Visitors to the Eastern Shore Sanctuary & Education Center don’t have to arrive at the crack of dawn to hear the telltale cock-a-doodle-do of a poultry farm. Sanctuary cofounder Miriam Jones says her roosters can crow all day, every day. And with 60 to 70 of them on five acres, that’s quite a wake-up call at any hour.
The racket doesn’t exactly thrill some neighbors, Jones admits, but most recognize that it’s for a worthy cause. Eastern Shore is New England’s only bird sanctuary dedicated to caring for chickens rescued from factory farms and roosters confiscated from illegal cockfighting rings.
Eastern Shore Sanctuary got its start 10 years ago in Princess Anne, Md. There, it was located 20 miles from the Salisbury headquarters of Perdue, the nation’s third largest poultry producer. Jones and cofounder Pattrice Jones launched Eastern Shore to rescue the “broiler chickens” that often fell off the poultry trucks and were found bruised and bloodied along the highway.
In June 2009, Eastern Shore Sanctuary moved to its more spacious location in Springfield. The move to Vermont was partly occasioned by a generous donation of land and a change in Perdue’s transport procedures, which resulted in fewer birds being found on the road. But Miriam Jones, who is of Arab descent, says she also left Maryland after becoming a target of discrimination and hate crimes. In short, Vermont offered greener pastures to Jones and her partner, Aram Polster, an experienced veterinary technician.
Over the years, the sanctuary has taken in various types of fowl, including ducks, spent layer hens from factory egg operations, and chickens abandoned after 4-H projects. “We kind of put the kibosh on that, though,” says Jones, referring to the 4-H birds, “because it’s kind of like taking in puppies from a pet store. It encourages the supply.”
Seven years ago, while still in Maryland, the sanctuary rescued its first batch of cockfighting roosters. Though cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states and Canada — it’s a felony in Vermont, which outlawed the sport in 1854 — scores of illicit rings still operate around the country, mostly in southern states and urban areas with large immigrant populations. The first fighting birds were brought to the sanctuary by police officers who’d broken up illegal rings and kept the birds as evidence until the trials were over.
“It’s almost always the tough, macho law enforcement officials who are the fiercest advocates for these fighting cocks,” Jones notes. Indeed, the last batch of game birds she took in came from a sheriff’s deputy in Virginia who contacted her almost every day to check on the birds’ welfare.
In the early years, Jones and her coworkers didn’t know how the rescued roosters would behave together. So they just threw them in a big pen and assumed they’d sort out their differences.
Big mistake. Unlike the less aggressive hens, roosters can be very territorial and will quickly attack each other to establish a pecking order. This is especially true for gamecocks bred for maximum aggressiveness, often abetted by steroids.
Additionally, birds that are used in cockfighting “derbies” are typically outfitted with razor-sharp blades and “gaffs,” or sharpened hooks mounted on their claws designed to puncture and mutilate opponents. As a result, many fighting birds arrive at Eastern Shore with broken beaks and missing eyes.
Of the 29 initial roosters the sanctuary adopted, seven were killed by other birds. Over time, however, the sanctuary developed a foolproof technique for ridding the roosters of their more aggressive tendencies.
“There’s a lot of mythology surrounding cockfighting, and one of those myths is that roosters cannot be rehabilitated,” Jones explains. “Even though many folks, including some of the larger animal organizations, will tell you that it can’t be done, we do it all the time. And we don’t lose anybody anymore.”
Jones describes the rehab process as “systematic desensitization:” Since the birds learned to fear other roosters and attack them on sight, the aggressive ones are put in a large cage by themselves, surrounded by free-ranging birds, for about a week. During his time in solitary, the aggressive rooster can see other chickens, but not attack them or be attacked.
After a week, Jones opens the door and lets the rooster out into the yard. “Predictably, within 10 seconds, there’s a fight going on,” she says. “So you grab him and throw him right back into the cage.” She’ll do this every day for about a month, or until the rooster learns not to attack other birds, and vice versa. Since the sanctuary adopted this technique, it hasn’t lost a single bird. And of the eight fighters adopted last October, only one is still in solitary.
Of course, not all the birds at Eastern Shore are refugees from an illicit sport. Many are casualties of what Jones calls “the failed backyard bird” phenomenon. As more municipalities allow poultry to be kept in residential neighborhoods, more birds are turning up in animal shelters or being seized by animal control officers.
Part of the problem, Jones explains, is that people who keep chickens in their yards generally do so for the eggs, not the meat. Since most people don’t want roosters, and many municipalities don’t allow them, the male birds have little or no value to backyard birders or the hatcheries that supply them.
Jones explains that many hatcheries will toss a few males into each order of female chicks as “packing material.” Hatcheries ship their chicks in cardboard boxes through the U.S. mail — without food or water — and stuff the males into the carton to keep the other chicks from being jostled.
“I suspect that a lot of people who order chickens through the mail would not be happy about that,” Jones notes. “I don’t think they’re being callous. I just think they don’t know it.”
Today, Eastern Shore Sanctuary has about 150 birds on its premises, including ducks, guinea hens and other exotics. For years, the nonprofit has operated on a shoestring budget. Except for feed, Jones and Polster almost never purchase supplies or labor, relying on donated materials and volunteer help.
But expansion plans are in the works. By early fall, Jones and Polster plan to move across the road to a 120-acre spread. The extra space will provide some sound buffer for all those crowing roosters — and none too soon. Given their sheer numbers, Eastern Shore is on “rooster lockdown” and cannot accept new males until the move is made.
The new space offers another benefit: Jones and Polster plan to start rescuing cattle. As small family farms decline in Vermont, larger dairy operations are becoming more common, and so are the problems associated with industrialized farming. As the recent closure of the Bushway’s slaughterhouse in Grand Isle revealed, even Vermont isn’t free from unsavory livestock practices.
Jones is looking forward to the move, and to give the sanctuary a new name appropriate to its setting. If nothing else, she can answer the age-old question: Why did the chickens cross the road?
To keep the neighbors and roosters happy.
Ken Picard discusses this story on “Inside Seven Days,” Thursday at 8 p.m. on Channel 16, RETN. Or watch online.
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