In the traditional practice of Kapparot, observed in conjunction with Yom Kippur, a participant holds a chicken by the wings or the legs and circles the bird nine times above his head as he recites a prayer. A butcher then kills the bird with a slash to the throat. This ritual is meant to symbolically transfer the sins of the participant to the chicken and extinguish the guilt of the sins upon the bird’s death.
Despite the decline in the practice and the wide acceptance of the bloodless alternative of performing the Kapparot ritual with a bag of coins that are then donated to charity, thousands of chickens are still trucked in to some urban areas — often from factory farms — and slaughtered in makeshift butchers’ stations on sidewalks or in parking lots. Animal advocates and many faith leaders agree the practice as inhumane. In fact, Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren has said, “… Repentance and charity can be better accomplished by using money instead of a slaughtered chicken.”*
The largest-ever protest of Kapparot occurred this year in the greater Los Angeles area. As they demonstrated near stacks of cages filled with exhausted and terrified chickens, a group of activists persuaded synagogue workers to release some of the birds. The activists then reached out to area sanctuaries, including our Southern California Shelter. We welcomed three of the hens to our sanctuary, making sure to include one who appeared especially sick so she could receive the expert care she desperately needed.
The hens, now named Buttercup, Bubbles, and Blossom, arrived starving and dehydrated, with overgrown nails, filthy feathers, and many bald patches. All had endured de-beaking, an industry procedure in which the sensitive beak-tip is cut off in order to discourage fighting in stressful, crowded production facilities. From cramped cages in warehouses reeking of ammonia to a parking lot slaughterhouse, these birds suffered profoundly, all to fulfill a human desire — for eggs and, ultimately, for absolution. Yet a few birds were also saved by human compassion.
The protests drew substantial media coverage and provoked a public outcry. On September 13, the day before Yom Kippur and the height of Kapparot activity, the California Department of Food and Agriculture shut down two Kapparot operations, including the one from which our hens were saved, citing the groups for operating slaughterhouses without licenses.
Blossom, the sick hen, spent her first days with us fighting for her life. Caregivers diligently watched over her, feeding her by hand, giving her fluids, and administering antibiotic treatments. To our relief, she is now doing much better. Meanwhile, adventurous Buttercup and chatty Bubbles have been eagerly exploring their new home.
All three birds have joined our flock in the shelter courtyard, where they are free to explore, relax and enjoy every day. Watching these hens take up their new lives, we see in each a complex being who has value in her own right and, like all of us, deserves fellowship, safety and peace.
* “Jewish chicken killing ritual of Kapparot,” Los Angeles press release by Nazila Mahgerefteh, September 28, 2006.