Named for the concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl was the true founder of the Eastern Shore Chicken Sanctuary. He fell or leapt from a truck heading for the slaughterhouse and ended up in a ditch near our house. We brought him home, made a place for him in the garage, and fenced off a part of the yard for him.
We say “him” now, but we initially believed Viktor to be female and called him “Mosselle.” One day, Mosselle made a loud croaking noise and we ran around looking to see if “she” had laid an egg. Another day, we heard a strange gargling sound inside the coop one morning and worried that she was choking. Luckily, somebody with some sense came along and said, “that bird’s a rooster.” It was hard not to think of him differently, even though he was the same bird. That’s the incident that first got us thinking about the ways that people map their ideas about sex and gender onto animals. (Read pattrice jones’ account of that thought process, and what happened next, here.)
Viktor adapted very well to his new surroundings but was obviously lonely. He would run out to greet us whenever we stepped into the yard and would sometimes clamber up onto the back steps just to wait for us. Only later, when other chickens were living with him, was he fully able to live a normal chicken life.
When we brought home Violet and Chickweed from the local humane society, Viktor was overwhelmed. Having lived his first two months in a shed with 20,000 other birds of the same sex and age and the next two months alone with us, he had not been socialized as he would have been with his mother and a normal flock. Now an adult, he wasn’t sure what to do with these youngsters. Should he an elder or a peer to the young rooster? Should he court or parent the young hen? For a couple of days, he tried to do everything at once before settling in as their surrogate single parent. He became intensely devoted to them very quickly and defended them whenever he felt they were threatened. When they had to come inside for a few days due to illness, he stopped eating and spent all his time hanging around where he had last seen them.
As the sanctuary grew, so did Viktor. He took his responsibilities as oldest rooster very seriously, constantly bustling around the yard and the coop making sure that everyone was okay. One day, when a couple of younger birds failed to take cover from a couple of hawks, Viktor stood in front of them rather than take cover himself, daring the predators to come down and fight him.
Viktor had a rich emotional life. He fell in love with a raggedy hen called Rosa and mourned when she died. For a long time after that, he showed no romantic or sexual interest in any hen. But, when Ellie Mae moved in many months later, he began courting again, spending all his extra time near her.
Viktor died of a sudden heart attack on a spring day when the temperature soared and he became overheated. He was only about a year and a half old. Such heart attacks are common among birds like Viktor, because their muscles are too heavy for their internal organs. We will always miss Viktor and consider the sanctuary to be his legacy. We still feel his spirit hovering over the foraging yards, making sure that everyone is okay.