I don't know any of the people who have been picketing Washington's Arrow Live Poultry Co. in pursuit of "social justice" for chickens, but I'll bet none of them ever tended a henhouse. Only a city-bred person would march in the noonday sun on behalf of chickens .

"Chickens are very sensitive animals," said one of the protesters. "We feel that chickens have personalities, too," said another, who sign bore the legend, "Know who you eat." The group, called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is dedicated to the "issue of animal awareness."

What PETA's protesters should do, if they really want to be aware of chickens, is spend the rest of the summer on a farm feeding, watering, protecting and cleaning up after a flock of them. They will learn to be aware of chickens, by golly, and to be wary of them and beware of them. They will learn to be exasperated with chickens, and mortally tired of chickens, and disgusted with chickens and spiteful of chickens and, probably, afraid of chickens. The members may still be vegetarians when they come dragging home to the city, but I doubt if they'll have any more mean things to say about Colonel Sanders and Pappy Parker and the Arrow Live Poultry Co.

Chickens ranked right up there with Sunday School and truant officers as banes of my boyhood. We kept them -- or I should say they kept us, because just as soon as you turn your back on a chicken, it will droop down and die on you -- for years, and because my big brother had the good sense to run away every chance he got, it fell to me to tend them.

We had Plymouth Rocks, and Rhode Island Reds, and White Leghorns and Bantams, mainly. From time to time, in the vain hope that somewhere in this world there was a chicken that was not dumb and vicious and disease-prone and suicidal, my father would experiment at great expense with such breeds as the Cornish, Buff Orpington, Auracana, Lakenvelder and Crevecoeur.

That last name means "heartbreak," and well I understand the Frenchman who coined it. I picture him as languishing on a hillside in Normandy, with his moustche dripping tears and Calvados as he contemplates, spread out below, a farmyard dotted with the corpses of a hundred chickens. He had watched over them in the brooder, and defended them from the crafty reynards and nursed them through bronchitis and mycoplasmosis and laryngotracheitis and leukosis. In return, they had eaten up his substance, chased his children around the barnyard and, the night before, perhaps because the moon went behind a cloud or a hare squeaked in the hedgerow, had flown into a panic and died.

The only time a chicken won't die is when you want it to. We always had chicken for Sunday dinner, and trnslating the chosen victim into stewing condition was a Saturday afternoon trial. Nobody has enough hands to wring a chicken's neck, and if you chop off the head of one it will run around like a chicken with its head cut off. I remember one that took a bee-line into the woods a hundred yards away. We never did find her. The Arrow Live Poultry Co. folks use electric knives that stun their birds; I would have given my Red Ryder BB gun for such a tool.

A PETA spokesman damns the Arrow people for handling chickens "like furniture" and callously binding the wings and legs of a bird ready for slaughter "in front of all the other chickens. It's horrible," she said.

I would like to see somebody handle a chicken like anything but furniture; take up a chicken tenderly, whether to cure or kill it, and you are going to lose some skin if not an eye.

And far from offending the sensibilities of the chosen bird's sister, it is a satisfaction to the others to see one of their number about to get hers. If there is anything a hen would rather do than go off in a corner and die, it is to back another hen into a corner and kill her. Meanness is a way of life with chickens, and many a morning I found that the bottom hen in the pecking order of our flock had been torn to tatters overnight.

Let PETA's members haul dusty hundred-weight sacks of laying mush, and brooding mash, and cracked corn and crushed stone or oyster shell scratch through the long hot summer for a flock of chickens that peck their hands and legs every time they come within range; let them try to clean the feed and water troughs faster than the hens can foul them; let them get up five or six times a night to find out why the flock is squawking in terror, and how and then deal with the carnage left behind by the skunk in the henhouse that the birds kept quiet about; let them beggar themselves with laboratory tests and antibiotics while the chickens die anyway.

By fall, they will have shifted their affection and concern to more deserving species, like cockroaches and leeches. And they will understand that if God had really wanted to test Job, he would have spared the poor devil's children and his servants, and his crops and his kine, and inflicted him, not with boils, but with chickens.