How I Ruined a Perfectly Good Chicken

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When I was in high school and my political activism was first budding, I became very opposed to animal testing, particularly testing involving things like cosmetics. In junior high I’d had a fantastic science teacher named Mr. Boswell who’d always had time for even my most inane questions, and I’d really developed a love for biology. In high school I signed up for Advanced Biology, and who should be my instructor but Mr. Boswell again. He’d since won some awards and been promoted. When we got to a chapter in the biology book involving the dissection of a fetal pig, I went to him and explained my sincere objection to the objectification of fetal pigs, and proposed that I do an alternate project. Now, he remembered I was an ace dissector in junior high, so it wasn’t the usual “I’m a girl and I have a period so you should let me do whatever I want” kind of plea. So he allowed not only me but also everyone else in the class the opportunity to propose, carry out, and write a scientific report on an alternate experiment, provided we also took the fetal pig lab practical at the end. Done and done. Except I was the only one who took him up on the alternate project.

So I studied up on alternatives to animal testing, endured some taunting, had a couple of arguments with some students who felt that God had put fetal pigs on the planet expressly for high-schoolers to dissect and therefore I was guilty of blasphemy, and finally came up with my project. It turns out that a lot of animal testing is done to determine simple dermal irritation from products, and a good determiner is fertilized chicken eggs. Between days 7 and 17, as I recall, the membrane of chicken eggs will react kind of like your eyeball will to dust or cats — it’ll turn red and bloodshot. And up to day 17, as I recall, the fertilized chickens don’t have sufficiently developed nerve systems to feel pain, but on day 18, stand back.

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So the first step of the project was to get some fertilized chicken eggs. As an aside, the ones you get from the grocery store nowadays are not fertilized; they’re just eggs, kind of like chicken periods, and so they’ll pretty much never turn into chickens, although I think people have found Elvis in them before. To get fertilized chicken eggs, you have to locate a farmer and purchase some eggs laid by hens that have been around roosters — which my dear mother did, although I seem to recall some sort of exasperated hullabaloo around that part. Then, you incubate them until day 7, and chip off a bit of the top to expose some membrane. Mind you, this experiment will result in the death of the chicken embryos, but I think I was more against animal pain than animal death. I was in high school — gimme a break.

So I labeled a dozen eggs, chipped off the tops, and dropped different things onto the membrane, like mascara, shampoo, water, and bleach. Then I evaluated the degree of reaction by approximate percentage of membrane bloodshottedness, reported the results in a spiffy report, completely scientific, and whipped up some graphs. Got an A. Of course, I also had to study hand-drawn pictures of dissected fetal pigs, provided by the school as lab aids, and take the lab practical. I think I got a C, but I do remember that over 50% of the class flunked the practical even though they’d spent two weeks on the actual pigs, so I considered that a victory.

(Intermission: Cosmetic testing is usually done to determine simple dermal reactions on the average populace, NOT irritations or allergies an individual may incur. Always use products with care — allergic reactions are usually built up over time, and simple irritation is more immediate, if I’ve got this right. For example, I had a reaction to benzoyl peroxide, the boon of the acne-ridden, when I was in my late twenties, and my Uncle Carl, who’s a dermatologist AND a Republican, advised me to use a topical cortisone, or “butt cream” on my FACE to treat it. I consulted the pharmacist, and she assured me it was indeed appropriate and had nothing to do with politics.)

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OK. Now, I thought 10 was a magnificently scientific number of substances to test, and so used ten eggs for my experiment, and consequently had two eggs left over, which I left in the incubator. Just to see what would happen, you understand. One evening several days or weeks later, as I went to bed, I noticed one of the eggs had a little chip in it. Glory be! One of those eggs was hatching! After watching spellbound for about an hour, and in a scientific manner observing absolutely no progress, I finally fell asleep. The next morning, more egg was gone, but really not enough for any sort of chicken exit. I informed my beleaguered mother of the situation and went off to school.

Upon my return, I was informed that our household now contained precisely one more chicken than had been present when I took my leave, so we now had exactly one more than zero. Since I’d missed the majority of the hatching process, my beleaguered mother had taken many photos of the event, so that I too could witness this chicken springing forth, first all wet and exhausted, then more fluffy and active, much like Venus stepping from the ocean. And that’s how I got Orville.

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I thought a chicken in the house was one of the better things that had ever happened to our family, and looked greatly forward to caring for my latest charge. One thing to know about chickens and birds in general is that they don’t have a lot of brain. Granted, they seem to be getting by just fine, but they rely a lot on instinct and various hard-coded triggers. For example, instead of spending time learning who their mothers are and bonding with them so that they get fed and nurtured by an appropriate source, they pretty much latch on to whatever damn thing is around and moving, and just follow whatever it is around, squawking all the while. This is called imprinting. Orville imprinted on me. Whatever you may think of any potential nurturing skills of mine, I don’t think I’m boasting when I say I’m a way better chicken mom than a cat is. The latter option was a serious risk, considering we had two or three wandering around. But my Orville handled the cats just fine, periodically running towards them and trying to peck them in their shiny eyes.

So I was able to traipse about the house with a little fluffy chicken running after me, upstairs and down. The carpet was a great surface for him, but when we’d get to the linoleum floor of the kitchen, there was oftentimes a great sliding and squawking as Orville lost his footing trying to make a turn and went careening into the refrigerator.

One sad day, we learned that chickens were not allowed in the city, even though we were practically across the street from a farm. And Orville was getting bigger, and had hit a, well, kind of ugly adolescence where his stiff grown-up feathers were coming in amongst his soft downy baby feathers and he kind of started to look like my Grandpa Pace. So it was time for Orville to fly and be free among his own kind. Best he could.

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You’re probably wondering where my mom’s been all this time. Well, here she is again. She found some people at church who had a chicken farm, and they said they would take Orville in and not eat him. At least that’s the story I got. So off Orville went. I got some reports on him over the next few months. The chicken farmers said he was small for his age, which offended me to no end, as no chicken of mine was small for his age, and so they had to keep him separate from the other chickens for awhile. Eventually, he grew into what I imagine was a rather handsome and robust specimen, and was turned loose to be with the rest of his kind. The chicken farmers said they always knew which chicken was Orville (of course, on account of the handsomeness and robustness and good manners), because when they went to feed the chickens, they’d all run away from them, except for one, who would come running towards them. And that was my Orville.

That’s pretty much it, although there is a rather disturbing post-script. When I was in college, I learned more about imprinting. Sure, it’s all the cute following whatever around, and there are stories about people trying to show imprinted birds how to fly by running and flapping and all, but there’s more. Imprinting goes beyond following and flying and eating. It also involves mate selection. Whatever they imprint on is what they look for when it comes time for, uh, romance. So my sweet little Orville was doomed forever to be in love with the human ankle. And that’s how I ruined a perfectly good chicken.

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