I first began hearing about Covid-19 in february. In the beginning, it was this thing that was only in china and then italy. There wasn’t a sense of panic at that time. We didn’t have a widespread belief that it was coming here. But then, they brought all these americans with covid-19 from china over to the military base one city away from us and things got real. People were traveling from the base into the community and back and the public began to feel uneasy about the likelihood of spreading the disease. Then, they released people from the base into the community after they had tested negative only to realize the result was a false negative and they had actually released infected individuals who were actively contagious into the community. They shut down the mall for decontamination and began the process of notifying all who might have been exposed by the individuals that were released to go shopping only to test positive later. Meanwhile, people in healthcare were asking questions. My coworkers and i wanted to know how we were moving forward in facing this threat. All the personal protective equipment we would normally need to face this threat was on back order until the following winter; almost a year. There were no masks, gloves, bleach wipes, or suits for facilities to purchase for their workers, and we didn’t have any set aside for such an occasion. I felt a pang of resentment as i realized that civilians were holed up in their garages with all the bleach wipes, masks, and gloves ordered from amazon while the healthcare workers that would definitely be coming into contact with infected individuals had none. Eventually when those individuals became infected the healthcare personnel would have to treat them, without the supplies that were still in the civilians garages. I tried not to be resentful but it was hard when i looked at what we were doing as a country. We were not pulling together. We were screaming “every man for himself” and running into our hidey holes. I was not proud.
I bought chickens for one reason. I knew there was a good chance i was going to die. When all of this started they put stakes in the ground outside of every nursing home and hospital and hung banners that said “heroes work here”, as if we had a choice but to face what was coming. There’s a thing that exists called “patient abandonment” and you can’t do it. None of us had a choice in the matter. It wasn’t a decision to stay. It was a duty. In Spain there was a story in the papers about a nursing home where a great number of patients tested positive for Covid-19 and the employees jumped ship and left them by themselves. We have laws in place here that prevent that from happening. We will stay and care for these patients to the bitter end, or die trying. So, with no ppe in stock to protect us and orders not to wear ppe until there were active cases because preventative measures might scare the patients and their families, we were not so much heroes as a necessary sacrifice. Our lives were not deemed important or valuable enough to allow us to wear masks before the beast was squarely in our lap. It would be the equivalent of sending soldiers to war without guns holding only radios with the instruction to notify superiors when the gunfire began and helicopters would parachute in ammunition and guns that the soldiers could then use to fire on the enemy. By then, it would be too late. Though i was disappointed in many policies in place and the amount of supplies available to us as healthcare professionals, there was little i could do, if anything, to change the situation. I had to come to terms with the fact that i was marching into battle with a radio and i was likely going to die or at least be very wounded before guns would arrive from the sky. It was a lonely time for me. I knew i was in mortal danger but i couldn’t get anyone to believe me. At that time, people still thought the medical profession was going to pull something out of thin air and have supplies, work miracles, and maybe the virus would just go away and die out with the arrival of warmer temperatures. We were America. Things like this happened to other countries but, not us. I knew what i knew long before everybody else drew the conclusions. I was 31 and i wondered if i was going to die. There were so many things i hadn’t done. I hadn’t started a garden. I hadn’t gotten to see my trees get old enough to bear fruit. I hadn’t raised chickens, kune kune pigs, or erected a shed in the yard specific for floor to ceiling shelving so that i could have my own personalized library of my favorite books. I hadn’t experienced what it was to grow gray hairs and see a different person looking back at me in the mirror. I didn’t know what it was like to be “middle-aged” or “wise and gray”. I hadn’t planted berries or grape vines. I hadn’t gone fishing. I hadn’t finished my patchwork quilt or the scarf i was knitting. I hadn’t finished my mostly empty leather book where i recorded all the wise sayings i encountered in life. I hadn’t listened to all the sermons i wanted to hear, understood all the things i wanted to come to know about this realm, done everything there was to do, or broadened my understanding of existence. I felt unfinished. I wasn’t ready to go, but i knew what i was as a united states healthcare worker standing there in February; a necessary sacrifice. If there was anything left undone that i wanted to do, i had better do it.
I walked into the tractor supply store in town looking for a dog collar. I left with 6 buff orpington chicks.
I don’t know how to describe my relationship with chickens. I’d never had chickens. I’d never held one or had any experience with them. I just always knew i’d love them. I was allergic to chicken eggs and couldn’t digest the meat but having chickens was something i’d wanted to do since i was a little girl. I always knew that i would love chickens, and i was right.
There wasn’t anything i wouldn’t do for these birds. They were so small, so precious, and so peculiar with their jerky movements and dinosaur-like feet. I loved them immensely. They were a nightly escape from the world of danger i had come to know.
The tractor supply store was not very helpful for a first time chicken buyer. If i had possessed half a brain i would have noted that the giant shed next to the local feed store outside of town near my house was full of chickens, which they sold; in better health and with more expertise and certainly customer service. But at the time, to me, it was just a shed next to something that looked like a warehouse. So i bought the chicks at tractor supply. I asked them to make me a list of supplies needed for my new chicks. They made me this list, “food, food container, water container, heat lamp, heat lamp holder”. I started filling in the blanks. I knew i would need a container to keep them in. They said, “Oh we’re all out of brooders”. I asked, “What should i put them in?” The guy shrugged his shoulders, “i dunno.” I solved the problem myself. I bought a feed bucket for horses. Maybe they’d fit in there. Then, they’d need something to absorb their waste. I gathered i’d need wood shavings. I found packets of electrolytes and probiotics for the water. The guy said, “oh yeah, if you get some of these your chicks will be more likely to survive”. It wasn’t until i got home that i realized i needed a thermometer to gage how far away the heat lamp should be from the bottom of the feed bucket to keep the chicks at the optimal temperature. I called the tractor supply store to see how much one would cost. The person on the line said, “yeah, no, we’re out of thermometers ma’am”. This has been a running theme for me through the past three years of interaction with this particular tractor supply store. They are typically out of a lot of things, they always point in a general direction or shrug their shoulders when you ask them to show you where something is, and they are usually not very positive or happy to see the customers. I wasn’t sure what to do so i did the only thing i could do. I put the oven thermometer into the chicken container and used it to gage how far away the heat lamp should be clamped from my little chickies to keep them from frying or freezing.
I soon realized the chicks needed more room to spread out and run around, so i moved them into my bathtub.
Every time they cheeped loudly i knew they were too cold and worse, when they began silently panting (for who knows how long before i noticed) i knew they were too hot. I ran back and forth and back and forth all day to move the lamp closer and farther based on their cries until my friend said, “you know most of us just make the chicks an area of shade in there so they can do the back and forth thing themselves.” Genius, cuz i was exhausted and not getting much else done.
On this particular day i realized two things. 1. Chickens can fly 2. My Australian Shepherd eats chickens. Now we have a lid.
The guilty party and my makeshift baby gate that my aussie would stand in front of for hours licking her lips in a very non subtle manner which annoyed me to no end.
Eventually i realized the tractor supply store had done me a disservice when i had inquired about buying a container to house the chicks and they had answered “we are all out of brooders” because upon further research, it wasn’t a brooder i had been asking for. I was trying to buy a container identical to the ones they had used to house the chicks in the store, which i knew they had because they were using them in the middle of the store. when i inquired as to what kind of container it was they answered “those are stock tanks. You put water in em and set em out for cows.” I said, “i want one of those.” They said, “okay.” And that was that. I sighed. It seemed like buying anything at the tractor supply store was more like going to ikea than the home depot. No employees in sight, everything in a different language, you had better know what you are looking for when you go in, and you might get irreparably lost before the end. I bought a stock tank, put it in the suv, and hauled it home. I cut a piece of wire fencing as the lid and transferred the chicks over. They fit much better in the stock tank and finally had real room to move around. Meanwhile, i lost a bathroom and had to sit sideways to use the toilet with the stock tank lid poking into my ribs. I propped a little walmart mirror against a wooden box in the kitchen and used the sink in there to brush my teeth at night.
I named the chicks rosie, daisy, petunia, lily, buttercup, and iris.
After a while i noticed one of the chicks was not growing like the others. It remained smaller, visited the feeder less often, and was making runny poos. It slept often and appeared lethargic while the others were active and vocal. The others wouldn’t allow it to sit or stand near them and when it began hanging its head and falling asleep they decided something was wrong with it and began to peck at it. It was iris, the littlest chick. I thought about going to the tractor supply store but it was a 30 minute drive and i wouldn’t make it before they closed. I called a veterinarian and a friend of mine for advice. Both of them said the same thing. Some chicks live, some die. Let nature take its course. I just couldn’t. I don’t know why.
Something in me said “you need this one to live.” I knew there were more chicks at the store. In theory it was easily replaceable. However, i was for some reason really invested in keeping this chick alive. The others were pecking it quite often now so i had to keep it separated from its siblings, but i only had one heat lamp and one mounted surface to hang it from near an outlet. So, iris had to be kept against my chest in my shirt for warmth. I put her down for food and water periodically throughout the day but for the most part she lived against my chest. I googled chick suppliers near my zip code and was surprised to find that the feed store up the road sold chickens and chicken supplies year round. The vet had told me to make sure the chick was receiving medicated food. It wasn’t. None of them were. So i went to the feed store in search of medicated food. The young man there offered me something better; medicine. They kept it on hand to treat their chicks when they fell ill. So, they sold me a couple doses. I will always be grateful to them for helping me save my favorite chick.
Iris lived in my shirt for a couple days. The antibiotics made her sleepy. She was even more lethargic than before. For all intensive purposes, to her siblings she looked dead, or close to it. They set upon her like rabid dogs on a corpse and it became clear that she would be my charge until the antibiotics were over. Otherwise, her siblings would certainly peck her to death. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to put a syringe in a soft new chick’s tiny fragile beak but its really hard to do without hurting them. They don’t typically say “ah” on cue. Just cuz i wanted to give her medicine did not mean she wanted to eat it. It was the most nerve racking business, trying to get the oily liquid in her tummy and not her lungs. She would twist her head and thrash around last minute as i attempted to dispense only the amount recommended from the syringe, sending the medicine into her nostrils, down the side of her face, all over my hand and shirt and the car. I used the corners of napkins to soak it out of her nostrils and wipe it off her head. We probably only got half of the medicine in her stomach and i was terrified of giving her aspiration pneumonia.
For two days she lived in my shirt where she drew warmth from my skin while i administered a daily dose of antibiotics and set her down for food and water breaks. She scratched the dickens out of the skin on my chest but it was worth it to keep her alive. Her little clawed feet moved even in her sleep. She rested comfortably against my skin and when she wasnt sleeping she would look up at me. I would make this noise like bubbles popping with my lips. She seemed to recognize the noise and associate it with warmth. I did all my chores one handed while holding this chick in my shirt for two days. I cooked and i even went to the bathroom while holding this chick. It really gave me an appreciation for what my stroke patients are going through when I’m trying to teach them hemi techniques and they’re super frustrated. It also gave me a resolve not to let them give up because though it was frustrating, i did it.
The medicine clumped the fluff on the side of iris’s head, exposing the soft pink flesh underneath. No matter what i did i couldn’t comb it into fluff again. Her siblings attempted with great fervor to peck her to death in this spot on her head every time i set her in the tank. If she was ever to return to general population i had to find some way to comb her fluff out!
At night iris would sleep in my shirt and i in the rocking chair. I would turn down the lights and pull a blanket around my legs. For the most part she would sleep. A couple times iris pooped on me in the night but for the most part she began cheeping loudly when she had to go and i would set her in the shavings long enough for her to squat and produce a poop before whisking her away from her violent siblings once more.
I was so very tired.
The antibiotics helped Iris. She did begin making solid poos and she perked up after her last dose had worn off. she became more active and vocal but was still so tiny compared to the others. In the coming weeks she would win my heart by being absolutely determined to be included and get her share of the food. Like me, she was also small but feisty.
I finally found a way to fluff her fuzz back to its original state. It was a cleansing brush for the rubber doggy toothbrush chews my aunt and uncle had sent as presents for the dogs. I used it to curl the fluff on the side of iris’s head and it worked. Her pink skin was finally covered!
Iris returned to general population. She is the one standing on top of the food log. She has less feathers than the other chicks because she is developmentally behind them but it doesn’t stop her from trying to thrive.
Iris is the one with fluff on her wings while the other chicks have sprouted feathers. She looks little and awkward compared to them. But, she will let me hold her for long periods of time and she seems soothed by the noise like popping bubbles that i always made with my lips. She is the most docile chick.
Iris, sleeping at the head of the pack here, is finally included and allowed to snuggle with the others for warmth.
I understand your woes. My partner is an essential worker – not healthcare but also not as protected as healthcare. Yesterday someone came into his work to make a purchase wearing a mask with holes cut into it so they could “breathe easier”. >( Yikes. He’s not allowed to ask these people to leave or to ask people to wear their masks properly, etc. He definitely doesn’t feel like a hero – he feels like a hostage. If he doesn’t go to work he doesn’t get paid. And he can’t file for unemployment either because his work lets workers furlough themselves during COVID without being fired. So you don’t work, don’t get paid AND don’t get unemployment so he has to go in or the bills don’t get paid. He’s angry and exhausted and frustrated and our state is starting to loosen restrictions so people are going out for groceries in this madness, with useless masks tucked under chins and noses, multiple times a week like they used to and they get angry that they’re not allowed to do everything they way they used to because “the government says it’s OK now!” (when they don’t even!)…. We’re just sitting, waiting for the second spike personally.
Chickens love to peck at red thing, so in the future a little dab of blue food coloring can help to prevent pecking issues. This is really handy if a chick gets hurt and has a scab or other open wound. A lot of chicken folks use something called Blu-kote for it. Definitely do independent research and take it all with a grain of salt. Minimum wage TSC workers aren’t professional chicken keepers so reach out to people who have been doing it for years for advice and remember that a lot of the methods are meant to be heuristic and may have room for improvement. I hope that helps you in the future!
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