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Rick and Gertrude

This story is an excerpt from a book in progress by Cayce Mell, who operated Oohmahnee Sanctuary from 1995 to 2005 along with her husband Jason Tracy. Jason and Cayce are also subjects of the documentary, Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home. During the ten years that Oohmahnee was in operation, Jason and Cayce rescued thousands of animals, and along the way developed a ground-breaking approach to relating to the animals under their care that focused on viewing and treating each animal as a individual worthy of respect.

Rick and Gertrude
by Cayce Mell ©2010

A few years ago, I received a telephone call from a man who told me a story that was so incredible, it made me suspect that I had a practical joker on the line. That was, until I heard the chicken.

The man's name was Rick Joschko, and his story began with a description of his job working in a slaughterhouse for a very large poultry operation. For nearly two decades he worked on the kill floor as a back-up killer, which is exactly what it sounds like. His job was to manually kill any birds who had been missed by the automated killing machines after they'd been shocked into paralysis, but not unconsciousness, by having their heads immersed in an electric stunning bath.

Rick described how he had arrived at the slaughterhouse as usual, but on that particular day he had been instructed to work on the unloading line and help "hang" birds. This entailed unloading the newly arrived chickens from their cages and then hanging them upside down, shackling their feet to a moving conveyor belt overhead that carried them down the line to the stunning bath and killing machine. Rick went to work hanging birds, when something unusual caught his eye. One of the other workers had just hung a tiny chicken, much smaller than the rest, and she was headed down the line. As the chicken passed by, Rick wondered how a runt bird like that made it past the checkers. Typically, the poultry company only purchased birds of a certain minimum weight and size. As Rick was pondering this, a supervisor told him that someone was available to replace him, and that he should return to his usual job as back-up killer. Rick went back to his post and began the familiar routine that he had performed nearly every day for as long as he could remember: cutting the throats of chickens who had, for one reason or another, evaded the automated blade of the killing machine. He described reaching up with his knife to take the life of the next bird coming down the line whose throat was still intact, and realizing that it was the runt bird. As he paused, the little bird managed to pick her head up and twist around enough to look directly at Rick. "She looked me right in the eye," he told me.

Inside a large slaughterhouse, kill line speeds are very fast paced. In this particular slaughterhouse, 130,000 birds were killed per day, which makes what happened next all the more surreal. Rick described how time seemed to slow down. Without stopping to process his thoughts or analyze his emotions, he dropped his knife on the floor and pressed the button to stop his line. In a slaughterhouse, where time is money, stopping a line can be grounds for termination, as a stopped line means fewer animals killed and processed, resulting in lost profits. After bringing the entire line to a halt, Rick gently took the tiny bird from the shackles and put her in his pocket.

At this point in the story, I interrupted, insisting that this must be a prank call, and demanded to know who this man really was. "No, I'm telling you the truth… I just ran out of there, and I am never going back," he said. There was a moment of silence, and then he said, "Seriously, listen…" He put the phone down low enough so that I could hear the sounds of a chicken -- "brawk, brawk, brawk" on the other end of the line.

Rick told me that until that day he had never had a real problem with what he was doing, but when the chicken looked him in the eye, he saw something that he never had before. He saw someone--he saw an individual. He had always loved animals but never looked at the chickens that came into the slaughterhouse as living beings. They were more like things to him, and he did his job as if he'd been processing vegetables. He was so desensitized that cutting the throats of living animals was not that different from trimming off the top of a carrot. But this one chicken made more than just eye contact with Rick, she made a connection, and a powerful one at that. So powerful that in a single instant his perception of the chickens passing by him changed from inanimate objects to living, breathing beings. Suddenly realizing what he was doing to them, he dropped his knife, and walked out of the slaughterhouse forever.

I finally understood that the call was not a joke, and that this man was asking for help and advice for his rescued chicken with the utmost sincerity. I apologized for having doubted him, and that's when our friendship began.

Rick told me that he brought the little chicken home to live with his family and a menagerie of other rescued animals -- dogs, cats, birds, and rabbits -- all of whom were treated like family members. He named his new friend Gertrude, and she seemed to fit right in. She followed Rick everywhere and loved to sit next to him on the couch. It was clear that the two of them had formed a special bond.

Rick would often call to get my opinion about what he should do for Gertrude. His questions, such as "Should chickens eat gum drop candy?" or "How fat is too fat for a chicken?" often made me smile. One day he called to say that he could no longer eat chicken, or any other meat for that matter, because Gertrude just stared at him the whole time, and he felt guilty.

Although I was aware of the fact that birds like Gertrude have very short life spans, I was shocked when Rick called me to say that she was having serious health problems at the age of only eight months. Chickens used for meat or "broilers," as the industry refers to them, do not live very long. They are genetically designed to be big breasted birds and to grow so quickly that by only eight weeks of age they are full size and sent to slaughter. Several rescued broiler chickens brought to our sanctuary died before reaching two years of age, either of a heart attack or organ failure related to their unnatural growth rate and abnormal size.  

Unfortunately, even the best avian veterinarians did not know how to treat Gertrude since chicken farms do not provide veterinary care for their birds and in most cases just lace their food supply with drugs and antibiotics instead. On his own, Rick managed to nurse Gertrude back to health through several bouts of e-coli infections, a giardia infection and liver problems, never giving up, even when the rest of us thought she was at death's door. Sadly, Gertrude lost her battle to survive just a few months later, despite Rick's valiant efforts. He sobbed as he described how he had held her in his arms as she died and told me that he was happy that she lived long enough for him to be able to thank her and tell her how much he loved her. "She changed my life, that bird," Rick said after Gertrude died. "She's one of the best friends I have ever known."

Rick Joschko is living proof that people in any circumstance are capable of experiencing an immediate and profound change in their relationship to animals and how they perceive them. Whenever I encounter people who despair that things will never improve for the animals of the world, I tell them about Rick and Gertrude and the amazing friendship they shared, and how, in the instant they exchanged a single glance, Rick's heart was opened.

Copyright © 2016 Tribe of Heart Ltd.