Deirdre have grown familiar with. Mother hens have been known to sit on their nests so long they starve. Eventually, they will have to take her eggs away.
Humans bred the maternal instinct out of layer hens a long time ago so we can take their eggs, but hens who were used for shooting and fighting, like Sophie, still have their maternal instinct to brood.
“The hens are members of the family,” Deirdre said sternly, “and we do not eat their eggs.”
I met Deirdre a few weeks prior. We sat next to each other on an unmarked coach bus heading to an undisclosed location, likely somewhere in Sonoma County, but we didn’t know. That information was kept private, in case someone on the bus was prepared to tip off local police. I was there to cover what would become one of the most consequential animal rights protests in U.S. history.
There were also rumors floating around that this time, the activists would be using a new tactic: U-locking their necks to the kill line to stop production.
The bus pulled off the highway and parked in front of a storage facility. We were getting close and needed to grab supplies and regroup with the other buses. My palms started to sweat. It was a familiar feeling. I had been behind police lines before, I told myself. But this was my first time covering a direct action, and it was all hurtling at me fast.
Hundreds of protesters. Animals in distress. Riot police with shields and batons and marching orders. Sheriffs. Angry farmers. Cameras everywhere. People tend to behave when there are cameras around. I was banking on it.
By now, when locals see 11 coach buses lined up on Petaluma’s narrow country roads, they know what it means. During two direct action protests last year, five miles down the road from Reichardt Duck Farm, where we were headed, activists seized 51 chickens, including 14 dead and dying birds. Four activists were arrested and still face felony charges.
It’s a risk the activists are willing to take.
The bus passed a man standing on a corner lot. From my seat against the window, I could almost reach out and touch him. He looked up from his yard work, shaking his head.
Someone sang softly to themselves behind me. A woman slept on her friend’s shoulder. Next to me, Deirdre seemed surprisingly calm.
“I had never made a connection with chickens before Hens of the Hills. All of a sudden, you have skin in the game,” said Deirdre.
We were finally off the highway and the whispers got louder. A passenger was narrating the live stream from the ground team for the rest of the bus. “Oh, we’re at a duck farm… They’re locking their necks to the slaughter line. Holy shit.” That’s when Deirdre told me she suspected her daughter, Rachel, was with the ground team. At any moment, there was no way of knowing when, Rachel would be at the front gates, blockading the entrance to the farm.
Police sirens blared at every Petaluma street corner by the time I got there. I had said goodbye to Deirdre at this point. She had left her bag on another bus and hurried off to retrieve it. I followed the line of protesters, every one of them looking over their shoulders, then up to the sky.
A helicopter hovered overhead, and the air smelled like tall grass and raw sewage. I saw a woman dressed in black pull a white cotton t-shirt out of her bag and cover her nose and mouth with it. Smart. I couldn’t stop sneezing, and the medical tent set up by the protesters had been out of Benadryl for hours.
It was getting hard to breathe. Pits of liquid manure lined either side of the small farm road outside Reichardt, where 600 black-clad activists gathered, holding red roses and flashing peace signs at the riot police as they marched by in two single-file lines, chanting “left… left… left – right – left.” Another group of activists crossed the police line about a half-mile down the road and joined the group at the front gate. The crowd cheered.
Rachel was sitting on the ground in a line of twenty-or-so other activists facing the crowd on the other side of the road. They were chained together and holding ducks in their arms, blocking the entrance to the farm. It was more death than I had seen in my entire life.
Temperatures in Sonoma reached 82 degrees that day. As the protest drew on, activists began approaching Rachel and the others at the front gate, kneeling to offer water and support. Then I spotted Deirdre holding a piece of cardboard over her daughter’s head to protect her from the sun. She looked like a mother hen holding her chick under her wing. That was the first thing Deirdre said when I visited her and Rachel a few weeks later.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” Deirdre said, trying to contain her smile. “I’m a mother hen.”
Rachel and Deirdre keep the yard as jungly as possible. It’s easy to be drawn to a place like that, so far away from the sound of passing cars and sirens.
Deirdre asked if I wanted to hold Pellie.
“Is there anything I should know?” I asked. She smiled.
“You have to get used to getting slapped in the face.”
So I didn’t take it personally when Pellie’s wing brushed my cheek on her way to the ground. Before her time at the sanctuary, she was a farm animal, kept in a cage so small she couldn’t flap her wings or see the light of day.
“What they love to do, what they’re so good at – that’s what we take away,” said Rachel.
Flapping is a natural behavior for mother hens, right up there with pecking, which is not malicious, as many people assume. Pecking is how chickens explore their surroundings since they don’t have hands. They’re especially interested in teeth, shoes, and jewelry. And while most of their natural behaviors are lost in confinement, some stick around.
On small scale farms, mother hens are often seen holding one of their wings out over their chicks’ tiny yellow bodies, shielding them from the perceived threat. Trembling, the chick huddles closer to their mother for warmth and protection. But even after that same mother and child are rescued from the farm and given safe refuge at a sanctuary, the mother hen will still hold out her wing, traumatized by her time on the farm and frightened, constantly, for her child’s life.
The cramped battery cages that confined hens grew accustomed to also leave them traumatized. Their response is to clump together at night – as tight as glue – and can even smother each other. In the birds’ minds, clumping is a normal reaction to the extreme confinement they experienced on factory farms. But at Hens of the Hills, given enough time, the animals can heal. Deirdre and Rachel have seen the healing process firsthand.
The other day, Sophie snuck out into the front yard to peck at the grass. She was curious, and the fence around the yard isn’t quite tall enough to keep her in. That much is intentional.
“If a hen is happy, she’s not going to try to leave her home,” said Rachel.
At Reichardt, the ground team rescued 32 ducks from the facility before they were confronted by farmworkers and forced to leave. California Penal Code 597e gives activists the right to enter any facility where animals are sick, injured, or do not have access to food and water.
Some of the ducks, who rescuers found in dumpsters still living, were rushed to veterinarians, according to Glenn Greenwald, who reported from the scene along with several other journalists from The Atlantic, The Intercept, NBC, and CBS. The rest were transported to an undisclosed location.
The legal ramifications from the action were overwhelming. Eighty activists were arrested on a variety of charges, including felony charges of conspiracy, vandalism, bail violation, and receiving stolen property – the dead duck Rachel cradled in her arms – as well as misdemeanor counts of trespassing and obstructing a public business establishment.
Rachel and her mother were among the activists arrested during the protest at the duck farm. They were held and released three days later.
Back at their sanctuary, Nuttall’s woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks, wrens, Steller’s jays, and purple finches dot the tree branches behind the house. Somewhere nearby, brush bunnies and fox squirrels foraged for their next meal. Mountain lions, coyotes, and mule deer wandered the grassy hillside. Visitors make their way into the backyard every now and then, mostly birds and bunnies and the neighbors’ kids, who bring their friends over to play with the hens.
“This space is safe for animals,” said Rachel.
I could see Pellie resting under a bush in front of us. Her eyes closed slowly, then opened again to look at me. She’s relaxed, I thought, as she pulled her wings a little closer to her body.
Matt is the Managing Editor at Sentient Media. Previously, he wrote for Outside Online and helped launch Anxy, an award-winning magazine of personal narratives in mental health.