Chickens Changing Lives with Animal Antiks

Animal-assisted learning and therapy can help those who are struggling.

Chickens Changing Lives with Animal Antiks

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Animal Antiks is a small farm in Buckinghamshire, England, offering educational programs, work experience, and animal therapy. The farm’s chickens are a firm favorite with the young people who attend regularly. They’re studying animal care qualifications and take time out of school to do practical work on the farm.  

People of all ages attend for a wide variety of reasons. Beneficiaries, called “members,” come along to Animal Assisted Therapy sessions if they’re struggling with depression, anxiety, loneliness, or other mental health problems. Physically disabled people go to spend time with the animals. Young and old alike benefit from the interaction and the positive vibes on the farm.  

I meet Sarah Kettlety, the farm’s founder, who started exploring the benefits of Animal Assisted Learning 20 years ago and she’s never looked back. From small beginnings, Animal Antiks now welcomes 50 to 60 people every week for sessions tailored to the members’ individual needs.  

Sarah Kettlety with the alpacas.

Some of the youngsters who attend regularly have difficulties in traditional school settings, while others have autism, chronic anxiety, or behavioral problems. Some have been excluded from school. “We have four school refusers,” says Sarah. “They learn math, English, and computer skills with a private training company, and that’s supplemented with work experience and animal care training on the farm.” 

Sarah shows me the chickens, housed in a very large pen inside the barn. They have a lot of space to run around. There are about 30 hens, and some cautiously approach me, to say “hello.”  

“They came from Fresh Start for Hens,” says Sarah, “a charity that rehomes hens at the end of their commercial lives. We also have one cockerel!” she points him out among his harem. “He was donated by one of our Facebook followers following a social media story about our hens. 

“The hens are scruffy when they first arrive, but we like that,” she says, grinning. “The scruffier the better! It helps our young people to relate to their difficult past. The members feel good about caring for the birds and it’s nice for them to see the hens grow new feathers, gain confidence, and thrive in their care. The hens are popular with all our visitors.” 

The young people on work experience join us in the barn. One young man goes in pursuit of a duck, who’s clearly not very keen! “She doesn’t mind once you’ve got her,” he tells me. Soon he’s holding the duck, who’s resigned to settling down for a cuddle. 

“We use chickens to teach responsibility,” Sarah continues. “The members on work experience take responsibility for two chickens each. The birds have color-coded bands on their legs so that the children know which are their chickens. They then have to find and catch their own chickens so they can do health checks. It’s a life and death experience too because sometimes the chickens die unexpectedly. The youngsters turn up, and if their chicken isn’t there, they have to learn to cope with that. 

“They love collecting and cleaning the eggs,” she continues, “and they paint and clean the coops. We do vegetables on a string as an enrichment activity for the hens and that’s a lot of fun. The hens are quite happy as they get strawberries, grapes, fruit, and vegetables! We give them apple cider vinegar in their water once a month as a tonic, and they enjoy sardines too. 

“We like the idea of giving them a remote-control car with grain in the back to chase, but we’re not quite there yet! We have done chicken agility racing on an obstacle course. The kids and the chickens both loved it.” 

The chicken treatments that the youngsters learn include mite treatments — they treated all coops recently, gutted the coops, sprayed them, dusted the chickens with DE powder, and gave them a DE bath. “The members have full involvement in husbandry and care,” says Sarah. “They’re very good at identifying problems. They look for signs of scraps and molting. They look for any changes in their own animals.” 

I wonder if the hens exhibit a lot of health problems, because of their past as commercial layers in cages. “No. The birds are pretty sturdy and resilient,” says Sarah. “New chickens are nervous when they arrive, but they’re flock animals, and they follow the others — if one goes to have a look at something or someone, they all follow. They get used to things quite quickly. 

Hens in their outdoor pen in the summer.

“They’re in the shed in the winter and outside with the alpacas all summer. We got the alpacas to guard the chickens and they do a great job. The only time we’ve lost chickens to a fox was on the day when we moved the alpacas to another field to give the grass some time to recover.”  

The farm opens to the public occasionally, holding drop-in centers, so that people can come to look around without making a prior booking. “We ask visitors for any comments,” says Sarah. “They often say the chickens are their favorite.”  

Chickens, dogs, donkeys, sheep, alpacas, pigs, and goats all have a role in providing animal care education and therapies. There are stables, where a large horse is ready for grooming. Nearby, there’s a pet rabbit, guinea pigs, a pigsty, and a field of alpacas. “The alpacas go out to nursing homes, in a bid to combat loneliness and isolation,” says Sarah. “It’s the highlight of some people’s week, when the animals come to visit because being in a home can be quite dull.” 

“We also do walks and talks,” she continues. “Groups of people take donkeys, alpacas, sheep, and ponies on a walk around the farm. It helps people suffering from anxiety, depression, and loneliness and the animals help break the ice. People come in very anxious and the walks help them relax, so they’re often keen to come back. 

“Some of the children who come here are in mainstream school but are struggling with anxiety. We try to get them education ready, by building confidence. A day a week on the farm reduces anxiety, gives them a release, and helps them calm down.  

“Sometimes they just go to spend time with the chickens, the rabbits or the guinea pigs. They sit on straw bales and watch the animals. They might groom a pony, or read a book to a sheep. Kids with dyslexia enjoy reading to sheep because it’s a relaxing environment, the sheep are curious and very attentive because they think there might be food around. The child can practice their reading in a non-judgmental atmosphere and their reading levels improve.” 

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Originally published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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