Losing Petunia brought on a very painful realization for me. I couldnt look at my chickens as children. I mean, to a certain extent, i could, but i needed to plan for the reality that these birds weren’t going to live forever. Chickens get sick. Chickens develop various health problems. Chickens succumb to predators. I have lost two chickens in 3 years. According to some, those would be really positive numbers but according to my plan, to lose zero chickens, it was a failure.
I first recognized that i had a sick chicken when i noticed one sitting in the shade amongst all the others kind of flop over with her leg stretched out. Her comb was very pale…near white, and i knew immediately that she was having a life threatening problem. The question was, which one? When dealing with chickens, you kind of have to use process of elimination to diagnose issues, as they cant really just tell you what’s going on. It could be reproduction related. They could have a bacterial infection. The problem could be related to parasites causing anemia. They could be overheating. It could be ammonia poisoning from recent rain dampening their waste on the coop floor. It could be so many things. So i had two mysteries on my hands. What was the problem? (And) Which chicken was this? All my chickens were buff orpingtons. I narrowed it down to two names. The sick chicken was either Oakley or Petunia. I hoped to God it was Oakley. Petunia was one of my original tractor supply chicks. She was one of the first 5 hens and i hand raised and super socialized those chicks so that they would follow me like a dog and cuddle in my lap. Oakley was somewhat feral. She was much harder to catch when it came time to go in the house before a winter storm. This chicken was pretty docile but it was also pretty bad off, so i hoped it was just Oakley in a dire way. But i was wrong. The day after the chicken’s death i called the remaining chickens to me and only three arrived. Two hung back. Ellis and Oakley. And i realized to my insurmountable heartbreak that the sick chicken i had just killed was Petunia. It was like being sucker punched in already broken ribs. I felt sick and i wished so much that i was wrong, but i wasn’t.
i first entertained that the chicken was anemic and suffering heat exhaustion, as it was searing hot and the chicken was covered in poultry lice. The now closed for good feed store had sold me this spray that was supposed to kill the poultry lice but despite repeated use it didnt seem to be working at all. I called a feed store in fredericksburg and they had me read off ingredients. The main ingredient needed to kill poultry lice wasnt in the spray. I was told i was better off with a dust than a spray and i should hold the chicken upside down and distribute it evenly amongst its feathers. I drove to fredericksburg, bought the dust, drove back to center point, hung the chicken upside down, and dusted it. When i did this the chicken nearly expired and i realized i had a more pressing problem than i thought. It began dripping a ton of clear liquid from its beak onto the porch floor boards and then closed its eyes and let its head go limp. I quickly righted the chicken and then stroked its head until it opened its eyes and regained alertness. It was dusted. I wasnt going to try that again.
Now, the chicken’s comb remained pale, though not white any longer. I figured that i had better start trying to combat anemia. I cooked her some beets and gave her spinach and soft beets. She wouldnt eat them. She ate a couple seeds and some junebugs. Then she stopped eating. However, at this point she was still drinking.
When she did not improve, i went on a crusade to find out what was wrong with her. She had the squirts. If she had ecoli or some other type of infection (very possible given that they frequently try to eat each others’ poops as well as poop in their water and food dispensers), coconut oil would be antibacterial and kill the infection. I tried to get her to drink some coconut oil but she wouldnt touch it. At this point i spooned some into her beak to see if it would help her but she thrashed her head around and i dont think she got very much of it.
I began entertaining other ideas as well. She hadnt laid an egg in a week. If there was a stuck egg an epson salt bath was recommended. I ran some warm water in the sink and used my epson salts to give her a twenty minute warm bath. She looked very relaxed and smelled amazing afterwards. She seemed to enjoy being in the sink and made no attempt to climb out. She closed her eyes and soaked.
I was aware that the epson salts would relax her muscles so at the twenty minute mark i lifted her out and dried her despite her protests. She responded like i did when given a muscle relaxer once at the hospital. She looked drunk. I wrapped her in a towel and held her for a bit, then laid her in a bed of straw in the dog crate she was staying in inside the house so she could pass any stuck eggs in peace.
No egg was produced. So, at this point i decided it was time to check. I covered my finger in coconut oil and went on an exploratory voyage. No stuck egg hiding up there. To me, this meant she was having a medical problem that had resulted in her halting egg production…not she had a stuck egg that had created a medical problem. I revisited the idea of ecoli. She still had the runs. At this point she had stopped eating and drinking on her own. I had to force her to drink by holding her beak against the little tray of water i had created by cutting a solo cup so that just the bottom was left. When i asked, she took a sip, but only because i wanted her to. I began to accept that if she had stopped eating and drinking she was preparing to die and i might have to let her. I was so confused about why she had given up so easily. It was like she wasnt even going to put up a fight.
I prepared myself to come home after work and find her deceased but when i arrived home, there she was in the dog crate looking at me. I decided, if she was still alive there was still a chance. I drove to the dollar general and bought an infant medicine dropper. I began by dropping some coconut oil in her beak and then letting go to see if she would tip her head up and swallow. I was committed to putting it in her beak and not down her throat so she wouldnt aspirate and could control swallowing on her own. Then i put a dropperful of coconut water (for electrolytes) in her beak, tiny drop by tiny drop and let her swallow each one. Then i made her a smoothie with beets, spinach, grapes, and coconut water to try and get some hydration, iron for the anemia, sugar from the grapes, and electrolytes from the coconut water into her. I drew up the smoothie in the dropper and put one blob at a time into her beak and released her to swallow.
Eventually i began adding rice to the smoothies as time dragged on and i worried about her losing weight. I thought i had it all figured out at this point. I was getting her hydrated and fed. Her comb was turning more red as i fixed the anemia and it wasnt as shriveled as i combatted dehydration with the dropper. It was time consuming and i spent hours getting beak after beakful swallowed at her own pace. I thought we were making progress until…
i woke up because i was hearing gurgling noises. Whom i now know to be Petunia was kind of tilted somewhat upright but a little sideways in the dog crate. Her neck was curved so that her head was upside down and dragging across the crate floor. The foulest smelling liquid was leaking from her beak and nostrils in both liquid and mucosal form, making a puddle with brown flecks in it and also leaving strings that resembled saliva hanging from her face. The fact that her head was upside down and backwards was alarming in itself. The smell and the noises that were coming out of her were something straight out of a zombie movie. Here eyes were half closed. She did not appear to be with it but she wasnt dead. More and more liquid emerged and as it did so she tried to get away from it. She stumbled and walked into the side of the crate while dragging her upside down and backwards face through the goo she had just spewed and continued to spew. The more she moved the more i couldnt take the sight. Forget the dropper. Forget force feeds. This was some zombie apocalypse shit. She was dying and it was not a peaceful death. She was going in a messy way and i needed to put her out of her misery. But i couldnt. I couldnt end her suffering. I had raised her from a chick. That was my baby. According to my coworkers and friends the most humane thing to do would be to break her neck. I knew this to be true. It would be instant. Her suffering had to be relieved. I had to do it. It was part of keeping chickens. She was suffering. So do it. I couldnt. This was not the rooster. She hadnt made me mad in any way. She wasnt homicidal. She wasnt blocking the other chickens from water on a 113 degree day. She was a good chicken. She had been a good chicken. She did nothing to deserve my wrath and i couldnt take her little neck in my hands and break it.
The dogs wanted to go to her but i wouldnt let them. I sequestered us in the back of the house and hid as she flopped around and dragged her head through the mess she kept spewing. She smelled worse than death. I focused on trying to google these new symptoms and finally get an idea of what i was looking at. Her symptoms were consistent with the progression of ascites, a terminal condition which consisted of excess fluid in the abdomen. She did have a squishy area near her abdomen but i hadnt connected the dots that this would be full of fluid and not just chicken insides. There was no cure. Treatment consisted of continuous periodic draining of the fluid to relieve symptoms until the person was ready to say goodbye to the chicken. She would never be well again. She would always be in some percentage of distress. It was most humane to just let her go. Unless i took a needle and pierced her abdomen while trying not to hit internal organs, she would continue drowning in fluids, struggling to breathe, and dealing with possible kidney and heart failure.
I went to work because i had to. It was time. But i was fully aware as i saw my patients that if she was still alive when i went home i would have to kill her. This could not be allowed to continue. Her suffering would have to be ended, immediately. It had gone on too long already.
When i arrived home she was still alive. Her head was upside down beside her and liquid drained from her beak. This was despicable. i felt a great sense of shame that i couldnt end this for her already. I was the one in charge here. If she needed to die, i had to do it. My baby or not, an animal could not be allowed to suffer like this. If a treatment could not be rendered, it had to be done. She had to be put out of her misery. I told myself this as i pulled her out of the dog crate and wrapped her in a towel. She smelled so awful and her head flopped this way and that. I left my body and looked down on myself doing these things. I laid her on the porch. I searched the house for something to break her neck with. I settled on the metal chicken door. Before i could change my mind i walked out onto the porch, raised the metal door above my head, and chopped her twice in the neck. I didnt push hard enough the first time so i quickly brought it down again as hard as i could and a squinted eye went wide. Her body convulsed for a couple minutes, as chickens do, but i knew she was gone when her pained squinted eye went wide and round and she stared unblinkingly into the abyss. All of the other chickens and both dogs had a view of what i was doing because of the location i had chosen. I was worried the dirt would have too much give. I wanted it to be quick, so i used the porch floor boards to bring the metal down onto to break her neck. The convulsing was really hard to watch because even though i knew cognitively that it was just spasming muscles and she was already gone, i felt like she was suffering, like that was what i was watching. Its hard to wrap your mind around the fact that chickens move after theyre dead. I then realized that there were feathers from her neck on the porch. I gathered them and laid them in the grass. All the chickens and the dogs watched in silence. I covered her body with the towel and left her on the porch while i went to the shed to get the shovel and the metal stick to dig a hole in the limestone. I dug a hole through the rock in the blazing afternoon summer heat behind the house.
By the time i was done i was seeing colors and the edges of my vision were fraying into white from the heat and dehydration. I was sunburned and traumatized and i just kept trudging through the steps that needed to be taken. I went to the porch and got her. I laid her in the hole, wrapped in the towel but with her head uncovered, upright, and i began covering her with dirt. I then collected big rocks to place over her so critters wouldnt dig her up. An armadillo ended up digging her up three times and each time i reburied her and replaced the rocks. I asked God to receive her with open arms and let her be at peace and out of her suffering. Then i called my friend who had reminded me that if i wanted to live alone and keep animals, when one needed to be put down that was my responsibility, and let him know it was done. The chicken was no longer suffering. Neither dog nor any of the five remaining chickens made a noise all afternoon. Both dogs had stood at the fence and watched me dig the hole and bury her. I had been so focused on getting myself to do the task, to a docile defenseless animal who trusted me, i hadnt thought of their experience of this.
I went in the house and drank some ice water, had a good cry. Then i composed myself, went back outside, and gave both the dogs and the five remaining chickens a cuddle. To my surprise, they didnt cower and shy away from me as i expected them to. They seemed to know the deceased chicken had been sick, probably smelled it. How could they not? She was in such a state. They seemed fine. I was not fine. I cuddled them maybe more for my sake than theirs. They were happy to accept a cuddle. I kept thinking, all the measures i had taken to save her, and in the end she was in the ground. I would need to begin thinking of chickens in a different manner. Get attached, yes, but when a chicken stops eating and drinking they probably know something you dont, and also stop ordering the exact amount of chickens you want to keep. Order a few extra so your life doesnt absolutely fall to pieces when you lose one. I.E. if i wanted six chickens perhaps i should order 9.
I began researching online hatcheries for chocolate orpingtons, a variation of the breed i had seen at the feed store in our town before they closed. I soon realized they were not available in this country at this time. One hatchery had crossed chocolate orpingtons with another breed but they would only sell a straight run. I began looking at buff orpingtons instead. They were more commonly available. I tried to go in with a friend so that we could meet the chick minimum per order and i would still only keep a few (the minimum order was 25 chicks). However, this all fell through. Husbands said no or coops werent chicken ready and family emergencies dictated other things would need to be tended to at the moment rather than stapling chicken wire and rebuilding nesting boxes. I finally found a hatchery that would mail an order with a 6 chick minimum and had an all female option instead of a straight run. I did not have any interest in more roosters, ever, after my experience with ira. I placed an order, having never ordered live animals in the mail, and shipped them to my coworker’s address so that they would arrive to the fredericksburg post office rather than the center point post office, meaning i wouldnt have to leave work to go to a different town to get them when they arrived. Then i put shavings, my bath tub, some wood and wire panels, chick crumbles, a food and water dispenser, and a heat lamp in my trunk.
It may seem calloused that i began researching chicks the day after Petunia was laid in the ground but the way i bartered for everything was with chicken eggs. I was now getting one or two a day and we were down a chicken. I needed to think about the fact that three of the five chickens i had were probably approaching menopause, at which point they would retire and be garbage disposals for kitchen scraps only, but there would then likely be only two hens of laying age. I needed to start raising up another batch if i wanted them fully feathered and integrated with the outside flock by the time winter hit. They would need to be integrated by the time they all had to go in the house together to avoid certain death during ice storms. The weather timeline dictated i start a new batch now and honestly it was the only way i was ever going to move past losing now two chickens to illnesses. One, a mosquito born disease during a previous year, and this one, to what was likely ascites.
Later a cruel patient of mine that has a need to see the negative in everything and control all those around her, staff and patients alike, decided that all my adult and baby chickens should be put to death immediately just in case the one that died, died of bird flu. She told anyone who would listen in front of me, “well you’ve had two die now havent you? It very well could be bird flu. They must be put to death immediately. If you need me to i’ll call the authorities myself.” I reminded her that the chickens died during different years, all the remaining chickens were healthy, and ascites was not contagious. She proceeded to ask me daily if i’d killed the rest of my chickens yet. I refused to give her my address when she required it to know where to send the sheriff to “take care of the bird flu problem”. She knows full well the hurt she causes everyone around her and she does so out of her own unhappiness because her family does not visit or call. I have changed the subject or left the room each time she re-suggests killing off every last one of my birds, adult and chick alike. I hope that one day when she gets to heaven, in a twist of irony, she is surrounded by chickens who ask her daily if she has atoned for her sins and apologized for her cruelty against birds. Somehow, i dont guess thats how heaven works, but the daydream keeps me going as i imagine her surrounded by hundreds of chickens all asking her questions at once while she talk talk talks over me and asks repeatedly if i need help doing away with all my chickens.
The patients dont get to leave the nursing home often and most all of them grew up farming or ranching. I keep them updated on the weather, my garden, wild edible plants, the dogs, and the chickens. So of course when i did receive some day old chicks i kept the patients updated with pictures and video. One patient refused to get up for breakfast one morning so after staff had tried repeatedly i went in to try my hand at moving her along. Instead of demanding she get out of bed and begin toileting and dressing this minute i simply stated that they were about to serve her breakfast in the dining room and i was here to help her with dressing and changing her brief so she could be on time to breakfast and eat with her peers. She proceeded to procrastinate and continue to not get out of bed. So i showed her 3 pictures of the baby chicks. She asked me, “what kind of chickens are they?” I told her they would grow up to be buff orpingtons. She proceeded to tell me she doesnt like orpingtons because they lay brown eggs. She looked me dead in the face and said, “i only like white eggs.” As fond as i was of most of my patients there was a very present theme of racism amongst the population. It was a very isolated german community that had been banned from speaking german, celebrating german holidays, or just generally being german in any way during the war. The feeling was, if they are german perhaps they are also nazis, and so to speak german was a jailable offense at one time. Their parents spoke to them only in english as a result and they sort of lost their culture, their identity. They seem to have responded from a place of hurt by deciding everyone who is not german is of lesser quality. Frequently even i, being white, dont measure up because my heritage is russian, not german. Throw in someone with a visible difference from them, and they dont even realize they are hating somebody whose culture was ripped from them just like they lost theirs during the war. They seemingly just need someone to hate, and people who look different from them are a stellar target. That afternoon i was walking through the halls singing and my blind patient asked, “is that you lauren?” I said that it was and she touched the arm of my tardy patient from that morning and said, “her voice is so pretty.” This patient curled her lip upwards and rolled her eyes. She said, “she comes every morning to help me get dressed and this morning she wouldnt shut up about her chickens.” Two days ago chickens were something she remembered raising with her husband to have eggs for baking and breakfast. But alas, i had the wrong colored eggs. I have not again mentioned the chickens to this particular patient as it seems a topic i should keep to myself. Interestingly, upon taking a poll amongst a few of my friends, brown eggs represented the expensive fancy ones when we were growing up. You had to pay extra to have the cage free eggs which were usually brown and speckled. Our mothers did not buy them because they were on a budget but school mates’ mothers had them in their fridge and that’s how we knew they were financially better off than our families, because they could afford the speckled brown eggs.