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When I talked to Charlotte Holdman, she'd spent 35 years working with defense teams on death penalty cases, including some very high-profile cases. But she hadn't given an interview to the press in decades. Ever since an incident where she had a few drinks with a reporter and said some things, she was unhappy to see in print.


It was so embarrassing. I thought, Well, I either have to quit drinking or quit doing interviews. I wasn't ready to quit drinking yet, so I quit doing interviews. This interview is a very rare event for me. I haven't done any interviews with the media since '85.


You are ending the moratorium in this one instance.


For this story, why?


Well, a fluffy, red combed leghorn deserves his moment in the sun. I mean, just the image. I'm not talking about any chicken. I'm talking about, you can just picture this beautiful leghorn, his tail perked up, and that red comb sitting at a rakish angle on his head, and his head cocked to the side, and he looks at you with his little eyes. That's what this story is about.


That is not just what this story is about. That is what a lot of today's radio show is about. Back in the early days of our radio show, once a year during the highest poultry time in the country, which is, of course, if you think about this for a second, you can guess the answer to this. It's the weeks that begin with Thanksgiving and go through Christmas and New Year's. During that period, for years on our show, we had a tradition here. We would devote an entire hour of our program to stories of chickens, turkeys, ducks, foul of all kind, and an homage to Chicago's poetry slams, which have spread across the country but were created at the Green Mill Bar on the north side by poet Mark Smith, we named these programs Poultry Slams. Poultry. But I just want to be clear before we begin. The word Slam, we are using that with no malice toward any bird of any kind at all. No birds were hurt, no birds were slaughtered. No birds were Slammed in the making of today's program. We have incredible stories today, incredible enough that at least one woman has ended a quarter century moratorium on talking to the press to be here with me.


You should, too. From WB Z Chicago, it's this American life. I'm Aaron Glass.


Stay with us.


Dep Gwain, witness for the barbecution. Charlotte Holdman didn't just get the idea of calling a chicken as a witness in a murder case out of the blue. She was working on this case, and we're going to call this guy, Harry, and there was no question that the guy had killed somebody. This wasn't about whether he'd done it. It was just about what sentence he would get. He had sat on Death Row at San Quentin for 10 years, but Charwit says he was schizophrenia with an IQ of 58 and just out of touch with reality.


One of the things he did, he wrote messages and symbols on little pieces of toilet paper and rolled them up in a ball. He had done this for years on Death Row, rolled the little secret messages up in a ball and then rolled them in feces, his own feces, and then to little tiny bead-sized balls and put those into the braids in his hair. Oh, my. So that they dangled around his forehead.


And the things he was putting in his hair, and from his point of view, were they communicating some information, the little messages?


Exactly. But he couldn't tell me what the messages were because they were secret. When I would talk to him about his mother, he would tell me she lived in a Coca-Cola can.


It's against the law to execute somebody who is so crazy he doesn't understand why he's being executed. And, Charley said that was true for this guy.


When I would say, Do you know what's going to happen on the 12th of June? He was befuddled and with pressure, he would finally say, Well, yeah, he thought he was going to be reupholstered.


The state of California did not agree with Charlotte about this guy. They wanted to execute him in 30 days. Charlotte's team was making a last ditch appeal to stay this execution. Meanwhile, the state was gathering its evidence.


San Quentin sent in a prison psychiatrist to determine was he competent to be executed. Did he know he was going to be executed? And did he know why he was going to be executed? So the psychiatrist goes and interviews Harry. And then the psychiatrist testified in court that not only was Harry aware that he was going to be executed. She was so certain of this because she had played tik-tak-toe with him and Harry had beat her. Well, it was so absurd and so outside of any normal experience in a courtroom, and this is after 30 years of being in death penalty cases in the South, around the world, and I really couldn't believe she had said it. But at the same time, the only image that came to me, I'm from the South, obviously, and growing up, we always went to the Mid-South Fair. And they had a chicken that played tik-tak-toe that absolutely mesmerized me. And it was pretty clear to me, Okay, we've got to find a chicken who can play tik-tak-toe.


Shirley thought, and this is not a joke, it's not an exaggeration, she thought that a chicken like that could save this man's life. Jurors, after all, tend to believe the state and its witnesses. And a chicken like that could totally undermine the psychiatrist's testimony by proving that playing tik-tok-toe doesn't mean that you understand things like why you're being executed.


I just knew a chicken would work. It's a sad state, but I think a chicken has more credibility than the defense team did. I think it would have brought the jury over to seeing us as people rather than these obstructionists who were interfering with an execution. And who can doubt a chicken. I mean, you can't... Chickens aren't going to lie. Chickens have integrity. I had this image of the psychiatrist being on the stand, and I would quietly enter through the wooden doors as they opened with this beautiful leg horn under my arm and the comb at a rachish angle. And as I walked into the courtroom, not saying a word and quietly took a seat on the front row, the psychiatrist, who we knew because we had investigated her background from New York City, would see a person with a chicken and think, Why is that? Oh, my God, no. That psychiatrist would slowly realize that she was going to have to play tik-tok-toe with a chicken.


You're trying to psych out.


You're trying to get inside the psychiatrist' head.


And make the psychiatrist unravel even before you pull your stud.


The jury's eyes, as awareness, overcame her. It wouldn't work with the frazzled chicken. I didn't want a splashy beat-up, tired, exhausted chicken. I wanted a chicken that could capture the audience's attention. In this case, the audience was the jury.




You needed a chicken like in a cartoon. Look, I.


Had to have a chicken that could take on a psychiatrist. It had to be a stand-up chicken.




We began to hunt for this stand-up chicken.


Well, this task fell to the legal interns. A man was scheduled to die at that point in less than two weeks and they needed a chicken. They searched the places that you find tic-tacto playing chickens, namely county fairs, carnivals. Really within hours, they found a tic-tacto playing goose in Montana. But of course Charlotte says that was totally unacceptable.


I mean, geese are nasty. They bite you. I don't want a goose running around the courtroom chasing someone.


Next was a guy at a roadside stand in Wyoming who did have a chicken and it did play tik-tok-toe. But he said that flying or driving it to California for the trial would probably upset it so much that he could not guarantee that it would win the game of tik-tacto, so he was out. Finally, they found a fella in Arkansas who trains chickens to play tik-tacto. He had a whole list of chickens that he had trained around the country, and he sent the legal team to one of those birds in San Francisco that turned out to be a dead end. San Francisco had actually passed an ordinance banning the playing of tik-tok by chickens as animal cruelty. Fortunately, another chicken on the list was not far from there at the boardwalk at Santa Cruz. They had their chicken.


The next step was to convince the court to let us bring the chicken to court as a witness, as demonstrative evidence to introduce the chicken and let the chicken play tik-tacto. Now, of course, I wanted the chicken to play tik-tok-toe with the psychiatrist, but I realized that most likely no one was going to let us get away with that. But I did think that any of us, a really healthy group of interns, they knew how to play tik-tok-toe, so that we could demonstrate to the jury that playing tik-tok-toe did not mean that you were aware of the consequences of your actions.


Why wouldn't you be allowed to make.


The psychiatrist play tik-tok-toe.


With the chicken? I understand why the psychiatrist would not want to do it, but from a legal point of view, what line does that cross?


Well, evidently, I agree with you, but the court felt it never addressed the issue of having to play the the psychiatrist. But the court felt that bringing the chicken into the courtroom to play tik-tok-toe would degrade the dignity of the court. I thought that the dignity of the court was degraded by executing a mentally ill person. The court denied our motion and said we could not bring the chicken into the courtroom for demonstrative evidence. It rules against us.


They weren't allowed to show the jury a video of the chicken playing tik-tok-toe. Without a chicken on the stand, without a video of a chicken, the jury found the psychiatrist credible and ruled to execute Charlotte's client. His life was saved later on appeal. In the years since then, in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that a person at his level of mental retardation cannot be executed. For Charlotte, though, the story stays with her, the story of the chicken. Because in decades of doing these capital trials, bringing hundreds of witnesses, it is the greatest courtroom move she ever invented, bringing in the chicken. And she never got to try it. She invented this thing, she never got to try it. It was snatched away from her. Something like that sticks in your crawl.


Well, yeah, because I didn't get to do it. But it's also because of the nature and quality of a chicken. When you do this work, when you're down in the worst part, when you're trying to work for folks that literally the community wants to kill, it can be pretty discouraging. But you have this nice, fluffy, leg, horn, brightens up your day, and you forge on. And not all of this. All of this is not to make light of death as punishment, of people with mental retardation, of people who are mentally ill, or of chickens. Thank you for saying that. Yeah. No, it's really not. I actually am a member of PETA.


Charlotte Holdman in New Orleans. Today's show is a rerun. We first broadcast this story back in 2011. In the years since, capital punishment was suspended in the state of California by Governor Gavin Newsom. Charlotte, this is an incredible person that I loved talking to, she was called the Angel of Death Row for her work in getting proper legal representation for people on Death Row. She died.






Act two, Chicken Diva. Chickens are what we make of them in lots of ways. If you could possibly need further evidence of that.


After that first act.


We had this story from Jack Kitt.


Oddly enough, it wasn't Susan who was obsessed with chickens. It was Kenny, a pal who worked backstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York. His house was filled with chicken cups, chicken masks. He got the whole staff onto chickens, including Susan. For a time there in the '80s, poultry-related jokes and references became the fast way to get a laugh at the why. I guess most of us are condemned to see nothing more than the easy comedy of chickens. But Susan Fatuchi saw something else: their potential greatness, their hidden beauty, their grandeur. One day, she glued together some finger puppets for a 10-minute rendition of the Chicken Little story for her nephew. That was 14 years ago. Today, it is a full-length opera, enjoyed by a cult following whenever it goes up in a workshop or cafe or small theater. It's still performed with finger puppets, but now it has a complete score, written by a noted composer, Henry Krieger, who did Dream Girls. The Chicken Little opera he wrote with Susan Vitouchy is called Love's Fowl. Needless to say, that's F-O-W-L. Well, we.


Were going to.




With the opening, Ciano del.


Teatro, Repitorio de la Malette. We are.


The Closed.


Pin Repitore theater.


We have a special singing guest for you, which I.


Don't know if we've got-S Susan and I are sitting at Henry's baby grand piano. Henry's guest is this Maltese terrier named Toby.


-perhaps Toby would.


Be kind enough to bring me on the Piano. -yeah, would you sit on your lap for this? -at the piano. Yeah, let's see what we can do. Okay. Okay, listen carefully, because once Toby gets going, he actually harmonizes with Henry and Susan. You may have noticed that this libretto is an Italian, just like a real opera. Before, it was just.


A bunch of puppets in a box with a good idea. Then suddenly, as soon as it went into Italian, it became something bigger than what it had been. It's because when it's in English, we all know it and it's really not that interesting. It's like, Yeah, yeah, yeah. As soon as it's in Italian, it gives us enough distance that we can come in. It's like the lover who doesn't want you. You don't want anybody more than you want the one who doesn't want you. It's the same thing.


You may recall that when you last heard of Little back in kindergarten, she was just an average barn door foul who had an acorn drop on her head, which she mistakenly understood to be the skyfalling. Her alarms excited her friends, Goosey-Lucey, Turkey-Lurky, and Ducky-Luckyy. They join her for a journey to the king to tell him the important news. On the way, they meet up with Sly Fox. Little's pals eagerly accept his invitation for dinner, literally as it turns out. Fortunately for Little, hunger is not enough to distract her from her mission, and she tracks on. When she meets the king, he tells her that the sky is not falling. It's just an acorn. So the enlightened chicken Little returns to her coop, and that's where the story ends. What are we to take away from Little's experience? I'd like to think it's that Little is rewarded with life, precisely because she went off on this quixotic mission, totally in the grip of a wrong idea.




The children's fable barely figures into the story. It's just one small episode in the life of Chicken Little, now known as La Pucina Picula. After the Acorn incident, she goes on to become an internationally renowned figure in almost every field imaginable. A diva of politics, academic, theater, art, daring do. Like Venus, she arrives from some other world, transported on a scalp shell. But the triumphs of her life begin after a youthful love affair with a fighting cock, ends bitterly. And she consoles herself, as we all do at some point in our lives— by plunging into Shakespeare. She becomes an overnight sensation as an actress, celebrated all over the world for one role. Juliet, Cleopatra, Ophelia.


The company then performs an excerpt, a re-creation of her signature role, which was Richard III. Well, I mean, Sarah Bernhardt did Hamlet.


Well, there's a great tradition of women playing the men's roles in Shakespeare, but I think Richard III is one of the more rare roles to be played by a woman.


Well, that's how adventuresome an actress this chicken was. I can.


Assure you there's nothing like watching a four-inch tall finger puppet crying out, A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse, in Italian. Not to mention that that puppet is a chicken surrounded by a whole supporting cast of poultry and other Avian supernumeraries. Susan says that artistically, there's something special about chickens.


They're a clean slate. You can put anything on them. You can project anything onto them because it's not like they have, to me at least, a very strong personality.


Except for Lappucina. In the opera, she moves into the field of archeology, masters it, needless to say, and makes a great discovery, the last tomb of Galapatra. But not before she sails the Seven Seas, is shipwrecked, gets rescued, but it's by pirates, and then she meets the pirate king.


As soon as he meets her, he falls in love with her because of her sweet spirit. Because she comes in and she says, Here you see a little chicken, who, although I'm dripping wet, I'm proud and yellow.


Let me repeat that lyrics for you in a pure translation. Although I stand before you, a chicken who is dripping wet, I am proud and I am yellow. Okay, back to CISN.


Although I've loved and I have lost, I have learned to follow the call of adventure. Let's say along..


Keep in mind that all of the action, like everything that occurs in every Susan Fatuchi production ever since the first one for her nephew and continuing to this day occurs among characters created by sticking a small painted styrofoam ball onto a larger painted styrofoam ball, poking in two maptacks for eyes, gluing on a tiny felt beak, and then impaling the whole thing on top of one of those really old fashioned clothes pins that a 40s cartoon figure would clamp to his nose and round a chunk of Limburg or cheese.




00:00:12] [French.


00:00:12] And I could go on. Susan has written, or she puts it translated, La Pugina Picola's Diaries, which detail the other adventures that happen in between those and the opera. There are 60 pages so far, excerpts of which have appeared in Clothes Lines, the official fan club newsletter of the opera. Love's Fowl has a strange effect on people. I didn't understand it until Susan loaned me a videotape of one performance. To be honest, I thought I would be annoyed at the intentional irony and hoakiness of the puppets. But there I was with my three-year-old daughter, who love the show, watching a plastic bird pantomime one of the simplest human moments, but also one of the most profound, the confession of a great love, in this case, with a cock robin.


The song that she sings as she enters goes, I am a chicken and ready for love. My heart is as fragile as the egg from which I was born. Treat me gently and so will I treat you. Together from earthly Love, we will reach for the divine. And then she sings, I'm a chicken and I can't fly without love. My heart, it is as strong as the egg from which I was born and so forth. And so it is only with cock robin that she flies. Amor e cus de cuesoAfter.


They have agreed to fly together and they are soaring in the air, cock robin is shot and killed, murdered by a jealous sparrow. I couldn't believe it, but I was getting choked up, especially when cock robin appeared on the stage. His styrofoam body spray painted black for the lament. His little magic marker eyes drawn as exes. I gathered my daughter my arms, and held on tight as I was helplessly drawn into an expression of the grief and suffering of this little sad bird. In this era of slick special effects, there was something unexpectedly liberating in the marriage of this crude medium, painted styrofoam balls bobbing up and down behind a cardboard box and the high, melodramatic art of Italian opera. Picture it.




Want a subscription to that newsletter. Are you going to do this? I mean, are you going to be working with Pucina, Pica La, you think, for the rest of your life?


It's possible, and I like working with her because I get to go into a world that's inhabited by a very sweet spirit and play with the mechanics of the world. Because it's very small, I could never have afforded to produce this show with people, but I could afford to do it with clothespins. So I can do as big a production as I want with clothespins. I can have stuff fly in and out and come in from traps and I can have all kinds of fancy, flashy stuff that costs millions of dollars to do on Broadway. It cost me $200 because I had to buy lots and lots and lots of styrofoam and clothes pins and stuff and all this in a new table maybe, and I get to do whatever I want.


That story from Jack Heads.


Arriba a.


Derce, Polcanina, Bon via.




Coming up, Chicken Supermodels and Chicken to Return with a message from the Afterlife. That's in a minute from Chicago Bob a Gradio, when our program continues. To this American life from Heragas. Each week in our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, During this period of greatest poultry consumption in our nation, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we bring you stories of chickens, turkeys, ducks, fall of all kind, real and imagined. We arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, trying to respect the chicken. Okay, sure. It's one thing to take a fictional character like Chicken Little and make her into a star. Try doing that with a real chicken.


Seriously, just try.


Well, these are photographs of chickens. The first one here is a silver-laced wine dot. It's a black and white bird, essentially, but the tail feathers have a lot of iridescent green coloring.


In a world where chickens get no respect, Tamara Staples treats them the way that humans treat those we revere most. She takes their portraits lovingly. Her shots are like fashion photographs: beautifully lit, color backdrops. They're beautiful. You know, the first one looked regal, but now you've just turned to one where it almost looks like it's like a clown. It looks comic. It's a.


Modeled Houdan, which I always call the Phyllis Diller chicken.


Which is - Oh, my God. The chicken does look like Phyllis Diller.


It does. It's the hat. It looks like it's got this huge feathered hat thing and a strange body shape and.


Like these - In a way, it's like Tamara Staples is running an odd little cross-species science experiment, one that asks this question, What happens when you try to treat a chicken the way we treat treat humans, if it's just for the length of a a What happens, it turns out, is that you learn just just the thin line is that divides human beings from birds. All right, maybe it's not not a thin line, but it's definitely a line. And like most city people, I had never thought about it, about where it lies, about what it might be, what it might consist of, until Tamara and I headed out to a farm. I think.


That is the best one. Yeah, we.


Got to get him. We don't want him to get dirty or anything, do we? Or does it matter? He runs loose every day. Can you find him? Yeah, we can figure out. We're going to have to get get to... We're going to have to wrangle wrangle them.


You We're at the Davidsons Dairy Farm, about an hour and a half northwest of Chicago. Family members present? Paul, who's helping Tamara choose a bird to photograph. His sister, Laura, who's studying photography at a nearby university. The grandfather, George George a veteran breeder. Their father, Dick, who seems the most skeptical of this whole project, but who patiently shows Tamara and her assistant, Dennis, the milking barn is a possible place to set up and shoot.


What's an area.


You're looking for? Maybe, I mean.


It could be a little little wider... Could be wider. Don't you think? If it could be from here to there and from that pole to that pole. For what? Well, we're setting... Maybe this is a good time to pull out the portfolio. Okay. You want to grab it? I'm actually... I mean, it's a study of the birds, but it's an isolated study. Study. So aren't necessarily associating it with the farm and something to eat.


Tamara takes us all outside the barn, so Dust won't get on her photos, and shows them her shots, name-dropping the names of some big chicken people, people whose bird she's photographing, including Bob Wolf, editor of the Poultry Press. Dick notices that a bird in one photo has crooked toes.


Toes. On a hard hard surface What.


Do you guys think of the pictures?


Well, the pictures are nice and sharp. I mean, there's nothing wrong with the pictures. If there's any thing to find fault with, it's the birds. They aren't posing the way they they should. Of them.


Fact is, while city people usually go nuts when they see Timber's pictures, a lot of chicken breeders don't like them. And to understand why, to fully comprehend the little culture clash here in America. We have to leave the barnyard for a minute and flashback to something that happened back at at apartment in the city. Tamara showed me this old red book from the turn of the century, this book with the seal of the American Poultry Association and gold on the front and then right there in gold.


Gold Standard of perfection. The Standard of perfection is really the Bible Bible of standards. What birds are-.


Tamara Tamara past the engravings and illustrations of chickens of all types and breeds. These were show chickens standing the way that chickens stand in competitions. Then Tamara pulled out one of her own photos to show me how her poses do not.




The standard in the book.


The tail needs to be higher. Her feet are not erect, standing. Chest isn't out. Head needs to be up more. It shows, I mean, you can see the shape of the chicken much better in the standard of perfection pose.


See, to me, what's interesting though is that the standard of perfection doesn't include a personality.


Right. Because it's not about personality, it's about breeding.


Is that a pose that the owners would want to own a photo of?


They're very particular about this. They want to see their bird in the standard of perfection pose, definitely. Because that's what they've been taught from 4-H when they were kids to do.


That's for them. For herself, for city customers, she chooses the others. Okay, back to the barnyard. Barnyard. And the Davidsons decide to set up the photo session in a room that's usually used to store feed for the cows. It takes about 45 minutes to set this up. That 45 minutes includes dismantling and moving a wall of hay that is probably 10 feet high and 15 feet long. This takes five people. Then comes the power and the fancy lights and the cloth backdrop that gets hung from a steel pole. The backdrop is ironed first with an iron and ironing board brought from the city just for that purpose.


11:30, 11:00, and and a half, 11 and eight and a Yeah, Yeah, 11 and a half.


Test is going to be at 11:30, 11:00, and and a half, 11 and eight and a You're going to shoot your film at at.


It was cold, well below freezing. So cold that the Polaroid film that Tamara Tamara uses lighting tests would not fully develop.


You ready for the bird?


We're close. I just want to commune with the bird. I just want to make you pretty. Look how sweet. Aren't you? You know what? I'm going to photograph you. My name is Tamara. I'll be your photographer for today.


Our first bird is a white Cornish, a showbird who belongs to George. The showbird is used to being picked up and handled. Part of preparing chickens for shows involves handling them a lot so they'll be calm with the judges. Judges.


You just nod his head up a little bit. He's perfect. He's got his chest out. Out. He's got his face face Okay, yeah, you know what we want. Yeah, you're great, George. He's got a feather on his.


Back here. Cameron has the Cornish stand up on a stack of little red antique books, unsteady. Things go well for a while. She gets a half dozen good shots of the bird, expressive shots, more personality than standard of perfection, George tells me. The bird's chest isn't high enough. Its body has not turned correctly to the camera. And then the bird stops cooperating. He gets tired. Paul has a suggestion.


Bring in a a.


You know what? You know that works.


Maybe you should explain what what is. What does that mean to bring in a a.


Think maybe a female would perk them up.


Laura grabs a hen and waves at it, the flaccid cock. The cock does not rise. I can say that on the radio, right? Right?


It probably would have been better to get the one from the other pen that he's not used to.


Fresh blood. Bring him around a little bit.


For real, the rooster will show off more for a hand that it doesn't know. Yes.




You put a new new in with.


Him or.


Him and with a group of new hands, he will really show off.


They try this and and that, with much success. Finally, with one shot left, Paul suggests putting a hand into the picture with the rooster.


Get the girl to like, she looks like her feet are so far apart. She's really struggling to stand.


That's where they stand, though.


She's just being.


Wide apart. That's all right. That's all right. Did you see that? Yeah. All right, we got it.


Why Why you just.


Do the the She looked up at him very sweetly like like that, her head cocked, the male bird was was and she was posing also, but had a personality of just being like the sweet, doting mother.


But not standard of perfection.


But not standard of perfection. So we're done with this background and -.


Not standard of perfection. Even these perfectly bred cornishes could not achieve standard of perfection today. And even in this goofy, unbird-like situation, an hour of watching them makes clear just how hard it is to ever get birds to hit the standard, which is to say, not only do we completely dominate every aspect of the lives of chickens, their birth, their feed, their eggs, their slaughter, not only have we bred them to human specifications specifications to meet human needs, we have created a standard of what it means to be a chicken that most chickens can never beat. That's what the standard means. We judge them as chickens and we find them lacking. If they had the brains to understand this, they would be right to feel indignant. But, of course, this is a city person's perspective, and that means that it is completely wrong headed from the point of view of anybody who actually raises birds. Standing in the cold feed room, I had a a long, talk with George about this. George is 80 years old, has been raising birds since the, I guess, the Calvin Coolidge administration. And he says the whole fun of raising birds is raising them to.


The standard. Well, like, for instance, if your birds lack bone, okay, you go out and buy a bird as near to like them as you can with better bone. But when you've made them together, you might get long-legged birds or too short. You don't get what you want just by mating. It takes four or five years to gradually get it up. And by that time, they're they're inbred you need new ones.


George tells me that when he's breeding a new batch of birds, he'll hatch 65 of them, and only one or two will be anywhere near the standard of perfection. That's how hard it is. Do you get frustrated with the standard of perfection sometimes?


No, we get frustrated with the judges because every judge has his own idea of what the standard should be.


I thought that's the whole point of the standard.


Is that the judge- That is. But one judge will want it this way and another another. Today, if you bred your birds to the standard perfection, weight and everything, and took them to the show, you probably wouldn't get anywhere. You got to breed to the fads.


That's right. The fads, like like these days, are supposed to have shorter legs than the real standard of perfection. Vertical tail feathers are out on all sorts of breeds that really should have them. In the country, among the chicken breeders, they think about a lot of things we never get to in the city. And when you're raising these birds, with any of these birds, I mean, do you have a close relationship with the bird the way somebody would have with a pet?


I don't have time. Yeah, I've just got too many things to do.. Three years ago, I almost died of cancer and the good Lord told me how to cure myself. And so I've been working with that a lot the last three years. I've I've helped people. It in papers. Now it's getting all over the United States. What did you do? What did you do? I used to use the root of a dandelion. Simple as can be. If there's something in in that builds up your blood and your immune immune system.


A second. You're saying that you were diagnosed with cancer and this is the only treatment you had and it.


Cured you? Yeah. And I've given it to other people when the medical world has told them that there's nothing more they can do is they've got well too, but not all of them. If they're too far gone, it won't help them.


And you make it into tea or something like that?


We just put it in little water, a little milk, Kool-Aid. You can put it on a sandwich, anything that isn't hot.


George gives me a pamphlet that written up. No doctors actually checked him out to prove the cancer has gone from his body. He's actually got no hard scientific proof that this really works. But he says God told him that this is the way he should be spending his time, and it is cut into his bird breeding a bit. George leaves off another business. Business. Finish hanging and lighting the next backdrop. Backdrop. And rest of us begin with the second bird, a bird called a brahma with elaborately patterned brown and white feathers. Feathers. You got She is big. This is a chicken like the size of a dog.






That big. A small dog. Our second bird demonstrates the great distance between bird instinct and and intelligence. The demands of modern fashion photography, which is to say, of civilization. Caught upon to do human tasks, even rather passive ones. A bird remains a bird. Paul carries the huge hand onto the fragile little setof the camera's belt.


Beauty. What you eating there, buddy?




It slapped me.


I'm scared of this when she says quietly as she adjusts her camera. The chicken is so big, nine pounds, the size of a small consumer turkey, and she has to pull the camera back. The Davidsons are looking at her skeptically. Paul asked pointedly if she's ever shot a bird this big.


We got to figure out where the the.




Hello, bird. Are you going to slap me in the face again?


I hope not. It's time to jump right in your face.


You know why you're here? Let's talk. We need you to be beautiful. Here's your moment. Okay? There are more where you came from, buddy. You better act up here.


This combination of cuddling and threats might motivate an aspiring supermodel or an eager puppy. But this, after all, is a chicken. Chicken. Tries to lure it up with a handful of corn.


Get that corn where she's trying to get it, but she has to stand up high for it. Is that where you.


Want to just stand?


Somewhere during this ordeal, a funny thing happens. All the Davidsons who all started off skeptical, they are completely engaged. Dick suggests a pose that is pure art concept, a pose that could not be further from standard of perfection. Laura worries the bird with corn, Paul Smooth's feathers. And when the bird quivers or moves a wing, three people jump in to fix.


It back up. There's some feathers on the the a little bit fluffy. It's It's like she's real clean down there. Okay. She's a little farther. You guys are a great team. I'm going to hire you to come with me. Oops, I got a hand in there. That's not... Move the hand. Move the hand. Move the hand. Okay, great.


It wasn't until this point that I realized that I came into this expecting the bird to be more human.


Partly, I.


Think, because I never really thought about this one way or the other, but partly because Tamara's photos make make seem so thoughtful. Over here.




At the camera. Look at the camera. No, she's completely out of frame.


Those photos are a lie. Lie.


I think you're going to have a a one opportunity here. It's going to be when I let go. Jeez, I didn't let go. I just started to let up and he yanked it right.


Out of my hand. Fact is, you can try to give the chickens respect. You can try to treat them with dignity and photograph them the way you'd photograph anything or anyone that's serious. But the chickens will not care. You can make them look dignified, but it is a brainless, birdlike dignity, and it is ephemeral. Ephemeral. You feel like your relationship with chicken has changed because of this?


No. Not at all.


How could that not be so? I I.


The the chicken I'm at the the I eat it right in front of the chickens.


You eat chicken while you're standing there with a chicken? Yes.


Is Is wrong? I don't know. I'm hungry.


Well, no wonder they want to sit still.


Yeah. We pack.


Up our gear and move the massive wall of hay back into place. As we do this, chickens hop by, brahmas, Americanas, mixed breeds. They seem utterly uninterested in us. They They at each other. There's feed to eat, hay to nestle in. They have better things to do with their time. And there's nothing that makes you realize just how inhuman chickens are than spending a day trying to make them seem human.


Tech 4, winged migration. Migration.


So was Saturday, January 10th, 2004. Spalding was in our apartment in New York with our daughter Marisa, who was 16 at the time, and Theo, who was six.


This is Kathy Russo. Her husband was Spalding gray, who was best known for delivering monologs on stage like like in a a and and Swimming Cambodia. Both those monologs were also filmed as movies. Spalding gray went missing on January 10th, 2004. Witnesses say they saw him on the Staten Island ferry that night. His body was finally found.


Pulled out of the.


East River two months later. Our program today is.


About birds.


And the hold they have on us. Kathy Russo tells the story about about last night and the days immediately after that. Like she just said, her husband was with two other kids at night. She was out. They have a third child, child, who was 11 at the time. He was in Sag Harbor, Long Long with friends and.


A babysitter. They had a house out there, too.


Spalding had had dinner with the kids, and then it got to be about 7:00 PM. He said he was going to meet an old friend. Marisa goes, Oh, that's fine. I'm here. I can can watch, too. I can Theo. He went out. About an hour and a half after that, he called, check in on the kids. Theo Theo and he said, How's everything going? He goes, Good. He goes, Well, I love you very very and I'll be home soon. And we never saw Spalding again. The next series of events still seemed like a blur to me even five years later. But the first thing I had to do was go report Spalding missing. I did that and then I decided to send the kids home back to Sag Harbor to join the brother. So I stayed for two days, did whatever I could, which was pretty much nothing. And after two days, I just decided I'm going back to Sag Harbor to join all the kids. So I'm driving on the Long Island Expressway back to Sag Harbor, and I get a phone call on my cell phone. Phone. And was Theo, and he was all excited.


Excited. And said, Mom, mom, we came home today from school, and there was a bird, a little bird flying around the island in the kitchen. I said, Then what did you do next? He said, Well, we followed the bird, and Marisa followed him into the bathroom, and she tried to calm the the bird, and took a hat and and it over the bird and captured the bird and went outside and let him out free. I was just so dumbfounded and awestruck. The first image that came to my head when he said that there was something, a bird in particular, circling over this island, was I thought of Spalding and how for the last two years, he had obsessively circled around that island, talking to to just circling and in total anguish. You see, two years before that, we had been in Ireland celebrating his 60th birthday. The second day there, Spalding and I were in a horrible car accident. Spalding suffered enormous head trauma. He was never the same. They actually had to put titanium plate in his head. He was in and out of hospitals for two years after the accident. Doctors prescribed various cocktails of pills for him.


Nothing worked, not even the 20 electric shock treatments that he had. And the second thought I had when I heard about the bird was, was this a message from Spalding? Was he trying to tell us something? We've never had a bird in our house before. And I remember the Irish had this saying that if you find a bird in your house after someone dies and it's alive, the person's soul is free. If you find a dead bird, the person's soul is restless. I remember Spalding. I'll never forget the story after his mother killed herself 35 years before. His father woke up the very next day and next to his bed where his slippers were on the floor was a dead bird. Bird. And story just stayed with me. Me. So night, after the kids went to bed, I went around the house and I was making sure that another bird could not get into this house because I wasn't going to take the chance of another bird coming into the house and dying. So I checked all the windows and I closed all the fireplaces to make sure to guarantee that there is no way a bird could come into our house.


The next day, I was at the dining room table reading the paper, and I looked up and there was a bird across the table peering at me. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. Seeing. I out to the kids who are in the other room and they run in and the bird takes off and flies up the stairs and we all follow it. It goes into what's our office and it's perched on top of this window. I shut the door behind me and for some reason I held up my hands thinking the bird might magically come to my hands. I go, Spalding. It's okay. You're safe now. It's okay. Come to me. Forrest and Theo are on the other side of the door going, Mom, why are you calling the bird after dad? The bird just sat there staring at at me. Then it took off and it flew over my my hands and between the space in between the door and the floor, it scooted out, went past the boys, flew down the stairs, and we had already opened up the kitchen doors and it flew out the kitchen kitchen doors it was safe and it was gone.


The next day, I'm in the kitchen and Forrest calls out from the TV room. He was watching cartoons. He goes, Mom, the bird's back. It's at the end of the couch. So before I even go into the room, I open up the kitchen doors just to make sure we have an exit for the bird. And I run into the family family and sure enough, there's the bird. It's like it become a drill now. This is the third day, consecutive consecutive day with bird in our house. We follow the bird around, and this time it goes through the living room, then it comes back into the kitchen. I actually got the camera out, and I took a picture of it. The bird flew out. Just like that, it was gone. Gone. And months later, they found Spalding's body in the East River. I think with suicide in particular, it's a really hard death death to There's a lot of guilt. You go back and back and you get into that mode of, I should have done this. I could have done that. It's a seesaw of guilt and forgiveness. Forgiveness. So year was my 47th birthday, and I was feeling blue and I was really missing Spalding.


I went on this bike route that the two of us used to take take and it ends up by the water. Water. And before before I to the water, I saw this little brownish-gray bird sitting on the side of the road, just like the one that we had in our house. And I passed by on my bike. I ride pretty fast, but something told told me back. And I did. And the bird was just sitting there and I get up close to it and didn't fly away, so I figured the bird was hurt. And I'm looking at the bird, crouching over it, and this jogger goes by me and he said, Oh, that bird was there two hours ago when I started my run. So I raced back home on my bike and I went into the house and I collected a shoebox and I filled it with grass and bird seed, got some rubber gloves, and I drove back to where the bird was and the bird was still there. It was about a mile from my house. And it's just looking up at me. So I thought it was really really hurt, I tried to scoop it into the shoebox and it just gets up, looks at me and flies away.


There's nothing wrong with it. Wings were fine. I saw it flying off into the the distance, I thought it just hit me like a ton of bricks right at that moment. There was nothing I could do to save this innocent little bird, which in the end, he was fine. He flew away. There was nothing I could do to save Spalding.


Kathy Russo.


These days, she's a producer on the podcast, you and me both, with Hillary Clinton and the executive producer of the podcast, Here's the Thing with Alec Walden.


. Little birdie, little birdie.


Won't you sing.


To to me.


I know I'm a song.






Time to stay.


And a long.


Time to be gone. Well, the.


Various stories in today's rerun were produced by by Alex Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Blue Cheveney, Jane Jane Sarah Kienik, Jonathan Menhevar, Lisa Pollack, Brian Reed, Robin Simeon, Alyssa Shipp, Julie Snyder, Eilidh, Speegle, and Nancy Updike. Music Music from Mr. John Conners. Other help today from Larry Josephson and Jay Head blade. Additional production on today's rerun from James Bend at the the Michael Comethe and Stone Nelson. Some updates on on the in today's rerun. Tamara Staples has launched a kickstarter campaign for a new project, a documentary series about the Showed Chickens. It's called The Standard of of George George Carens, from the the Davidson's Dairy died back in 2011. Susan Vachuchi's opera about Chicken Little is available on CD and also on several streaming platforms. More information on where you can find it at www. Pochina. Org. That is pochina spelt, of course, P-U-L-C-I-N-A. Jack Kitt's story about about first first all the way back in 1997. Our website, thisamericanlife. Org, where you can stream over 800 of our episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's merch for your holiday shopping. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks to the Zotov Program's co-founder, co-founder, Mr.


Malatea. You know what product drives them crazy? Chicken of the Sea. He's like, Is that chicken? It's tuna. Typical that a tuna would fib like that. Chicken never would.


Chickens aren't going to lie. Chickens have integrity.


I'm Eric Glass. Back next week with more more stories this American American.


Little birdie, little little birdie.


Makes you fly so high?


I'm just waiting for you to come and take me. I'm just waiting for you to come. When you know that's my truth of.




Is a waiting Next week on the podcast of This American.


American Life, Kendra a dog out for a walk on the beach in Quincy, Massachusetts, not far from her house, walking on the sand. Sand. And then-.


One foot started to really sink. Then I was attempting to pull that foot out, and then my other foot started to sink. I was really sinking quite fast.


Quicksand. Not Not a desert island, but in the neighborhood. Getting yourself out of scrapes when the cavalry is not coming. Next week week the podcast, I'm on your local public radio station.