For more than two months, Mary Burton Clouse and her husband Burt Clouse had received reports from neighbors of a stray Thai chicken wandering around North Minneapolis near their home. They’d spotted the bird a couple of times wandering in the parks and streets and twice they’d come close to catching her. Then one afternoon, in the middle of a heat wave, the little hen showed up at their front door.
“She heard happy birds and wanted to be with them,” said Mary. The bird, later named TooBee, was a Thai fighting chicken, a breeding animal for the illicit sport of cockfighting. “She was in awful condition. It was hot and she’d had no food or water. There’d been fireworks and stray dogs. She’d lost most of her feathers.” But she’d come to the right place.
TooBee joined the more than a dozen chickens and roosters that make their home at the Clouse’s Chicken Run Rescue, a sanctuary and adoption center for neglected, abused and abandoned birds. It is the only urban domestic fowl rescue of it’s kind.
The Clouses have become known in the neighborhood as the people to call about stray or unwanted chickens. Local police departments call Chicken Run when bird owners are arrested for drugs or bird fighting and five animal rescue groups send any birds they find to Chicken Run.
Mary Clouse holds a hen that survived the North Minneapolis tornado than touched down only yards from Chicken Run Rescue last year. The white chicken’s shed was destroyed by the twister and was rescued as soon as the storm passed.
“Mary was extremely helpful during the aftermath of the 2011 tornado,” said Jeanette Wiedemeier Bower, the Program Development Coordinator for MACC. “We transferred almost 20 chickens to her that had come to our shelter. They’ve been working with us for many years and they’re an incredible resource for ensuring quality homes for the birds that come into our care.”
Butler, so named because he was found wandering in Eloise Butler Park, is a gentle, friendly bird.
The Clauses’ organization is run entirely on donations and sales of the yearly chicken rescue calendar and chicken themed greeting cards. The money goes to pay for the birds’ food, shelter and vet bills. Medical treatment can be expensive, and the cost of bird food isn’t chicken feed. These birds can consume up to $50 a week just in fresh produce, a supplement to the rest of their diet.
Many of the birds will stay at the rescue for only a short time until suitable homes can be found. The organization has found homes for more than 800 birds since the group was founded in 2001.
“We’re really fussy about living conditions,” said Mary. We mostly adopt within 90 miles of the Twin Cities. We exchange photos and do interviews with people who want to adopt. We won’t place our chickens with just anyone.”
Chickens need more than a yard and an A-frame shelter. They need shelter from the sun, the rain and from predators. They like an area where they can retreat and feel safe.
While chickens can do well in urban environments, even in homes with small yards, new owners have to agree to never slaughter, breed, fight or exhibit their birds and to give them proper food, housing and vet care. The commercial A-frame chicken houses sold to back yard urban farmers aren’t suitable, Mary said. “The birds need to be in the house or in an insulated shelter with windows, ventilation and electricity, safe from predators.” The birds also need companionship, with people or with other chickens.
While the Clouse’s yard is tiny, it’s been landscaped with chickens in mind, with lots of shade edible plants. Birds can wander out of their pens and socialize. The basement has been given over to the chickens with more pens and cages. “At night, every one of them toddles in and goes to their spaces,” Mary said.
Urban farmers, locavores and people who keep chickens as an educational experience need to realize that while hens are egg producers for only about 18 months, chickens can live 14 years, she said. “A chicken is a commitment, like a cat or a dog. People get in over their heads and the chickens suffer.”
Mary and Burt Clouse show anyone who visits that their chickens are friendly and warm.
Mary Clouse grew up with parakeets but Burt was not a bird person until he married his wife and they started accumulating birds. They split the rescue work down the middle, he said, and an assistant comes five days a week, but the Clouses have begun to turn down new work at their home-based business Book and Paper Artifacts because the chickens take up so much of their time.
Bert Clouse stands in his North Minneapolis backyard garden with one of his rescues.
The Clouses’ devotion to chickens goes beyond rescuing individual birds. They are determined to get chickens off people’s plates and into their laps. They advocate a plant-based diet (for people – chickens are omnivores) with no eggs and no chickens.
“Chickens are warm and silky and nice to hold,” said Mary. “They are companion animals, not food.”
Tiny Zazu, held by Mary Clouse, came in from the garden to lay her egg. Zazu is a young chicken at a prime egg laying age, less than 18 months. The Clouses will use these eggs as chicken food.