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Of hens and happiness

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Did you know that hens sing when they are happy?

In the entire lockdown period when I was completely alone for almost two months, I made friends with a crow. The secret is persistence and exact timing. I would come out from a wretched day of solving problems and rescuing animals at 5.30 in the evening and bring two glucose biscuits with me. Then I would start calling: “Kaku Kaku” and he would appear, sometimes alone or with a friend. I would break the biscuits, put them in a high place – the pillar near the gate – and would leave them there with a bowl of water. He would come, eat a small part after dipping it into water. If the squirrel came to help himself, Kaku would call his friend who would scare away the squirrel and then both of them would help themselves and fly away. I would turn my back after he finished, twice he came and bumped me before flying away. I felt like a girl with her first beau! On the days he ignored me and the biscuits, I would scold and rant like a jilted lover and put other food out till he came reluctantly, still pretending I was not there. Oh, the sorrow of it!

Nothing can make you happier than seeing the pure joy of a happy animal. Those that have never experienced it have never reached their soul – the place where happiness is earth-shaking and universal.

And hens, if treated properly, give you immediate happiness. Here is an excerpt from someone who keeps hens in her farm – “They like playing. In fact, that is all they ever do, apart from eating, which they also seem to do nonstop. They enjoy everything, sing happy little songs and just have fun. These include pecking their way through all the barns, over all the bales of hay ending up ranged along the top of the wall outside the kitchen window sunbathing or dustbathing under one of the bushes.

In the winter the Land Rover is loaded up with hay and the hens try their hardest to cadge a lift. They know they are not supposed to, so they peck round the wheels nonchalantly and wait for an opportunity when our backs are turned. One will usually manage to jump in and sing triumphantly, giving herself away even while hidden amongst the hay.

Hens love human company and our hens hate to be left out of apparently interesting conversations. On one occasion we had a group of agricultural students and they had gathered in a ring to learn about crop rotation. The hens felt deliberately excluded and pushed to the centre of the melee. They stretched up to make themselves as tall and noticeable as possible and tried to take part in the conversation the only way they know, by singing loudly.” (‘The Secret Life of Cows’).

If a hen is crippled, her close friends will look after her, adjust their pace to match hers, groom her and see that she feeds first. If she dies, they will stop laying eggs for a few days and go to her favourite places to just stand there. If that is not mourning, what is?

Mothers chop food for their children the same way as your mother cuts it up for you. If children are annoying they get scolded, but if they need reassurance mother hens have a special voice. In fact, hens have many speaking voices. They make friends quickly, bully newcomers to their social circle so that they know their place, form hierarchies.

I once snatched a chick from a child in Bareilly who was in the process of using her as a tennis ball. I brought her home and this little one day old grew up in front of me, slept in my room, crawled up using her teeth and the bedcover, followed me and sat on a bucket while I bathed, looked at the mirror and played hide and seek with it. She explored every part of the house, looking into utensils in case they hid something of interest. She loved to be carried, hated to be ignored, and if I read a book, she would crawl between me and the book and cheep winningly, looking into my eyes. Who can resist the ways of a child? Hens respond to kindness with affection and will talk to you with purpose and intelligence – if they think you

are listening.

These are the same hens we keep locked in cages, unhappy, pumped full of hormones and foul food, with broken bones and scarred bodies. Their feathers dull when they are unhappy, their heads droop and they moan softly with pain all the time till they are killed for you to eat.

Hens suffer very badly from fear and shock and they go into depression very quickly. From the minute they are born and have their beaks cut off without anesthesia, they don’t stand a chance of happiness. And we kill more than one billion a year in a never ending Hitlerian genocide.

Do you think that a species like humans can ever be happy when they cause so much misery around them?

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