By Laura Drucker Mueller
Christina Zelano was with her husband on their way to a wedding when she got a call from a concerned citizen. A peacock had been spotted in the city. Would she mind going to pick it up?
This wasn’t the first time Zelano had been called to rescue a peacock. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time she’d been called about this particular peacock, who had been resisting rescue throughout Pilsen and the South Loop for more than three weeks. Zelano, fancy attire and all, headed to where the peacock had last been seen.
After weeks of evading capture, the peacock was too tired to resist. Zelano successfully rounded him up, got him safe and cozy in the backseat of her car, and headed to the wedding. Afterwards, she brought him to his new home: Chicago Chicken Rescue, an organization Zelano founded to provide sanctuary for the city’s homeless animals who don’t have a place in traditional animal shelters.
Chicago Chicken Rescue isn’t your typical city-based shelter, and Zelano isn’t your typical rescue founder and manager. In her day job, Zelano is an assistant professor at Northwestern University with a focus in neuroscience research. But she’s also a passionate wildlife rehabber who has been working with injured and neglected animals since she was a kid. It was through volunteering with Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation in Barrington that she learned about the complicated status of domestic wildlife at Chicago’s Animal Care and Control (CACC).
“I began to notice that they don’t only have dogs and cats at the city shelter,” Zelano says. “They take in a lot of chickens and other domestic animals, and I realized there weren’t any rescue groups dedicated to helping those rarer species arriving at CACC.”
CACC is a municipal, open admission shelter, meaning it must take in any stray animal who shows up at its door. Dogs and cats make up the bulk of these admissions, but there are also the other kinds of animals found wandering the streets, many of them victims of malnourishment, neglect, and abuse. This includes goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, and yes, even tropical birds like peacocks.
Chicago is home to a comprehensive network of animal rescue organizations that work individually and together to house, care for, and adopt out the city’s homeless dogs, cats, rabbits, and other small, furry creatures. But at the time Zelano started working with CACC, there wasn’t a specific go-to organization for rescuing the less common animals coming in to the city shelter. So two years ago, she founded Chicago Chicken Rescue in order to provide a good home for these difficult-to-place strays.
Chicago Chicken Rescue’s main facility sits on a triple city lot in Woodlawn. It’s a hidden haven that you’d never expect to find on the South Side of Chicago; an unassuming farm sanctuary in the middle of a heavily-populated urban area. On the site sit two main barns and a pond with a waterfall where you’ll find a friendly crew of rescued ducks splashing and relaxing during the day. There are also two enclosures for animals who need to be segregated, either upon first arrival as they settle in or for medical or behavioral issues that arise. Most of the time, animals of all species roam freely.
“We believe chickens and other domestic wildlife need to free range,” Zelano says. “This allows them to socialize naturally by giving them the space they need to work out their complex social structure. For chickens, a submissive act is to run away when threatened. They need space in order to do this, allowing them to co-exist peacefully. Free roaming also gives everyone the opportunity to eat plenty of good things like grasses and insects. All of the animals go into the barn on their own when the sun goes down, and are closed in for protection during the night.”
Chicago Chicken Rescue takes in a fairly large volume of animals, and so in addition to the main facility they work with various foster sites that provide additional centers of housing and care. These include peoples’ private backyard flocks, farms as far as Northern Indiana, and even The Resource Center, a local compostmaking non-profit that boasts a nice sized flock of chickens.
The goal is always adoption, Zelano says, but the rescue is relatively new and these types of animals can be much harder to place. As such, Chicago Chicken Rescue functions as more of a sanctuary than an adoption center. That’s no problem to Zelano though, who is just happy that all of the animals have a safe place to live out their days in peace and comfort.
The main facility currently boasts about 30 animals, including Kevin, the peacock who Zelano rescued that day on her way to the wedding. The animals get along well, and are welcoming to newcomers.
“It’s fascinating to watch the introduction of a new animal to our flock,” Zelano says. “The animals have formed their own welcoming committee, comprised of our eight ducks, who are always the first to investigate newcomers. After the ducks check things out, the peafowl and chickens circle around.” Some animals take more time to acclimate than others, such as roosters, who are fighters by nature. But eventually, everyone learns to coexist.
The animals who arrive at Chicago Chicken Rescue often come from disturbing pasts. A lot of the hens come in debeaked, Zelano says, which suggests that they escaped from a factory farm, where beaks are removed to keep hens from injuring each other when packed into tight spaces. Some of the animals were abused pets, including a pig who came in terrified of people, rope burns covering his back, abdomen, and neck.
One especially harrowing case is Pharaoh the goat, who came to Chicago Chicken Rescue through Joliet Animal Control after being left to die in an abandoned grocery store parking lot. He was found lying on his side, all four legs tied together and his back legs tied to a wooden pallet.
“One of his legs was so severely injured that we thought we were going to lose it,” Zelano recalls. But thanks to the care and attention of the rescue, he not only kept his leg but went on to a great life.
Pharaoh stayed at Chicago Chicken Rescue’s main facility for two months during his recovery, and today he’s at home on a private 33-acre farm in Indiana. “Somehow that goat was the most loving animal we’ve taken in, by far,” Zelano says. “He didn’t turn around and hate humans.”
Medical care for the animals is often necessary, but not always easy to come by. The vast majority of vets in the city aren’t equipped or experienced for the care of animals like domestic goats, pigs, and fowl. Zelano uses her decades of experience in wildlife rehab to perform as much of the medical care as she can for the animals, and for more challenging cases she relies on a veterinarian in Northern Indiana who provides the rescue organization with additional help, mostly free of charge.
As far as treating behavioral issues or trauma, Zelano has found that simply providing the animals with a safe and loving environment can make an enormous difference.
“When many of these animals come in, the pigs especially, they’re clearly traumatized. It feels really good to let them go free into the yard, knowing they’ll come around. We experience it often; a terrified animal who arrives shaking whenever it sees a person, eventually starting to relax. It’s very rewarding.”
And indeed, life on the Chicago Chicken Rescue farm makes for an idyllic place to find peace. Every morning, Zelano or one of her volunteers checks in on everyone, feeds them, and performs general farm work, returning in the evening to give out plenty of love and attention before tucking everyone in for bed. The animals spend their days exactly as animals should, playing, socializing, and enjoying their freedom, safe in the understanding that it’s the good life from here on out.
Chicago Chicken Rescue serves a crucial role in caring for the less traditional animals that walk through the doors of the city shelter. If you’re interested in making a donation or would like information on volunteering with the organization, send an email to Chicken@ChicagoChickenRescue.org or call 773.599.2319.