The Chicken Rescuer

People devote their lives to all sorts of things, the great, the terrible, and the pointless. Somewhere on this spectrum, but clearly with a little bit of greatness in him, is Paulo Maia, the Rio de Janeiro man whose life’s work is trying to rescue the animals, the vast majority of them chickens, whose lives are offered up in bloody and often brutal Santeria rituals:

Three chickens were already fighting for their lives on the back seat of his car when environmentalist Paulo Maia got the new call. He heard the story and rushed towards the site of the Petrobras (Brazil’s state-owned oil company) building, in Downtown Rio. For the bird that lay there waiting in suffering, each minute lost that early morning of august was like taking another step towards an abyss.

“She was agonizing and surrounded by black candles inside a shallow earthen bowl in front of the building’s garage entrance”, Maia recalls. “It was a horrible sight. The legs had been broken. The eyes, stabbed with needles. And the eyelids, shut with superglue.” When he grabbed the chicken – a white egg-laying hen –, he noticed the animal had two pieces of fabric tied to its body. On one of them, a black cloth, the name “Pedro” was written. On the other rag, a red one, had the last name “Parente” was written.

Pedro Parente, the economist who was recently appointed by Michel Temer’s government to be in charge of the enfeebled state-owned company. “They wrote the guy’s name using human blood”, he went on. “If I were him, I’d hire private security. People who go down to that level are willing to do anything.”

Paulo Maia is 52 and head of SOS Birds and Company (“SOS Aves e Companhia”, in Portuguese): for the past six years he has devoted himself to rescuing the animals that are used as sacrifice in religious rituals. “People call my car “Noah’s Ark”, he says with pride. “I’ve had goats, lambs and many chickens travelling inside my car. I’ve had every kind of animal, except the elephant.” In order to justify his actions, he evokes Federal Law number 9,605, from 1998, which prohibits the mistreating of animals. “I don’t have anything against those who practice Santeria and voodoo, but an animal sacrifice at a crossroads is not religion. It is a crime, and crime should be fought.”

Slim, gray-haired and vegetarian, Maia felt the urge to become an environmentalist at an early age, when he was only a child and opened a bird cage that belonged to a friend of his father’s, setting free a flock of rare birds (he later got punished for that). At the age of 17, he lived in the Amazon, where he worked with activist Chico Mendes in his struggle for the preservation of the Amazon River dolphin. When he came back to Rio, he studied Journalism. After that, he set up a PR firm, but he never lost his connection with environmental causes. In 2010, he became the head of the NGO that specializes in the rescue of both wild and domestic animals.

That same year, he saw a goat covered in blood at a crossroads on the way to the city of Petrópolis. “I, my wife and my daughter were going to a wedding in formal attire. I pulled over, kick the shallow earthen bowl, removed the stake that was piercing the goat’s neck, and closed the wound with some gauze.” He placed the dying animal on the backseat of his car – next to his daughter – and drove to the NGO’s shelter, in the city of Saquarema, on the state of Rio’s coast. The goat survived and was later named Francisco. The trip to the wedding was cancelled.

After realizing that cases like the one of the goat Francisco were recurrent, Maia decided to create the Sacred Animal (Bicho Sagrado, in Portuguese) Project, which aims to rescue animals that are tortured with religious purposes. “I faced a lot of resistance at first”, he told, recalling that many people refused to help him because they feared the consequences of disturbing Santeria offerings. In order to make people overcome their superstition, he would repeat a mantra to those interested in collaborating: “Don’t think of it as Santeria. Think that you are saving an animal.” Nowadays, the NGO counts with 22 thousand volunteers scattered throughout the state of Rio, and it survives from donations.

On that early morning on Sunday, Maia had already rescued three chickens: one in Saint John the Baptist Cemetery, in the Rio neighborhood of Botafogo; one in the neighborhood of Del Castilho, further north; and another one in Duque de Caxias, a city close to Rio. He was driving to the NGO’s shelter when he heard of the hen in front of the Petrobras building.

Once he got there, he acted quickly. “I always carry a first aid kit in the car. A soon as I grabbed the animal, I gave it an antibiotics shot. After that, I massaged its heart and gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at least fifteen times.” He concluded the bird was part of a black magic ritual because of the violence inflicted on it. “This animal agonized for hours so that the man whose name was written on the pieces of cloth would agonize for hours as well.”

Taken to the shelter, the chicken spent a week in an incubator until her active medical treatment came to an end. After that, she was placed in a 1 meter square room, protected from other animals, with as much food as she could eat and a little spot to sun bathe. “It’s a sort of semi-intensive care unit”, Maia explained. Soon, the bird will join the other 150 chickens, roosters, ducks and Muscovy ducks that the group has rescued. Two of the three chickens rescued that night did not make it.

“The Petrobras chicken was really lucky”, said the environmentalist. “The volunteer had the bravery of calling me, I was close by, I still had antibiotics in the car, and got to the shelter in time to save it.” He believes the animal will recover, even though it will be blind and with limited mobility. The pins were removed from the eyes, but the eyelids remain glued shut, and there’s no way to put a cast on the broken legs. “In the shelter we have chickens without wings, monkeys without arms. We have here a female marmoset that had three limbs amputated, and even then she became pregnant. While there are lives to be saved, we’ll keep fighting.”

The bird wasn’t given a name: “I heard that Pedro Parente wishes to speak to me, but I still haven’t found the time to call him.” When he does, he hopes that the Petrobras president himself will choose a name for the bird: “This chicken has something special. It shouldn’t have survived, but it did. I’ve never seen anything quite like that…”

Roberto Kaz Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard.