Many celebrate February as Responsible Pet Owners Month. It’s a good time to get your dog’s teeth cleaned, your rabbit vaccinated, and in my case, to re-examine my tenuous relationship with our family’s only pets.
A few months ago, we had to put down one of our chickens, Elsie. Like many urban Olympians, we have feathered friends camping out in our yard, pooping on our front porch, and scratching merrily in our dirt.
They are far more pets than poultry. They live in what I refer to as the Taj Mahal of chicken coops, a full sized shed with perch and cozy nest boxes attached to a rat- and raccoon-proof run large enough to house a pack of dogs. We feed them organic baby spinach and blueberries, meal worms, millet, and sesame seeds in addition to “normal” scratch. When our barred rock Elsie grew decrepit and could no longer walk, we decided it best to make that final drive to the vet for a humane end to her life.
My husband took her in, returning with a shoe box and holding a modest ceremony in the yard with our four year old daughter (tactfully out of sight of the remaining chickens).
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Frankly, I don’t care much for the chickens. They are high maintenance beasts, messy, costing a pretty penny to feed and heat and pay someone else to care for when we leave town. My daughter (who incidentally is allergic to eggs) has a love-hate relationship with them. She loves the idea of chickens, but imagines that they will all trot up to her immediately when called and eat worms gently from her hand. Our dearly departed Elsie actually did this, somewhat tentatively. She was my husband’s before he met me six years ago. He carried little Elsie in his pocket when she was a chick. When we were dating, he frequently fed another one of his chickens, named Egg, Dreyer’s brand premium vanilla ice cream. From a spoon. Upon observing this, my mother commented “You know, you can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats his chickens.”
We were married soon after, and I became a chicken stepmom.
While Elsie was a sweet, fairly approachable bird, our remaining chickens are not. Laya, a Rhode Island Red, is more like a rooster – aggressive, mean-spirited, and will ambush you in a hot second if you turn your back on her in close quarters. Her “sister” Robin is just a chicken. I can’t really pinpoint a personality there (but I know my husband could, if pressed).
The funeral of Elsie was meaningful to my husband and our daughter. To one it symbolized the end of an era, the loss of a friend, and came with a nagging sense of guilt. To the other, it seemed to be just a fascinating ritual, an opportunity to prod a dead chicken, and some important-seeming daddy time. I passed through that burial morning without sparing too much thought or emotion for the whole business, busy as I was taking my son to his last soccer game of the season.
Several weeks after our little chicken funeral, I received news that a dear friend was very sick, possibly dying of a terrible cancer. I was put into a funk most of that day, holding back tears, feeling fragile. At bedtime my daughter asked me what was wrong, and I told her straightforwardly (I don’t tend to sugarcoat many of life’s realities for the children, I‘m afraid). Drifting off to sleep next to me, she put her small hand on my shoulder, petting me, and said “Mommy, even when things die, they are in your heart. You let them go, but they are still in your heart. Like Elsie. We buried her with blueberries. She is still in my heart.” And then she touched her heart.
The tears I had been holding back all day flowed freely. For my friend, for the preternatural wisdom of my daughter, and for Elsie.
Since that day, I look at the chickens a little differently (although still curse their glutinous poops left on my driveway). I’m not saying I’m about to fully embrace urban chicken farming, but the wisdom we get from caring for our pets sometimes hits us in unexpected ways that are worthy of our efforts.