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Me and Julio Down by the Chicken Yard

Julio slipped away today. A former prize fighter with an especially gentle disposition, elderly Julio will be missed by the elderly hens with whom he had been keeping company in recent months and also by the orphaned chick who had found solace in him.

Julio — described in this 2005 Wall Street Journal article as a “a raggedy-looking former fighter” — had come to the Eastern Shore Sanctuary some years before, having been found in a Bronx schoolyard. (Hence his name, from the lyric “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard.”)

The sanctuary started rehabbing former fighting roosters shortly after its foundation. The long story of how we came to do that is published in this Satya article. I still vividly remember the first time a flock of multicolored roosters moved in. The monochromatic chickens from egg factories and the local poultry industry had never seen such a sight. One group of hens stood stock still along a fence, their beaks gaping open in amazement, at the magnificent show.

Julio was a multicolored wonder

The WSJ article doesn’t quite accurately describe the rehab process — we neither “punish” nor “lock up” birds but rather keep them in time-limited protective custody to allow them to become less terrified of other birds while learning the social signals by which roosters normally moderate their disputes. I describe the process in this article in the Abolitionist Online, explaining why I consider it a feminist project.

Some former fighters need several weeks of rehab before they are able to mingle peacefully within a flock, pair up with a pal, or wander in pacific solitude. Others are able to perceive the safety of this place immediately and relax right away, palpably relieved to be out of harm’s way. Julio was like that, needing no rehab even though his shaved-off comb and broken tether (in a neighborhood where cockfights do happen) clearly marked him as a fighting rooster. He turned out to be a loner, preferring to spend his days in the shade of a wisteria-vined tree in the quietest yard. There he spent years snoozing and watching the doings of the busier birds. Some months ago I noticed he was slowing down (as older birds will do) and also that his legs were going. (For reasons veterinary experts don’t entirely understand, former fighters tend to have problems with their legs.) So, I moved him to the infirmary coop and yard reserved for juvenile, elderly, and injured birds.

Once in the infirmary yard, Julio turned out to be a nurturer. Again and again, young birds who needed to spend a few weeks in that yard because they were too little for the other yards or had sustained injuries in falls from poultry trucks chose to spend their time in close association with Julio, who seemed to enjoy their company.

Elderly birds tend to die by drifting away, spending more and more time each day sleeping until you know: This is going to be the last day. I knew that yesterday and made sure to hand-feed Julio an especially tasty blend of vegetable juice and rice milk last night. This morning he was gone.

After laying Julio to rest, while walking with dog Dandelion, I saw two bluebirds fluttering down to a field and then back up to a tree. That brief yet deeply nurturing flurry of surprising color seemed a fitting tribute to sweet Julio.

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