A Bird in the Hand

A protector of the lowly chicken takes up the fight in the heart of Delmarva.

By Stephanie Shapiro
Sun Staff

August 13, 2001

In his penned piece of Somerset County, Charlie Parker crows. Nearby, Simone de Beauvoir, Billy Strayhorn, Gretchen, Phoenix, Francis and about 60 other chickens peck and scratch and bathe in the good, brown dust of their Eastern Shore home.

Pattrice Jones pays them a visit, bestowing greetings and medicated feed to quell a bronchitis outbreak among the fowl. She gives grain to a hen named Molly Maguire. "Mmmm, vitamins and electrolytes," she says enticingly.

Jones, short, with retro, nerdy glasses and spiky hair, introduces the flock. "This is Francis, and he is blind," Jones says. Most likely, he fell victim to the waste-generated ammonia fumes that can permeate chicken houses, she explains.

Phoenix, crippled by a birth defect, flops awkwardly about the yard. A hunter pulled her from a pile of dead chickens, Jones says. He heard a "tiny peep, peep, peep" coming from the mound and decided his wife wouldn't want him to ignore the bird's cry.

Jones has tried to ease Phoenix's life by making her "a little wheelchair," but so far, none of the designs has worked. The chicken's frustrated, she says, but shows "no signs of being depressed." Batting away mayflies, Jones makes her way through a series of pens, including a sickbay and a yard reserved for the randy roosters. In a makeshift chicken coop, she has designed a ground-level perch for disabled birds.

"There you go, honey," says Jones in her deep, broadcast-quality voice as she applies Bag Balm ointment to a nasty wound on a broiler named Dolly. "She's a tough bird, she really is. ... I love her so much."

Jones' life revolves around her chickens and, from her cyber outpost, oppressed chickens everywhere. Her reach is local and global. Jones' letters challenging the business of the Perdue family dynasty appear regularly in the local press. In June, Jones and members of the Virginia-based United Poultry Concerns were kicked out of the Delmarva Chicken Festival in Pocomoke City for distributing leaflets critical of the poultry and egg industries. This fall, she's preparing to attend the World Food Summit in Rome to protest the expansion of factory farming into low-income nations.

Becoming an animal welfare activist wasn't what she envisioned when Jones and her partner, a high school English teacher, came to Princess Anne from Michigan less than two years ago. It was something that unfolded unexpectedly after realizing they had unwittingly planted themselves in the Delmarva heart of Maryland's billion-dollar chicken industry.

Jones had looked to buy land where she and her partner could grow their own food, live "off the grid" and become financially self-sufficient. Their inspiration was the women's land movement of earlier decades, when feminist groups sought political and economic equality through property ownership.

On the Internet, Jones found an affordable frame house with two acres in rural Princess Anne. The two women packed up their life in the college town of Ann Arbor and arrived with their dogs and cats in a part of the country seemingly trapped in a deep Southern amber.

Although she had grown up in northwest Baltimore, Jones, who earns a living as a free-lance writer and editor, wasn't entirely prepared for the way of life fostered by her new surroundings. Clearly, this was not a place where gender politics, paganism and the evils of pastoralism -- subjects close to her heart -- were routinely discussed in the local coffee shop.

But it took a routine event to marshal Jones' ever-ready sense of outrage into an all-out crusade: the fall from a chicken truck of a "Route 50 white," as the wayward birds that litter local roads are called.

"Within weeks of moving -- on the way to the bank to set up our checking account, as a matter of fact -- we found a chicken in a ditch by the side of the road," Jones explained in an alternative 'zine called Daybook. "At first we cheered her escape from the truck headed for the poultry factory, but then we realized that she would die if left out there in the snowy ditch. As I swung the truck around to pick her up, I got that sinking feeling that says, 'My life is about to change.' "

Their first "hen" turned out to be a rooster -- that's how much they knew. He was named Viktor Frankl, in honor of the late psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor. It wasn't long before more refugees from trucks and chicken sheds were adopted and the Eastern Shore Chicken Sanctuary was established.

"We are here for them, not the other way around," Jones says. Vacations and sleeping late are out of the question for the couple, who share chicken tending responsibilities. "Every second is patterned by their needs."

Why chickens? "I'm a pragmatic kind of a gal. I make my decisions based on where I might be the most useful. At the same time, in a spiritual kind of way, I know I don't get to decide all things," Jones says. "That helps to explain how a chicken by the side of the road could change my life."

At first encounter, you're hit head-on by Jones' edginess. Standing in her home, smoking, she crackles with nervous energy, a bantam rooster ready to do intellectual battle. Jones' taut reserve contrasts starkly with her "doting mom" demeanor in the chicken pens.

As a child, Jones, 39, was the kind of kid who spent hours observing ant hills and thinking her own meandering, cosmic thoughts. A love of nature was encouraged by her grandmother, a bright light in a lonely, difficult childhood.

At Towson State University, Jones was among early gay rights activists on campus. At Ann Arbor, as a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology, she taught graduate courses and ran a tenants' union. Over the years, Jones "slid into greater and greater activism, and less and less academic work." (Today, she squeezes sporadic work on her doctoral thesis in between work, the sanctuary and voluminous e-mail communication.)

After coming to Princess Anne, and scooping up Viktor, Jones found that "a wellspring of affection" for creatures great and small nurtured in childhood re-awakened within her. She immediately brought to bear both her feisty political skills and maternal instincts to the cause of the hapless birds.

While always ready to discuss the fine points of "agricultural colonialism" and other issues important to globalization opponents, Jones takes great satisfaction in the rescue of a single chicken.

"If you pick up a chicken and you give him a home, you know for sure you have saved that chicken," she says. Such concrete efforts "keep me grounded" in a world that has allowed so many people to become removed from nature, Jones says.

You can make assumptions about Jones, that she is compensating for some deep hurt in her past, that she champions the lowly chicken as a form of penance for her own flaws. Jones is admittedly loath to pluck a weed, let alone a chicken, but her uncompromising mission is leavened by celebration. She has a poet's gift of seeing the world in a blade of grass or a proud hen squawking the arrival of an egg. Speaking of one rescued fowl, she says, "Every day when I see this bird I think how remarkably resilient nature is ... [that she has] found a way to have a happy life."

True, millions of chickens are slaughtered daily across the country. But Jones counters with: "It's always worth it to save the ones you can save."

And yet, "the joy we take in being able to do that and build relationships with the birds who want to have relationships is always tempered by knowledge of their relatives who are enslaved or slated for slaughter," she says.

Even within the haven of Jones' verdant property, there are reminders of the poultry industry's practices. Broilers, raised to grow very big very fast, lose their ability to walk and are prone to heart attacks. Jones has lost a few already, including Olive, who often perched on her caretaker's head.

"Broilers break your heart," Jones was warned by the founder of United Poultry Concerns, Karen Davis.

That proved all too true, Jones says. "It's very easy to get close to them. They're very emotional birds. They want to have a relationship with you, and they die young."

Jones isn't without sympathizers in the community. She found a veterinarian in Berlin willing to care for the chickens, set their broken legs, and provide intravenous fluids and diagnoses at a reduced rate.

Others have quietly come to her house with Route 50 whites. Through the nationally active group Farm Sanctuary, Jones received several laying hens rescued after a tornado ripped through an enormous Ohio egg factory.

Publicly, poultry industry representatives take a casual stance on chicken sanctuary efforts. "If people want to keep chickens, that's fine," says Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council. "We hope not to contribute to it by birds coming off of the trucks. That should not happen. Care should be taken."

From time to time, a truck carrying thousands of chickens to their fate will rumble past Jones' home. Her chickens can feel it, she says. "All of our birds are so upset. They're picking up on the distress of the other animals." As much as she wants to, she doesn't look away. "I am certainly obliged to bear witness."

After the truck passes, "of course then I go driving up and down the road, hoping, hoping someone has fallen out."

The Eastern Shore Chicken Sanctuary is growing. Jones recently made room for 24 roosters, who came from another sanctuary that closed. Right now, "every last cent" goes toward providing for the fowl. Donations are welcome, as the sanctuary's Web site notes. But you won't hear Jones complaining about that, or anything to do with her chosen universe. "I am so aware that I have a great life compared to most people in the world," she says.

Even if she and her partner will never again both be able to sleep late.

Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun