The woman tosses cracked corn, oats and sunflower seeds into a carrying case. The drive is short from her north Minneapolis home to the city's Animal Care and Control Shelter. Snapshots on the shelter lobby's wall serve as a roster of the day's impounded animals: eight pit bulls, 18 cats, two chickens. "Let's do it," the woman says.
Mary Britton Clouse rescues chickens.
Last year, 249 birds wound up at Animal Control, up from 119 birds in 2005.
More than 115 have come in this year.
Three-quarters are chickens. Many are strays, found in alleys. Others are over-the-hill chicks that parents purchased to show their kids the miracle of life. Some were fighters, others were destined for ethnic ritual slaughters.
Some are seized from people who lack permits or whose neighbors complained.
To keep a chicken in Minneapolis, you need signatures of 80 percent of close neighbors for the $30 small-animal permit.
Britton Clouse has come for the red hen with the busted upper beak found wandering around Northeast. She suspects a hatchery chopped the beak, common practice to prevent hens from pecking each other in cramped quarters.
"Your life is about to turn around," she tells the chicken, who burbles nervously and skittishly shoots glances. The length of the spurs on her feet and the comb on her head tell Britton Clouse she's about 2 years old. She names her Juli, after a veterinarian friend.
"She's very skinny and presumably hasn't had a very pleasant life," Britton Clouse says of Juli. "But in a few days, she'll look like a million bucks."
An unusual calling
Until 2001, Britton Clouse had never held a chicken. A former president of the Animal Rights Coalition, she says chickens are the "most abused and exploited" animal on the planet.
"Of all the animals out there, they were the ones that needed a friend the most," she said.
So she founded Chicken Run Rescue in 2001, believed to be the only chicken adoption organization in the nation. Juli, the red hen, is the 222nd chicken she's liberated. After a five-day quarantine in a shower stall at her home, softened with straw and sprinkled with seeds and Romaine lettuce hearts, Juli will be ready for adoption.
Britton Clouse, 54, places the chickens as companion animals in homes.
"If you're expecting a dog, you'll be disappointed, but they definitely have individual personalities, likes and dislikes, and can be affectionate and follow you around," said Jodi Hesse, 35, an adopter from western Wisconsin.
Added Lori Kyle of Chaska, the proud mother of three adopted roosters: "They follow when you call, jump for grapes, and they're cute as can be."
Terms of Chicken Run Rescue's adoption policy are strict: New owners must agree to treat the birds like dogs or cats during their normal 14-year life expectancy. No fighting, no commercial egg production or breeding - and no chicken pot pies.
A vegan herself, Britton Clouse hopes her work helps people make informed decisions "about the flesh on the end of their forks."
A velvety red-necked hen found on the North Side, Olive stepped out of her carrier a few days ago and hopped on Britton Clouse's scale.
"She was going to be ritually slaughtered the day Animal Control found her," Britton Clouse said. "She's keenly aware of her environment and is absolutely engaged, whether it's through eye contact or pecking at my buttons and earrings."
Olive is among a dozen hens and roosters at the century-old house that Britton Clouse and her husband, Bert Clouse, have lived in for 23 years on Lowry Ave. N. They restore books out of their home, spending $3,000 a year of their own to bankroll Chicken Run Rescue
Their neighborhood has problems, but serving as the haven for chickens hasn't, well, ruffled any feathers.
"We call Mary the Mother Hen because it takes a special kind of person to rescue chickens," said Jaqueline Hamilton, who runs a wig store next door. "Some of our customers say, 'Did I just hear a rooster, or am I losing my mind?' We love the sound right here in the city."
The Clouse backyard includes coops, runs, amaranth plants and intriguing stories. Take Gody, for example. The hen was plucked from the jaws of a cat by an elementary school teacher in St. Paul and raised by a science class until she grew too large.
Every night, the birds line up to go into the basement coop, where their cock-a-doodle-doos will be muffled.
"It's a beautiful, joyous sound," Britton Clouse said. "But we keep them inside until 9 a.m. on weekdays and 10 or 11 on weekends so everyone can sleep. We've had no complaints. People love the idea that something happy and hopeful is happening in the neighborhood."
Back inside, Juli the red hen steps gingerly out of the carrier and weighs in at about 3 pounds. Bert and Mary sprinkle parasite dust on her wings and give her a syringe full of medicine, topped with a helping of fresh lettuce and cracked corn.
Another day, another liberated chicken.
Curt Brown 651-673-4767
"Your life is about to turn around."