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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Keeping Chickens - A Death In The Family

Keeping chickens is great fun, but it can be hard. Tell anyone that your cat has died, or your guinea pig or even your budgie, and chances are they’ll respond with a modicum of tact and sympathy.

Not so when it comes to saying goodbye to a chicken.

“Well that’s dinner sorted out, then.” is the common response or “Curried or casserole?”

But our chickens are pets – and you wouldn’t eat your pet, would you? Also, to be pragmatic about it, they’re laying hens, which means they’re pretty stringy and, by the time they go to the great chicken coop in the sky, are also rather old and tough.

Even if we weren’t vegetarian, there would be precious little to do with them apart from making stock. But it does prompt the question of what do you do with chickens when it’s the end.

Although hens can live to a relative old age – I’ve heard of them living up to 10 years – a shorter lifespan is much more common. The little brown hybrid laying machines, which have been bred over the years to pop out an egg on a daily basis, have correspondingly short lives. They’re lucky to make it to three or four years, although some miraculous birds last a while longer than that. Pure breeds, which take a break from laying for a few months each winter, and which only lay every couple of days, can expect to live longer.

All of this means it’s inevitable that the chicken-keeper will face a death in the flock sooner rather than later, so it’s as well to have a plan. I’m relatively unusual in the rural area where I live in that I don’t treat my little flock as livestock. That means that I even take them to the vet when they are ill. This, I might add, is greeted with some incredulity among the local farming community (and sometimes at the vet’s, too).

In particular, people seem to think it very odd that I’ve taken hens to the vet to be put to sleep – that’s really not the done thing in the country. But what are the alternatives? In the three years that I’ve been keeping chickens, I’ve lost four – and, as I write, one of the current 11 is looking a bit wobbly on her feet.

The first casualty when I started keeping chickens was Agatha, one of the three ex-battery hens which arrived in November 2009. She didn’t quite manage it to a year out of prison, but it’s actually amazing she lasted as long as she did. From the start she was always a bit hopeless, really. Her bottom – rather than being fluffy and clean like the others, and despite regular worming – tended to be matted with poo, which we regularly had to cut off with scissors so that she wasn’t dragging round this great faecal weight. That meant we also used to spray her bare bum with gentian violet spray to stop her being attacked by the others, for whom a bright red bottom is like a rag to a bull.

Agatha was also too slow to get any of the treats which we threw into their run, which inevitably meant she was hand fed corn and other titbits so that she wasn’t left out – I told you they’re pets. Despite all that, she seemed to have a happy enough life, although she rarely laid an egg. Around nine months after we got her, however, she started to look miserable and unhappy and hunched up. She was probably aged less than two and a half at this point. A trip to the vet confirmed she had a blockage from which she wouldn’t get better, so we said goodbye.

The next two had the consideration to fall off the perch (not literally) while we were away, leaving my lovely chicken-sitting neighbour to cope. The first death was expected – Wonky had been looking a bit, well, wonky, for a while, with a recurring limp for which she was under veterinary attention (don’t even ask about the bills); and the second wasn’t a huge surprise. The most recent also involved a trip to the vet and another fatal injection.

So why do I go the pricy vet route? I personally don't want to wring their neck or chop off their head as they are my pets and deserve more respect than that. If you think I'm being soppy, then try and kill a chicken yourself. It's not a pleasant experience and if don't wrong, can result in a lot of stress for the chicken and the executioner. I think they deserve better than that.

Of course sometimes death isn’t intentional. One friend lost a chicken to her lurcher dog (who was well and truly walloped with a Wellington boot and is now the hens’ best friend). The dog had left the chicken half-dead, so my friend had to finish her off with a meat cleaver and was traumatised for days. I admire another friend along the road who, having decided to breed chickens for the table as well as for eggs, has taken on the responsibility of killing them herself. My feeling, largely, is that if you eat meat you should be prepared to kill it – or at least not try to pretend that the killing part doesn’t happen. (And I know that’s easy for me to say as a vegetarian).

Given that my little flock isn’t intended for that route, however, I’m happy to outsource the task to ensure that there’s as little suffering as possible – yes, for me as well as for the chicken. But what to do with the little chicken corpses? Would you be surprised if I confessed to having a little hen graveyard, with individual headstones lovingly carved, for each of my girls who have gone to the great coop in the sky? No, don’t be silly – they’re double-bagged and put in the bin. They might be pets, but I’m keeping chickens and I'm not that soppy....although it might be different when my favourite hen Ena goes ;)

6 comments:

Rachy said...

I'm sorry to hear of your losses :( x Thank you for posting this, I completely share your attitude to our pet chickens x

Anonymous said...

What a lovely article to read. I'm new to hens and have my first 4. I'm thrilled with them.

Anonymous said...

Hello Im not a member of this site but was looking as I hoped to find some answers!! My mum has had two chickens a black and brown one for about a year she keeps them as pets. She has been on hoilday and I have been in charge of looking after them. When me and my son went there today to let them run around the garden and give them fresh water and food they were dead!! I am in shock as when I left my mums house last night they were fine. I know its silly but I just want to know why and I want to have a reason to tell my mum! I feel awfull. Is this something I have done for them both to die at the same time??? Could someone please write back

Peter Skuse said...

Very unlikely to be natural causes over so short a time and both at the same time. I'm guessing they were intact, which would rule out them being attacked by a cat, fox or badger? It sounds like poisoning of some kind in the food or more likely the water to me. That would be my first suspicion. Could anything of accidently been added to the water or feed? Do the neighbours like the chickens, as it sounds very suspicious. I've been keeping chickens for years and have never heard of anything like this. Personally, I would contact the RSPB or your local vet for a toxicological analysis as I suspect they were poisoned.

Momx3 said...

I can relate to this post. We just started keeping chickens. Ours are still in the brooder. We were just discussing this topic last night. Our city only allows 3 chickens in the city limits, so what to do when they get old and stop laying. We'd want another chicken for egg production, but I wouldn't want to get rid of my chicken just because she's old. Going to have to do a lot more thinking about that one. I'm like you. I told my husband that I would so take my chicken to the vet:)

Kate said...

ohhhh I hate that part too. Our first attempt at our own flock was with cornish hens...we thought these gals won't grow too big, right? Well turns out they have overgrowth issues (because they aren't ever meant to live past 8 or so weeks - when they are typically eaten), we had to deal with all four of those birds dying of what I can only interpret as chronic disease of obesity...respiratory distress, heart disease, loss of mobility. It was a tragedy to watch. And we actually did have to use the axe on one poor guy. But I took one to the vet also to get put down and I can tell you that I was getting funky looks from the people in the waiting room!