I, myself, began adventures in chicken keeping on March 6, 2013. A few days ago, I lost my first chicken on March 30, 2016. Surely, I was blessed to have 3 years with chickens to prepare me for my first goodbye. An admitted softy, I often wondered if I had what it takes for a farming life. Or more pointedly, a farming death. Looking back now, I see that, like always, my chickens showed me the ropes. If you pay close enough attention, chickens will show you a lot of things you didn’t know. Chickens are little Mr. Miagi’s running around your yard catching grasshoppers and slipping lessons in your life.
The first lesson from chickens is always about life. Life is about living, and living means dropping everything you’re doing and spreading your wings in the sun when the sun hits the right spot. Living means devouring a watermelon rind, despite a firm peck on the head from your ring leader, because watermelon is worth it. Living is about playing in dirt, talking to your friends, building the perfect nest, balancing just right on your roost, and showing off your spaghetti noodles. When you are alive, you come sprinting when the farmer has her special bucket of scratch, and you really don’t care at all about how ridiculous you look.
Chickens also know a thing or two about bravery, so I don’t know why calling someone a chicken means they are a coward. I’ve known 18 chickens quite well, and not a one of them is a coward. Yes, they are prey animals, but this materializes as alertness, not cowardice. My chickens have faced dogs, coyotes, bald eagles, hawks, lawn mowers, and me trying to build things with power tools outside their coop, but when the coop door opens, not one hesitates to bolt out the door. Unless, of course, it is snowing. They are brave, not crazy.
It seems as though my chooks likewise have a much better grasp of the facts of life than many humans. One particular notion that seems to trouble us, and not them, is that life is not fair. Chickens don’t waste much time being disappointed. You don’t see many whining chickens. (Unless, someone is in their nesting box or you move their coop, in which case all bets are off.) My hens don’t even seem to mind making me an egg for breakfast once a day, when the whole laying process seems rather daunting to me. I admire the adaptable, no-nonsense nature of chickens, and therein they’ve taught me another lesson.
When Skip first got sick, I thought she had a broken wing because it would drag on the ground. I tried to bandage it up for her. She let me know this was complete nonsense by shedding her bandages the second I looked away. Six times. I’m a little slow sometimes, but chickens are patient teachers. “So, I can’t fly around or roost high anymore – that is no reason to waste time in bandages,” Skip told me with her beak as I tried the seventh time. I trimmed her wing feathers so they did not drag, and she enjoyed almost another month of life with her friends.
One morning, I noticed Skip had isolated herself from the flock and was lying down instead of exploring like usual. Her sister, Glory, came over to investigate, and Skip struggled to get up and escape. Glory viciously attacked, and I intervened. Skip came to live in my garage. While Skip’s legs could move, Skip could not seem to tell them which way to move. I would come out to the garage and find her flipped over, feet just pedaling air. Skip thought this was bull shit. She told me so with her eyes.
I tried to fix Skip, but all of my home remedies failed. When she stopped eating and drinking, I knew the day I dreaded since falling in love with my chickens 3 years ago was approaching. Skip half-heartedly nibbled some watermelon, and told me I better get on with it.
I reached out to some colleagues hailing from Kentucky, who had to leave behind their own chickens to move to Missouri. You see, my colleagues were also trained by their chickens, so when we met, we had instantly recognized each other as good chicken people and begun to flock together as friends. My friends came to visit my farm for the first time, and they met Skip and oohed over her pretty feathers, which I’m sure Skip appreciated.
Together the three of us carried Skip, a sharp knife, and a stool over to a yellow wooden shed that has been on my farm longer than me. Spring rain tapped the metal roof of the shed as we talked and made preparations. I held Skip for quite a while, probably longer than I should have as one of my friends was sitting patiently in the rain waiting for me to hand Skip over. But it was not too long, and my friends understood. I told Skip she was loved. It is not easy to hand over your feathered friend to someone with a knife, even when you know it is the right thing to do.
But, I remembered my chicken lessons. Life is about living, and Skip was surely dying. What life she had left would not be considered a life by a chicken. It was time to be brave. It was time to face the facts of life. I watched my chicken leave the world, thankful for kind friends to help me through the process.
For those of you reading this in preparation for your own dreadful day, I would like you to know that making the decision to euthanize is much more difficult than the process itself, when done humanely. Skip left life and me with another lesson. Living is much harder than dying. While it was tempting to let Skip die naturally to avoid participating in the process, I am glad now that I did not prolong her struggle. With the help of friends and lessons from my chickens, I was able to do something I never would have imagined doing circa 2013. I hope Skip’s lesson can help you make your difficult decisions with peace of mind and heart.