Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The death of the $180 chicken

Last week when I went down to the basement to check on my livestock, one of my chickens was curled in a little ball and huddled as if trying to get warm. This is not normal chicken behavior. When I reached in and put their food down, the chicken only moved slightly and then she didn’t try and escape as I cupped her tiny frail body in my hand and lifted her out. In fact she tucked her head into my hand and sort of snuggled up to me. Definitely not chicken behavior, so I brought her upstairs, wrapped her in a dishtowel so warmth in my lap and sat down at the computer.

Lethargic chickens — the internet is overwhelming with it’s helpful suggestions: lice, injury, birth defect, coccidiosis (no diarrhea so we probably are safe there), worms, botulism, cancer, bacterial infection, egg bound (too young for that), crop impaction (nope, that I could check) arrrrrggghhh, I don’t know, I don’t know. They also say that most chicks that get sick don’t recover, but I don’t want to hear that.
So off to the vet we go. At this point you must know that I have failed as a farmer. I know that there is nothing as silly as taking a chicken to the vet, but this chicken is another living, breathing, sentient creature and it’s unhappy. And I just can’t deal with that. I’m a girl who will scream at the little mouse on the PBS nature program to,  "Look out, behind you, it's the cobra!" I loathe the deer that destroy my garden, but was thrilled when my husband found a desperately weak and sickly fawn and took it to the wildlife rehabilitation center. I cried hysterically when someone sent me a link to a video of a tiny white dog that appeared vicious and was going to be put down but was just and needed a hug. Sobbed. I can’t ignore animals in distress, so off to the vet we go.

My regular vet has said they don’t do chickens, but has recommended another around the corner. The chicken, Eeny, I am toting around in a red and white Igloo lunch cooler since I don’t have a spare cardboard box or a small enough pet carrier, and the vet’s assistant gives me a little bit of a hairy eyeball stare when I place it on the counter.  Soon enough however, Eeny Patterson is in with the doctor. $90 dollars later Eeny has received subcutaneous fluids and an inconclusive diagnosis. It’s not the vet’s fault, there are no obvious telltale symptoms, no sneezing, no mucous, no running eyes, no diarrhea, no swelling, no punctures, no breaks, no signs of infection, no compaction of the crop — no real leads. However, he does add that he’s not a chicken specialist, and that he could recommend someone locally who is.

I wish he had told me that before the $90 bill, but I did rush over with my chicken instead of waiting for the doctor to get to the office and call me first.  So it’s my own, anxious, fault. Besides I’m game, I mean once you spend $90 on a pet chicken, and you still don’t have an answer, you go the next step right? So we make the appointment that has to be late in the afternoon.

I’m bummed, and frankly Eeny is tired of driving around in the car and I have to go to work for a while (to pay for all these chicken bills) so Eeny got to hang out in her cooler in the warmest office at the nursery with Cathy who takes care of the nurseries chickens. I was also hoping she might have an idea about Eeny’s issues, but she’s stumped too.  I have a meeting, I talk plants for a while, and I explain to everyone at work that yes, I know, for ninety bucks I can buy a whole bunch of chickens, but I have a suffering creature in my care and I can’t just let it suffer without trying to help.

We have an appointment with the second vet at 4:30, but again, I’m an anxious gal, I thought the fluids would have perked Eeny up a little more, but he’s still just curled up in a ball, so I call and ask if we can come earlier and for thirty additional dollars I can call Eeny’s situation an emergency arrive whenever I want. So off we go to the second vet.

Dr. Grosjean is quite lovely, but he too has no specific answer. More subcutaneous fluids, some antibiotics and instructions on how to force feed Eeny, that’s what we leave with after another $90 bill. I was really hoping for a diagnosis, I wanted a problem we could fix, but we’re just sort of shot gunning Eeny’s treatment instead as the answer is, no one really knows.

When I bring Eeny home my husband is lovely and doesn’t point of that for $180 we could have bought over 100 new chickens and instead volunteers to help me force feed Eeny the baby food the vet recommended I try. I’ll have you know I stood in King Kullen and obsessed over which food to feed her, but finally settled on organic sweet potato and apricot with a switch up with some cranberry applesauce I made this fall. I demonstrate the technique of forcing a chicken to open it’s beak and Eeny shows a surprising amount of resistance for a chicken in distress, I can only imagine that someone shoving a syringe in your mouth and forcing liquids and baby food into your beak is not a pleasant situation. The doggies can’t believe there’s a chicken in the living room, but I have to keep Eeny separated from the other chickens, so he stays in her Igloo swing topped lunch cooler but is placed high on top of a cupboard where he’ll be warm and out of cat jumping height.  Hugo, the largest dachshund keeps wandering to the base of the cupboard and sighing – if he could talk it’s very easy to understand what he’d say. “Mommy, listen, listen, listen, if you could just get that box down there’s a chicken in there who really needs to be kissed a little, no really, listen, listen, listen, up there, it’s a chicken, and I know this sounds crazy but most chickens really like to be licked. I promise.”

Over the next five days the dogs whine and cry when I feed Eeny twice a day at the kitchen table. My husband takes over for me the day I drive up to Boston but I come home that same night due to concern over Eeny. Regardless of all our efforts, there really is no change. Eeny is not getting better. The other chickens in the basement show no signs of any similar issues, so perhaps it is something inherent in the way Eeny is built. This is something Dr. Grosjean tried to explain to me, telling me sometime birds will fail to cohere as they mature. I don’t understand how a creature could get so far along in the process of becoming and then fall apart, but then there is much in the world I don’t understand. All I know is that I hold Eeny as often as I can and I feel the heartbeat in the base of my hand as I cup the small chicken close to my body for warmth.

When Eeny dies, it is not an easy passing. It involves death throes and flailing and vomit and a contorted body position that makes me wonder why such pain and fear is necessary. It makes me understand why death is sometime seen as scary. No gentle passing in her sleep for my chicken, which off course makes me terribly sad. I wrap her in a paper towel and bury her in a part of the garden where I will not exhume her by mistake in the coming months and years, and I think of something to say but fail.

When he gets the text that says Eeny has died, my husband tells me it’s for the best and that it’s better that the chicken is no longer suffering and I know what he says is true. I however had wanted a miracle, I wanted the storybook ending, and I’m crushed that it didn’t happen. 

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