Dr. Mike Obsatz, Professor Emeritus at Macalester College
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Living with 10,000 Chickens
I grew up in rural central New Jersey on a 10,000 white leghorn chicken farm. All chickens, no roosters. My father, mother and I worked hard every day collecting, cleaning, sorting, and packing eggs.
My Dad did not believe in caging animals. So, no cages. Coops with room to run around, and free range time on five acres during the warmer months. There were about 200 per room. Chickens made lots of noise, cackled from 5 a.m., and smelled like manure which they readily manufactured. The laid eggs in wall nests, and slept on wooded perches.
We got to go outside when the chickens moved onto the range for the five warmer months, April through September. I remember the small pleasures I had as I fed them by spreading grain from pails. There was an airport nearby, and I imagined the pilots getting a laugh as they flew overhead. I wrote out words on the ground in grain, and the chickens all ate in the configurations of the words, making them even larger. At age eight, words like "shit" and other curse words were my favorites. My father never knew.
We had several dogs as pets during my childhood, but they would run out to the highway and get killed. So, we couldn't have dogs anymore. However, when was around age ten, I had a pet chicken named "Troodle" for Gertrude. She would run across the room in the coop when I called her name. She would sit down in front of me, and I would pick her up and pet her. She had a painted red mark on her white feathers.
When the chickens molted and were sold to the butcher, Troodle was spared. Although she had molted like the others, eventually all of her feathers grew back, and she looked vibrant again. She lived over five years which is long for a chicken and died of old age. I was about
fourteen, and cried very when she passed. I never had another pet chicken.
I learned about nurturing animals, the cycle of birth and death. We had to deal with diseases and hurricanes. I worked with my parents every day after school, and all day in the summer and on weekends. I started around age seven. I collected eggs, and helped wash, sort, and pack them. I was proud that our truck had letters written on it saying, "David Obsatz and Son."
At times, I really resented the farm and the chickens, the daily routine, and the lack of free time to play with friends. However, we spent many evenings in the summer as a family going to the ocean in Asbury Park, about fifteen minutes away. We watched the waves, the pigeons, the seagulls, and eating salt water taffy. You'd think that I would be tired of birds of any kind by evening.