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Birdland 

Thursday, Jul 22 2010
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The missing-pet flier on a telephone pole in Venice's Walk Street enclave not long ago did not feature an adorable family puppy. Nor an elderly cat.

"Please Help Me Find My Dear Chicken," the headline proclaimed. Underneath was a photograph of a red-and-white-feathered hen, named Melhenny.

"If you see her, keep her safe and please call Jessica immediately."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TIBBY ROTHMAN - Run, chicken, run.

One of Jessica Beeman's two birds was on the lam, and Beeman wasn't even in town.

The fowl had escaped from a coop in Beeman's garden while under the care of chicken sitter Melissa Elizaga, a friend.

Elizaga recalls the moment she discovered the bird was gone. "I was freaking out. I didn't know what to do.

"I was calling her name. Then I thought, 'Do chickens have ears?' "

Elizaga enlisted help from friends.

"'Do you see any feathers?" one asked. "Any sign of carnage?"

"No," Elizaga replied.

"At least we know she didn't get eaten by an animal," the friend said.

That wasn't the kind of reassurance Elizaga was looking for.

As the day wore on, crazy thoughts popped into her head. "What if someone got hungry and saw a chicken?"

Elizaga's boyfriend convinced her to tell Beeman. "What would you want someone to do if they lost Olaf?" he suggested.

Olaf is Elizaga's dog. The comment struck home. "It washed over me," Elizaga says about how much the chicken means to Beeman.

Here the story turns serious.

Beeman had been led to Melhenny when her own life was fragile, as she recuperated from a terrible car wreck. Lying in a hospital bed, the earthy, athletic, wavy-haired blonde who once lived on a boat in Marina del Rey became transfixed by a television show in which chef Jamie Oliver advocated saving so-called battery hens. Prisoners of sloppy cages, the factory-raised creatures are wracked by maladies as their bodies are turned into egg machines. Once past the peak of their egg-laying days, they are slaughtered.

Oliver promoted a rescue movement based in Britain that ferreted out factory farms and purchased birds so they wouldn't be killed. The action also generated culinary rewards. Once saved and well tended, the hens often continued to lay eggs. The chef urged viewers to save a bird.

"Oh, my god, I have to do this," Beeman thought. Released from hospital, she did.

The mission had its challenges. At first, she couldn't find a battery farm. "In the United States they keep it so under wraps," she explains.

Instead of a factory farm, Beeman located a butcher shop in Los Angeles where customers can select a live bird for slaughter. Then she hatched a plan to reverse the paradigm: pick, purchase and leave with two breathing beasts.

"The hardest thing was trying to get [the butcher's staff] to understand that I didn't want them killed," she says.

The freed fowl were named in honor of three friends whom Beeman enlisted to accompany her. "Aurli" for her friend Aurli Bokovza. "Melhenny" blended Melissa Murphy and Lisa Hennessy.

Melhenny rapidly became the favorite. Melhenny was a chicken who could be described as "adorable." She was small with perfect feathers and an innate curiosity.

She arrived at Beeman's having never lived outside a cage, and so accustomed to clinging to bars that neither she nor Aurli understood how to open their claws to walk up the ramp to the wooden coop Beeman purchased for them.

But in Beeman's lushly planted garden, Melhenny began to flourish and, occasionally, when she found a gap in the chicken run, to wander.

"Her world is not big enough," Beeman's gardener, Elias, observed. "She wants to explore." Melhenny the explorer.

Now she was gone.

Elizaga telephoned the news to Beeman, who reacted with silence, then pragmatism.

"Did you check the perimeter?" she asked.

Yes.

So Beeman started to work from afar: She assembled the "lost chicken" flier, e-mailed it to L.A. friends, dispatched them throughout the neighborhood and waited for the phone to ring.

It did. People called who hadn't seen her bird but had seen the flier. "I know what it feels like to miss a chicken," said one caller, a former chicken keeper.

As Beeman's friends continued to tack up fliers, the publisher of a local e-newsletter got word that someone had found a chicken. Walk Street Meanderings publisher Sue Kaplan sent an e-mail alert to the neighborhood about the captured stray.

Just as a friend of Beeman's was putting up one of the last missing-chicken fliers, a car pulled up. The driver had seen Kaplan's alert. It had to be Melhenny.

It was.

Reach the writer at tibbyrothman@verizon.net

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