Yellow Chicken House

Chicken Keeping – The good, the bad and the egg-ly!

Saying goodbye to a pet chicken

on March 20, 2016

I recently had to say goodbye to my pet chicken Cookie. I opted to have her put to sleep after a four day blur of progressively grave symptoms and the professional advice of a vet following a diagnosis of egg peritonitis. Keeping chickens as pets has turned out to be a wonderful hobby but death in the flock was always an inevitability for which I suspected I would be emotionally ill-prepared. I watched her little eyes close for the last time and choked back tears of sadness for the fragility of her short life mingled with a sense of gratitude that her 3 years on this earth were spent with me. I realise that to some people, a chicken will never evoke this kind of emotion let alone crying in a public place. Other concerned pet owners in the veterinary surgery waiting room watched on with a mixture of curiosity and pity for the cat they assume is in my blanket-lined pet carrier. Food to most but feathered friends to many, chickens can teach us things we never knew we needed to learn.

To be brutally honest, Cookie was not my favourite hen. In my garden flock of three, she held the top spot in the pecking order and battled her way up despite being the smallest. At times, her sharp warning pecks and threatening glances towards the other chickens alarmed me but I reminded myself that this was nature. She was the first hen I ever held and I was captivated by her little chipped beak and searching glare. She vocalised her frustrations with a high-pitched, drawn out squeak which implied a sense of vulnerability when for the most part, she was a tough little cookie who took no nonsense. She would furiously peck the back door to be let in, at which point she would barge head first for the cat bowl and destroy the leftovers. My partner would spot her and start ushering her out while she clucked indignantly, cursing him for thwarting her carefully laid plans. My other two chickens have always needed me in a way that Cookie didn’t. Speckledy has needed to be coaxed out of her broodiness and has endured several painful moults which left her nearly completely bald at times. Shelley has endured respiratory illness, lash eggs and a persistent dirty bottom which has led to frequent baths and blow-drys. Cookie, on the other hand, has always been just fine. Cookie dedicated her life to proving how strong and dominant she was, which is why I found her decline so hard to accept.

Chicken in the garden

Beautiful Cookie at her best.

The first sign was a change in her personality. I took the girls a treat of chilled cucumber on a warm afternoon and held it out to them in a tempting gesture before lowering it to the ground. Ordinarily, Cookie would hop up and down to compensate for her small stature alongside the other bigger hens but on that day she stood at the back, feigning an interest but lacking her usual characteristic impatience. I watched her closely from that point onward and noticed the onset of reduced appetite, lethargy, diarrhea, floppy comb and a very swollen abdomen. She had exhibited similar milder symptoms in January so I had taken her to the vet and given her antibiotics which resulted in an immediate improvement. Minimum fuss: typical Cookie. I assumed that this occasion would be the same and retraced my steps to the vet who gave her an anti-inflammatory injection and a course of antibiotics. I returned home and administered the medicine, expecting the same fast recovery…but it was not to be. In the space of two short days she progressed through several increasingly distressing stages of decline.

An hour before what would become her final trip to the vet, I lifted her from the nest where she was sitting and placed her on my lap and we sat in the late afternoon sunshine. I stroked her feathers and offered her favourite treat – a lump of chilled cucumber with the skin peeled off. She looked at it then looked up at me slowly, her pupils wildly expanding and contracting and her emaciated body occasionally twitching, then simply bowed her head. Despite my best efforts, I had been unable to get her to eat or drink that day. She lowered her head and allowed it to go limp on my arm and I cried, knowing that this must be it and yet not wanting to accept that there was nothing I could do.

The following hour passed by in a blur. Words such as ‘euthanasia’, ‘kindest thing to do’ and ‘it’s just a matter of time’ swirled around the room and I found myself experiencing a vivid daydream of taking Cookie home, waking up the next morning and seeing her bursting beak-first out of the chicken house after a miraculous overnight recovery. Then I remembered where I was and realised that the vet was looking at me sympathetically, awaiting my answer to the question no pet owner wants to be asked. I mumbled something about never having done this before. Being the emotional wreck that I generally am, I returned home to seek the support of my partner who accompanied me back to the vet for the final moments. Afterwards, we wandered out into reception and waited to pay. I opened my purse and took out a credit card. The staff browsed the computer to find the price of a chicken cremation but couldn’t find it. “Just put it through as cat cremation” offered one, reasoning that it was a small animal. I stood numbly, listening to them and wondering why chickens don’t have their own cremation category on the computer. Do people not often bring their chickens to be put to sleep? I pushed my card into the machine, mumbling something about how I was sorry for being so upset. The member of staff reassured me that it was surprising what people got attached to, even animals as small as gerbils.

I have always known that human beings are selective in their love for animals but I have never been able to understand why a cat is valued more highly than a chicken. Why do people eat chicken but shudder at the idea of eating a cat? Both are sentient beings and can fulfil the role of a loving pet. Earlier, I had been approached by a concerned old man in the vet’s waiting area who asked me if I was okay and “is that your cat?” I replied that it was my chicken and he chuckled and shook his head. Why did his concern evaporate when he realised that the poorly animal was a chicken?

When Cookie was randomly chosen from a crowd of other hens, she could not have comprehended the life of love and comfort that she was destined for. Her slight appearance and chipped beak didn’t hold her back; she fought her way to the top of the pecking order by sheer brute force. But in her final days, all she wanted was a warm lap to snuggle into and a comforting hand to stroke her feathers. I am often asked why I care about chickens so much and why I invest so much time and effort into my girls’ happiness and the answer is simple. Chickens collectively give so much to humans without consent or understanding and yet require so little in return for their own happiness. There are supposedly 19 billion chickens on Earth but the welfare of many commercial birds in the meat and egg-laying industry is disappointingly low. The British Hen Welfare Trust highlights the plight of hens in the egg industry, namely that ‘farmers respond to consumer demand and for decades consumers have put cost above welfare, which has led to 16 million hens laying cheap eggs for us in their tiny cages.’ (http://www.bhwt.org.uk/egg-industry/) I don’t believe that any animal should suffer so that humans can save a few pennies off their weekly shop.

pet chicken died

Goodbye Cookie

Chickens are misunderstood by most, often disregarded as a food product or egg-laying machine which becomes disposable the moment the eggs stop coming. I’ve marveled at the way chickens live for the moment with a boundless enthusiasm for the simplest of things. I have watched them squeal with delight at the sight of me approaching them with a handful of treats and I wonder how these little sensitive creatures can be so under-appreciated. Cookie’s life may be over but her time on this Earth was filled with love and affection.

She had the kind of life that all chickens deserve to have.

Fly high little hen, you will be missed.

 

 

 

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2 responses to “Saying goodbye to a pet chicken

  1. croeyre says:

    I had to say goodbye to my first hen last night. She was one of a pair if ex-batts I re-homed last summer. Her name was Moja. She was very bald and thin when I got her but was so brave and inquisitive. Seing their transformation with fluffy knickered garden hens was so wonderful, especially to a clueless newbie hen keeper like me. However I didn’t understand how thin they could get under all those fluffy feathers and by the time I really took on board how quiet and withdrawn she was being in the past couple of weeks it was probably too late. I wish I had understood sooner. She had sour crop and some hard lumps in her abdomen. So today I await the call to collect her ashes which I will spread around the garden where she spent 10 happy months of freedom. Her friend Doris, my one remaining is visibly stressed at not being able to find her friend today which is heartbreaking. They were inseparable. So I have already booked tow more ex-battery girls this weekend so she can teach them the ropes and not be lonely. Someone once said to me, “a garden without chickens is like a play without actors” and I couldn’t agree more!

    • It’s lovely that you gave her love and a taste of freedom. Hens are extremely good at hiding illness no matter how vigilant we are. The vet that recently treated my hen said that they can be victims of their own stoicism, too proud to show us they’re ill until it’s too late. I hope Doris is doing well – is she getting on with her new companions?

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