The Chicken Chronicles, Part 3
It never occurred to me that the pool was a danger. Grandma Ruby cautioned me about the four-foot fence (“Oh, they’ll be able to get over that pretty soon,” she said on her first visit), but I hadn’t been very concerned. We had a six foot fence around the yard and secured the chickens in their coop each night. Besides, Grandma Ruby’s chickens ranged her yard freely among her young cat Tweety, two miniature poodles, and various neighborhood felines (her ninety-some-year-old neighbor next door had thirteen). The only problems she’d had came from a marauding raccoon who killed a rooster the year before, and a time years earlier when some obviously psychotic teenage boys abducted and murdered another.
We had our own pet carnivores, but I’d never seen our cat, Merlin, a seventeen-year-old bag o’ bones Siamese, hunt for anything other than a good place to nap. He showed absolutely no recognition that a flock of chickens had invaded his turf. Our fourteen-year-old black Labrador Retriever, Cato, was not only a creampuff, but he’d been blind in one eye since age two (he was kicked by a horse), and was now nearly blind in the other from a cataract. He sometimes stood at the chicken fence, on now unsteady legs, and barked a few times, tail wagging. I imagined he saw blurs of chickens and surely smelled them, and was making the canine assertion that he had some authority around here yet. Our only potential problem was Alice, the one-and-half-year-old Dalmatian we adopted the summer before. A spotted hell-on-four-paws–she was my outlaw shrub pruner the winter before–we nonetheless adored her. Alice menaced an injured wild bird early that spring, but only by bouncing around and barking, she never tried to hurt it. Knowing her potential for frolicking destruction, however, I kept close tabs on her.
When Andy came home from work I told him about the ordeal we’d been through and that we had to build a covered run the next day, on Saturday. After a morning of almost non-stop nagging on my part, we started the project. It took us only about three hours of constant bickering to put it together. I mixed the concrete for the fence posts and stapled the chicken wire, and Andy cut and assembled the posts and rails.
The very next Saturday Alice dug under the run. The chickens escaped and again I ran around, heart racing, hunting and gathering. This time I found only three.
The other Sebright was missing, as was Zelda, the female Silkie. Finding evidence of Alice’s digging at the wire fence surrounding the vegetable garden, right next to the chicken shack, I investigated there. Sitting very still in a patch of grass was the Sebright. I took him into the house and examined him, discovering some minor scratches under a wing and a scrape on the lower right leg. He had apparently injured himself trying to escape Alice by squeezing under a low spot in the fence. Vehicle-less, I phoned our veterinarian. Dr. Westrich. He told me that if I couldn’t come in I should clean the wounds with hydrogen peroxide, keep the bird in a quiet place, and watch him. He also said that if the other one hadn’t been found yet it probably meant that she wouldn’t be found alive.
I made a box for the male Sebright named Suzie in the girl’s playroom and went to search for Zelda again. I found her immediately–alive and well! She had been hiding out on the other side of the enclosed run, between it and a bale of straw. I spotted her as she ventured out into the open, peeping frantically to her coop-mates on the other side. I quietly thanked whoever was in charge of her safety for having mercy on me as well.
Early the next morning I found the Sebright hopping around his box. I picked him up for a minute and murmured consolingly to him, and when I left he made loud, distressed peeps. I comforted him again, and again he cried out when I left. The third time I went in he was perched on top of the box on his good leg. Maybe he would be okay outside with his buddies, I thought, it was apparent he would be miserable inside alone. In the chicken shack, his brothers and sister, noisy and excited, gathered around him, but he was hopping around so pitifully I changed my mind about leaving him. He needed rest. As I walked away from the other chickens with Suzie pressed against my breast, he began to protest–loudly and incessantly. With a nagging conscience, I returned him to his flock.
The next couple of days he seemed to be okay except for the leg–I could tell it was causing him pain. As the other chickens filed out of the coop into the garden to scratch for bugs and eat young weeds he protested loudly, then reluctantly hopped along behind them. Otherwise he ate, drank, and rested normally. I checked twice daily for signs of infection and found none.
On the third day I noticed the bottom of his injured leg was swollen. I called Dr. Westrich. Although he didn’t treat birds, he agreed to check him out that afternoon. I figured the bird’s leg was infected and that it would be drained, and the doctor would put him on antibiotics. I wasn’t really worried, and thought it would be an educational experience for the girls.
Christiana, a friend of the girls’, was spending the day with us and her mother said she could come along. As I carried the basket holding Suzie into the veterinarian’s office, three little girls dressed up in tea party clothes–long colorful dresses, shawls, rhinestone jewelry and parasols–traipsed behind me. In the examining room, we gathered around Dr. Westrich as he gently lifted the bird from the basket, speaking to him softly and reassuringly.
He examined him for only a few moments before pointing out the area above the swelling. “Do you see here, where the leg bends?” he said. “If you compare it with the other leg, you can see it shouldn’t do that. It’s broken.”
My heart sank.
“And his foot doesn’t have the healthy pink color that the other has. That shows that the area is not getting circulation.”
“So it’s getting gangrene?” I asked, completely horrified.
“It looks like that’s probably what’s happening.”
I asked if it could be amputated, and he said he thought it could. He told me he thought the chicken would eventually be able to get around like other animal amputees, but that he didn’t do surgery on birds. He said he’d call a doctor he knew, see what he thought, and try to set up an appointment.
The children had been silently taking in the unfolding drama. Zora now spoke. “Do we have to watch the other doctor do that?”
“God no!” I blurted.
The doctor, father of six grown children of his own, smiled at me sympathetically.
We waited at the front desk. After a few minutes Dr. Westrich came back out and carefully explained, “I spoke with Dr. Abernathy. He said that in the case of amputations, the birds eventually develop a disease, an arthritic condition in the other leg, that ultimately debilitates them.”
“So there’s nothing that can be done?” I asked tearfully.
“You could go ahead with the amputation,” he said, “ but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“We’d be putting off the inevitable . . .” I paused, trying to find an escape route from reality. “Are you sure it would be the same for him, since he’s a miniature chicken? They only weigh about a fourth as much as a regular-sized bird.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I can’t imagine putting him through more than I already have.”
“We can euthanize him here.”
“I think that would probably be best.” I looked over at the girls chatting happily near the waiting room’s aquarium. I felt dread, devastation, and a large measure of self-loathing.
“You can use the examining room to talk to them,” Dr. Westrich said quietly.
Trying hard to hold on to what little composure I felt I had left, I called the girls back into the examining room. Crouched before them, tears brimming, I told them what had to be done.
Zora, in a consoling tone I’d never heard her use before said, “Okay, Mom.”
Lily’s eyes filled with tears for a few moments before asking, “Are we going to bury him next to Jessica?”
It felt like I was co-starring in the absolute worst, most melodramatic soap opera of all time–and I could not escape–the scene had to play out. We went to say our good-byes to Suzie. Before taking him away, the doctor asked if we wanted the body to take home, or if they should dispose of it.
“Please do it here,” I said. I knew I was copping out. The girls could probably handle it, but I could not. Not two pet burials in as many weeks, even if they were “just” chickens.
The doctor brought back the basket and left the room to begin the euthanasia. Taking out my checkbook and pen, I asked the receptionist how much the bill came to.
“The doctor says there’s no charge.”
“You can’t be serious. I have to pay you.”
“He said not to charge you.” She smiled. “So don’t worry about it.”
When I got home I found I had to make a decision. On one hand, I could not bear any more tragedies. If anything else happened, the chicken experiment was officially over. And I meant it. We were down to four chickens and three were male. And I wasn’t sure how long we’d be keeping them. After a summer of work and dreams we had one hen. On the other hand, we’d gone this far; we’d built the covered run, I’d now laid cement blocks around the parameter so the damn dog (I’d cursed her bitterly when we returned home that day) couldn’t dig under it. I had nearly twenty-five pounds of feed, plus all the poultry paraphernalia—waterers and feeders, vitamins, a wire cage. The girls had bonded with their favorites, who were luckily still alive, and we’d taken a lot of pictures, documenting our “fun,” including some wonderful ones of the girls holding the birds while wearing their tea-party clothes. I decided I’d give it one more try. But to make it worthwhile, I needed to find a few replacement hens.