The animal caregiver and activist Maddie Cartwright smelled the barn before she entered it. She’d been urgently called to a bankrupt factory farm, where tens of thousands of chicks waited to be saved or killed. Inside, she found wounded, weak, and freezing chickens, huddled together for warmth beside the bodies of their already-dead companions. Some were blind; many were dying.
Cartwright, working alongside sanctuary workers and local volunteers, was not able to save every chicken. But they were able to save some of them, including Alexa, one of the extraordinary animals featured in Nest: Rescued Chickens at Home, a new book from the photographer Janet Holmes and Kehrer Verlag, currently being funded via Kickstarter.
Holmes embarked on the project in 2017 after meeting a hen at the Wild Bird Fund in New York, where she worked as a volunteer. The hen had chronic reproductive illness, and after she was discharged, the photographer helped her in the search for a permanent home.
In her quest, Holmes discovered a network of people who’d transformed their homes into microsanctuaries where previously exploited chickens could live out their days in peace. These homes–and the bonds that formed between these humans and their chickens–served as the foundation of the book.
For rescued chickens, the road to recovery is rarely simple. As the photographer explains, today’s hens are bred to produce hundreds of eggs per year, far more than their bodies can handle. As a result, they don’t have enough calcium and cannot form shells for all their eggs; their organs are then bound together by rotten egg matter. Many end up with prolapsed uteruses and reproductive cancers.
When these chickens find permanent homes, they might live for years, or they might die after just a few weeks or months with their human companions. Within the sun-drenched pages of Nest, though, it doesn’t matter how long they have so much as that they’ve made it this far in the first place. The photographs are warm, bright, and airy–a far cry from the dark and fetid factory farms where so many of their species are kept.
As Holmes reminds us, many chickens live in battery cages the size of just one of the book’s pages, but inside these sanctuaries and homes, they are free to roam and explore, much like cats and dogs. After spending their lives in farms, cockfighting rings, and more, their true characters have emerged.
And what personalities they have! There’s Silencio, who, as a baby, put her hand in her rescuer’s, asking for her fingers to be stroked. There’s Eloise, who liked to rest in the collar of her caregiver’s sweater and died in her arms.
There’s Bree Rooster, who was rescued while wandering the streets of NYC and with whom Holmes shares a special bond. He lives with her friend Camille, who moved away from Brooklyn, where roosters aren’t permitted, so they’d be able to stay together.
Open spaces, doors, and windows appear again and again throughout the book, the walls and floors bathed in natural light, quietly reinforcing the idea of freedom and liberation. Some of the portraits are accompanied by firsthand accounts from the caregivers, including the team at the Chicago Roo Crew, who saved 114 chickens from a cockfighting ring. Kathy Stevens, the founder of the remarkable Catskill Animal Sanctuary, contributes an essay to the book, as does Janelle Lynch of the International Center of Photography.
Of course, the book is about the animals Holmes has photographed, but it’s also about the many others who suffer and die without ever being rescued or treated with kindness. “People don’t ask me what it’s like to go from photographing rescued chickens to sitting across the table from people who are eating chickens,” the artist admits. “I’m not sure why they don’t ask the question, but it might be because people need to compartmentalize contradictory emotions.
“I need to compartmentalize my feelings, too. I know that my family, my friends, and many of the people I encounter every day are kind, well-intentioned people who don’t want to hurt animals or me. I also know that many of them act in ways that are inconsistent with my belief that humans should avoid using or harming animals as much as possible.
“I live in a world where the exploitation of animals is pervasive and persistent. If I truly confronted those facts every day, I wouldn’t be able to function. Moreover, to be the kind of advocate for animals I want to be, I need to be able to sit at the table and converse with people whose beliefs are very different from mine. And many of those discussions leave me hopeful that people are seeking ways to reduce their consumption of chickens and other farmed animals.”
Holmes, like Cartwright, can’t save everyone all at once. But she can recount the histories of these particular individuals in the hope that we might follow in her footsteps and work towards a better and more compassionate world.
“The most powerful memories I have are the moments when I could feel the chicken become comfortable in my presence,” she tells me. “For example, I will be holding someone and stroking their wattles, and I’ll suddenly feel their weight shift as they relax into my arms and start to purr just like a cat.
“Last year, I travelled to Colorado to photograph Maddie and her hen companions. Just before it was time for me to leave, we decided to try a wardrobe change and new location. As we headed back outside, Maddie put on a vegan leather jacket that she said she’d worn, almost like a good luck charm, to many of the emergency rescues she’d done.
“She gathered up Alexa, who had been rescued as a starving, nearly frozen chick from that bankrupt farm, and when Maddie turned to look at me, it was as if a sliver of the ice-cold trauma they had experienced passed from them to me.” Now, with these photos unveiled to the world, it’s up to us to share her story.
Backers for Nest can get some wonderful rewards, including first edition photobooks, signed prints, virtual tours of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, portrait sessions, and more. Support the book here.