We lost a chicken the other day – Titch-Black (one of our blue-egg laying Araucana crosses) died of natural causes, as opposed to a local predator for a change. I went into the chicken shed and there she was, apparently sleeping in the indoor dust-bath. She had looked a bit 'off' for a few days, but lively enough when food was about, so I didn't pay too much attention. Losing them to a predator is definitely more upsetting... but seriously, how attached can you get to a chicken? Just because we have known them since they were an egg, seen them grow up, develop character and irritating habits...
It prompted me to consider how we treat our animals in general, and the mind-boggling contradiction of looking after the oven-ready. Before going any further, I ought to warn those of a sensitive disposition – we have been known to eat our livestock.
On the topic of eating animals (eating-animals?), we have an injured cockerel living in the greenhouse. He was attacked by something (probably rat or weasel) that injured one leg and one wing – if we were a commercial operation, we would have snapped his neck there and then. But we're not, so we checked him over, made sure he wasn't in any major distress, and treated the open wounds. We have a simple rule of thumb with chickens – if they are sick they do one of two things: get better or die. You can influence that by keeping them warm, keeping them drinking water, keeping a bit of food going in to them (unless you want to get technical with things like sour-crop). So, we have a cockerel in the greenhouse – recovered, able to fly up on to a perch, but not agile enough to cope outside, and some day soon he will be a chicken dinner. He was a youngster when he was hurt, too young for us to determine whether he was a hen or cockerel (there are usually ways to tell, but our chickens are random mongrels, which really confuses the issue) – so would we have taken such care if we had known that there was no career of egg-laying ahead? Based on our record, yes.
I know it sounds crazy, but that's just the start of the really nuts...
There is a second chicken in the greenhouse and she is called Leopard Neck, on account of her markings. Year before last, she was droopy and not eating, but had no other symptoms, so we brought her in, trickled glucose and water carefully into her beak, then kept her warm in the house in a big dog cage (absolute pain in the lounge), and when she started eating for herself and generally perked up we'd give her a couple more days of convalescence and then put her back outside on a nice day. Within hours she would need to come back in - on and off we had her indoors for almost two months (I did say this was nuts) so then we moved her out into the greenhouse where it was warm, dry and safe from predators (including other chickens!).
Chickens in the lounge really is only a short-term business, although Leopard Neck was one of the better housemates. Our first cockerel, Hairbrush, had a run-in with another young cockerel recently taken on by our neighbours – younger, fitter and faster. We had Hairbrush in the lounge (big cage again) for several weeks whilst he recovered from his injuries, and once he was feeling better (only a matter of several days) he started crowing. The only thing I can think of as comparable was a Burn's night celebration in a one-bed flat complete with piper. Bag-pipes and crowing cockerels simply do not belong in confined spaces.
Leopard Neck has now recovered, but her eye-sight has gradually deteriorated and now she is almost blind. If we were focused on profit... but we aren't, so Leopard Neck gets to live out her days in comfort in the greenhouse, eating grain and laying the occasional egg.
So, chickens in the greenhouse, even in the lounge... it can't get any crazier than that, can it? Except for the sheep in the bath.
In the run-up to lambing last year, one of our smaller ewes took sick, in the cold weather. We carried her to the greenhouse (warm, dry and already had Leopard Neck in residence) and went through all the standard treatments for things like twin-lamb disease and calcium deficiency, which matched the symptoms and benefit from prompt treatment. When this clearly wasn't the answer, we moved on to antibiotics from the vet. After that, the essentials were to keep her hydrated and taking the sheep-equivalent of high-energy sports drinks. The weather was turning worse, the light was going, and our ewe really needed caring for through the night. The best answer we could think of was to take her into the house and put her in the bath, which kept her relatively confined since she couldn't stand at that point. It was the perfect place to be able to keep her warm, whilst feeding water and high-energy drenches through the night. Sadly, she died, but the next time we have a poorly sheep who needs nursing through the night, it will be in the bath again.
It makes the final hours of Bitsy the cat seem perfectly normal. He was 18 years old and ill, booked in to see the vet first thing in the morning for what we were certain would be the final visit. By breakfast time he was so far gone, in no evident distress, and apparently comfortable so that the stress of being put in the cage and a car journey would have been unkind. I sat on the sofa for the morning, with him curled up on my lap, until he died just before lunch. We have had numerous cats over the years take that final trip to the vet and I don't think this way was any less stressful for me, but Bitsy went peacefully.
Household pets or lunches-in-waiting, we look after our animals. Whether you know each individual by name, or just one out of a herd, it's always unpleasant when another one bites the dust, a horrible business when you have to call the vet in to put an animal down.