By Abbie Hubbard.
A few years ago, I started a new work assignment and my commute had me traveling past a slaughterhouse. Inevitably, I would wind up at a stoplight behind a truck full of large breed, Cornish Cross chickens. Cornish Cross chickens have been purposely bred by the meat industry to grow very large, very quickly. Typically, the chickens are slaughtered at 6 weeks. These adult-sized birds are actually still chicks and can be heard peeping when they are loaded onto trucks and hauled away. As an animal lover, I was traumatized seeing these chickens packed in small crates on the way to their demise. I vowed to try to help them in any way that I could.
Coincidentally, the day after my assignment that had me traveling this awful route ended, my local animal shelter advertised a group of chickens for adoption. Within the mixed breed flock was one Cornish Cross chicken. I immediately contacted the shelter and asked about adopting. Shelter staff explained that their vet had examined this Cornish Cross hen, named Buttercup and felt that she was in grave condition with only a week or two to live, at most. Buttercup was extremely overweight and was having trouble moving. I told the staff that I understood Buttercup may not live long, but I would like to try to help her. They agreed and I jumped in my car to go pick her up.
I was terrified Buttercup would have a heart attack on the drive home. I sat her crate in front of the air conditioning vent and drove quickly but cautiously, avoiding bumps and sharp turns in fear that I would startle her. Once safely in the house I set Buttercup up in a quarantine space and left her to settle in. Previously, Buttercup was housed with a few other hens and two roosters. The hens picked on her and the roosters mounted her so often that the feathers on her back were missing. Buttercup seemed happy to have a space of her own and peace from the constant attacks. I was able to get her to walk onto the scale. She weighed 16.4 pounds.
Cornish Cross chickens that are given free access to food will eat and eat – they have an insatiable appetite. For this reason, when given sanctuary, these large breed chickens need to be kept on a rationed diet. This makes it challenging to keep Cornish Cross chickens with egg layer breed chickens who have continuous access to their food. Buttercup now eats two portioned meals a day with added greens, vegetables and fruits. She forages in the yard, which keeps her moving. Exercise helps Buttercup burn calories and build muscle that will help support her joints. Often Cornish Cross chickens become so overweight that their legs cannot support them. On large industrial farms, the chicken’s legs buckle underneath them and it is common that many of the chickens cannot walk by the time they are loaded onto trucks. Others die of heart attacks. Cornish Cross chickens often develop bumblefoot, an infection in the pads of their feet. These infections usually start out as pressure sores from the extra weight that they carry. Fortunately, Buttercup’s feet were in good condition.
After a few weeks on her new diet, Buttercup started to lose weight. She felt hungry and started to eat non-edible items. I removed the wood shavings in her sleeping area and resorted to a dirt floor when she was in her outdoor coop and run. I was beginning to understand the insatiable nature of the Cornish Cross appetite. In effort to provide some relief and distraction, I increased Buttercup’s enrichment. Salad greens stuffed in a rubber lattice ball and a hanging head of cabbage kept Buttercup occupied for longer periods of time while she worked to get this food.
Buttercup is now quite bonded to me. She spends most of her time in the house when she isn’t outside foraging. Within sanctuaries and adoptive homes, Cornish Cross chickens are known for their endearing personalities. For this reason, they tend to make lovely house chickens if you are willing to clean up after them! Otherwise, they will enthusiastically run up to greet you when you visit them in their outdoor space. Buttercup has lost a little over 5 pounds and she can now jump up to a slightly elevated perch at bedtime. She is still carrying extra weight for her small frame, so I am careful that she doesn’t jump up on high items that she might fall from.
Buttercup will always be challenged by her larger body and genetics that were manipulated by an industry only concerned with turning a living being into a product. Despite everything that has been stacked against her, she is full of life! She loves exploring every inch of the house and yard. She’s quick to make friends with my other chickens, turkeys and dogs. She’s smart and curious and even has a sense of humor! More and more, families and sanctuaries are learning how to provide appropriate care for large breed chickens. Once believed to be doomed in their large bodies, we now know Cornish Cross chickens can thrive in the right environment and with appropriate care. If you have the space in your heart and in your home for these special birds, I encourage you to consider adopting a Cornish Cross chicken!