On a gloomy spring evening, only one chicken returned home on schedule. No need to count heads. At this point, we had just three left, the others picked off one at a time like an Agatha Christie novel. I kept calling out in my usual way.
“Girls! Girls! Girls!” my voice taking on an increasingly strident Mrs. Garrett tone.
Then I saw her tiny blonde body emerge from the woods. She took a step and paused. Another step and a pause. No matter how far they free range, chickens always return to their coop at sunset and she was doing her best, determined to make it home.
I ran to her, the sweet creature that I had hand-fed in the brooder. The polite little lady who sat on my shoulder before she got too big. We had named her Baby Jessica because she always seemed a little helpless. She wouldn’t stay with the herd and could never find the door to the run unless the other girls were ahead of her.
“It’s probably just a broken leg,” I told myself. “She can recover from that.”
Muriel, one of her flockmates, had broken a foot twice and was living a full life (albeit a slower moving one).
I picked Baby Jessica up and exhaled with pragmatic sadness. She had a gaping wound at least five inches long down her back where the talons of some callous raptor grabbed her. Her feathers were sticky with blood and the flesh dimpled and plucked, looking less like an animal and more like the meat I never intended for her to be. It became clear that her partner, Francesca, was not coming back and I imagined the struggle. A hawk grabbing Baby Jessica and her fighting valiantly. The hawk dropping her and making off with Francesca instead. Baby Jessica fought for her life with the same determination she used to make the journey back home. I would mourn for Francesca, too, but it is easier when they are taken away and you aren’t faced with the aftermath.
BJ was in bad shape. I placed her in the run with Muriel and ran to the house to get first aid supplies. Deep down, I knew that an antiseptic spray was not going to do much for the injury. She shrieked upon its application. She would not survive this.
Free ranging comes at a cost. For the beautiful life they had picking through the garden by my side as I weeded, or grazing with the flock of wild turkeys that live in the woods behind the house, a piper eventually had to be paid.
From the moment we decided to move to Connecticut I knew I wanted chickens. A few visits to my friend Kathy’s alpaca farm in Ohio gave me aspirations of gentlemanly farming. She had alpacas, chickens, cats, horses, and a motley array of animals given to her by people who knew she wouldn’t say no. There was Ethel, the rescue donkey, foundered by neglect and bonded to Ricardo, the llama. They had come as a package deal. There was a sheep and a goat. On one visit, I had the enchanting experience of meeting a mother hen brooding over a litter of tiny kittens. The pet-deprived child in me was wetting himself at the thought of overseeing a menagerie like this, but my adult self realized, while watching Kathy and her husband corral and vaccinate several angry spitting alpacas, that it was best to start small. Poultry would do.
I always worried that I was dragging Adam away into the country. Born and raised in San Diego, he had moved to Brooklyn in his twenties. He never had pets as a child and had never missed them. According to him, his mother threatened to put broken glass in her flower beds to deter the neighbor’s cat. They were not an animal family. When we brought Carmine, a whippet, home from his breeder, Adam adjusted eventually. In the beginning, though, he would call me at work in a panic. I was working nights and had health insurance for the first time in my adult life, but Adam insisted that I needed to get a new job because the puppy “wouldn’t stop moving around.”
The transition to an animal-filled life in New England was met with what I read as tepid enthusiasm, and I really didn’t know how Adam would thrive without an Indian delivery option. During our exhaustive, eighteen-month house search, every home was met with my question, “Where will the chickens go?” Our realtor always answered these questions skeptically, no doubt having shown antique farmhouses to legions of gay couples who, taking cues from the Fabulous Beekman Boys, ventured north to find a bucolic paradise of Instagram proportions without realizing the amount of art direction that goes into making a barnyard look aspirational. When we arrived at a decrepit colonial owned by a hyper-elderly actress, the expansively gay listing agent greeted us loudly with, “Livin’ the dream, boys?”
Eventually we purchased a property from a different elderly woman who greeted us with, “I had tea with a Nazi in this house!” and then passed away while we were under contract. It just seemed right. We moved in late summer and in the fall we added Neil, the cat, to our family, while I prepared for the spring arrival of my chicks. I kept them under a heat lamp in a plastic tub from Walmart. A red bulb is essential according to my research because if a chick is injured and bleeds, the others will literally peck the injured flockmate to death. Not the gentle barnyard vibe I was going for. The red hue of the heat lamp camouflaged any wounds while glowing satanically under the door frame. A few days into the undertaking, I realized that from outside the house, the upstairs bedroom window glowed red for all to see, making our meager homestead look more Amityville than Instagram.
In the beginning, it was sweet to watch five little balls of fluff gingerly step over pine shavings and dip their tiny beaks into water, tilting their heads back as they drank. There was a faint acrid odor of the starter feed warmed by the lamp.
And then they started pooping. Constantly. Even with only five chicks, there was never one not pooping. The pristine bed of shavings became a minefield quickly and I kept a litter box scoop nearby to try to freshen their paths as often as possible. Adam would pop into the room occasionally, now stifling warm and sour smelling, for a minute or two. The girls grew quicker than I expected; I ordered them earlier than I should have. The chicks managed to outgrow the tub faster than they could grow the feathers needed to live outdoors and withstand the particularly cold April chill. Pretty soon I had pullets flapping around the bedroom with old fitted sheets laid across the flooring because I couldn’t keep them in the brooder. When I bent down to change the water or food, they would flap onto my back or try to roost on my shoulder. Instagram did not prepare me for this.
“You’re spending a lot of time upstairs with the chicks,” Adam remarked somewhat pointedly one night.
“I have to bond with them!” I snapped.
Eventually, I realized that people have kept chickens long before heat lamps and we rushed to refurbish one of the outdoor sheds into a coop. Like all of our projects, it began with a do-it-yourself vibe, then evolved into a pay-the-contractor-to-do-it-while-he’s-here-anyway solution. Adam and I rented a giant, two-person auger to help dig post holes through Connecticut granite, but after five minutes of struggle and invectives, we called our beleaguered contractor, Jim. He was renovating the bathrooms anyway and knew about the bedroom chickens. The run was completed in a day and he charged us only slightly more than the auger rental fee.
The girls moved outside and the bedroom was thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.
Our first chicken lost was Connie. She was a Dominque with a feisty, take-charge personality. The first to run towards interlopers, Connie was followed by the rest. Visitors would exclaim in horror at the sight of chickens running wildly at them, but I always explained that the hens were running to meet us for the treats I usually brought — not to attack strangers. That didn’t stop the eyes of my friends from opening wide with terror.
Within weeks of the small group leaving their indoor sanctuary under the heat lamp and moving to their outdoor coop, Connie was taken. We came home from dinner one night to find four chickens clutching the deck railing off the kitchen. I had thought it would be OK to leave the coop open a little later than usual for one night while we went out to dinner, but I hadn’t understood the neighborhood fox’s opportunistic ambitions. I knew Connie tried to meet the threat head on and defend her friends. A small number of feathers were found in the yard the next day. For weeks, the chickens would perch on the deck at night. I had to carry them one at a time from the railing to the coop until they felt comfortable in their sanctuary like children afraid to sleep in their own beds after a nightmare.
When Adam got home that spring night a year later, I told him not to look at BJ. It was too gruesome, and I think of myself as the tough one who’s able to handle life’s tragedies. I also needed to prove to myself that I had the stomach to see my flock through the end of their life cycle. I would wait a day and see what happened. The next morning, it was clear she hadn’t moved. As prey animals, chickens instinctively avoid showing signs of sickness or injury. For her to be showing distress meant that the situation was very bad. When I picked her up, I was hit with the unmistakable odor of infection — of chicken left in the refrigerator past its due date. The pain, I’m sure, was excruciating. It was time.
That night, while Adam slept, I researched how to kill a chicken. There are myriad ways. I read message boards, the American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines, blogs. They all address common methods used:
- Exsanguination (cutting its throat)
- Decapitation (cutting off its head)
- Cervical dislocation (breaking its neck—including cervical dislocation by swinging it around by its head)
Thankfully, the AVMA determines several of these methods to be unacceptable. I couldn’t pick which method seemed the most horrible (though drowning a chicken did seem a mix of traumatic and onerous). I’ve never held a gun in my life, but shooting a chicken does literally come across as overkill. For exsanguination or decapitation to be considered humane, the knife or ax must be exceedingly sharp and the executioner’s aim impeccable. I did not have an ax and the sharpening block from Williams-Sonoma had never really produced satisfying results on my Japanese chef’s knife.
“Cervical dislocation it is,” I thought.
I studied the diagrams and watched YouTube videos until I felt — “confident” isn’t the correct word — but until I felt “aware” of the procedure.
I woke up very early for a Saturday morning and crept downstairs, not wanting Adam to know what was going to happen. He would just wake up and find BJ peacefully at rest. In the coop, she still crouched painfully in the same position I had left her in the night before. I picked her up and I started pacing the yard. I was feeling that peripheral numbness that I only feel before acting auditions and interacting with service people. I tried to assuage my guilt by talking to her, thanking her for her eggs, apologizing for not keeping her safe. Also, repeatedly saying, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God,” mixed with “I can do this. I have to do this.”
As docile as always, she let me put her into the position illustrated by the diagram on the chicken “processing” website. From the research, I knew to yank her body until I felt a “pop.”
One, two, three. POP.
She went limp and I held her, exhaled, and placed her gently on the ground.
She got to her feet and ran around to the other side of the coop. Faster than she had moved in days. Instead of killing her, I had accidentally given her a chiropractic adjustment.
I stood there stunned.
“Goddammit!” I exclaimed, more at my own ineptness than her will to live. She had fled to the side of the coop blocked by overgrown thorn bushes.
Eventually I was able to flush her out of the brush and grab her. I steadied myself for another round. One. Two. Three. YANK! Nothing. Chickens have no facial expressions, but she seemed positively cheerful. I made another failed attempt and gave up.
I watched her nibble a piece of grass and thought, “How am I going to kill this fucking chicken?”
I picked Baby Jessica up and returned her to the coop. Back inside, I sat down on the couch filled with the rare sensation of not knowing what to do. Not that I always make the right decision, but I usually decide on one. Do I resort to one of the AVMA’s less preferred methods? My friend’s husband drowns chipmunks with a shrug and the insistence that they can wreak havoc on a house’s foundation. An otherwise kind man, he fills a bucket with water and covers the top with birdseed which naturally floats to the top. A chipmunk would assume they found a bucket full of seed and, when they dive in like Scrooge McDuck into his piles of gold coins, they would instead find themselves in a watery grave… Chip ‘N Dale’s Locker.
My resolve to be in direct physical contact with the doomed bird had left me. At this point, I would have put the chicken in the car by a lake and released the parking brake.
Then I remembered the RV.
It was one of those mobile homes that you might see at a pet adoption event or mobile blood drive. I had driven behind it on the way to the grocery store once and had been overcome by morbid laughter. “‘Creature Comforts Home Pet Euthanasia,” it said on the back in purple cursive. I was traveling behind a cheerful-looking wagon of death, the driver of which drove from home to home extinguishing the embers of beloved pets. It reminded me of stories from the past of traveling vets who moved from town to town docking tails of puppies. Owners believed that if their regular vet docked a puppy’s tail, it would never trust that person again — so some sad sack’s peripatetic existence was spent doing only amputations. I always pictured him carrying a bindle with nothing in it but a pair of sharp scissors.
I also imagined an ailing dog seeing the Creature Comforts RV pull into the driveway and hopping to its feet and exclaiming, “I feel better now!” to its skeptical owners. I grabbed my phone and searched for Creature Comforts and found a Facebook business page with poems about Rainbow Bridges and gifs of memorial candle flames.
I stared at a photo of the proprietor, a tanned, woodsy New Englander — nothing of the deranged dog murderer I imagined. I dialed the number listed on the site and a soft voice instructed me to leave a message and she would get back to me as soon as she could.
“Hi, my name is Steven Oliveri. I have a chicken that was attacked a couple of days ago and I think she needs to be…”
I didn’t know exactly what to say. Put to sleep? Euthanized? Put down? Dispatched? “…helped.” I hoped my air quotes were audible via voice message. “If you could get back to me soon, that would be great.”
Adam came downstairs at that moment.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“I tried to kill Baby Jessica and it didn’t work.”
“I called a mobile pet euthanasia service. We’ll pay for someone. It’s fine.”
I wondered for a second if our contractor would do it.
“OK,” he said and walked into the kitchen.
A decade in a relationship with me had inured him to a wide range of unusual declarations. My phone lit up; a text from the vet informed me that she could be at our house within an hour. I paced in anticipation. I decided to get BJ and ready her for the final curtain. I went to the linen closet and grabbed a tattered old bath towel from Target in lime green. I went to the coop and picked up BJ and brought her back to the house to hold her. A soft rain fell as I cradled her in the towel. I realized that I was rocking her gently like a baby; she closed her eyes and rested her chin on my arm as we awaited her fate on the front porch.
A well-worn Subaru pulled into the driveway, and I was filled with disappointment. We didn’t get the RV. BJ was just a quick side trip in the vet’s day. She drove up to the house and I could see her readying some materials before she got out of the car.
As expected, she looked like she owned no fewer than seven dream catchers. I watched as she walked up our stone pathway to the porch where I stood hugging the hen to my chest.
“You caught me at just the right time,” she said. “With the storm, I’ve been super busy this week.”
She said this with the casual air of anyone describing a hectic work week, but when I remembered what she does for a living, I wondered exactly how many beloved pets she had killed that week. We had indeed had a massive storm recently, but I wasn’t sure how that translated into dead dogs and cats. Had fallen trees broken enough little bodies beyond repair to keep her gainfully employed?
Adam came out on the porch, and the vet greeted him with her warm, gentle energy. She asked to see BJ. I handed her the small bundle, and she unwrapped the towel. We were again met by the odor of infection.
“Oh,” the vet said kindly. “This is pretty bad. You’re doing the right thing.”
I knew we had made the right decision, but hearing it from her lips made me feel better about it. Still, it was a little like a tire salesman saying you need new tires.
“I feel guilty about not keeping her in the run, but they are just so happy when they free range.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s all personal philosophy — like with cats. Outdoor cats have a much fuller life than indoor cats, but it’s shorter.”
She laid Baby Jessica on the deck and pulled out two large syringes from her pocket. “I’m going to give her two injections. The first will relax her and then the second will stop her heart and lungs.”
“OK,” I said.
She gave the first injection while stroking BJ’s soft feathers, vibrant and healthy from days spent in the sun eating grasshoppers and picking through the compost pile.
“She’s taking a little longer than usual to quiet down,” the vet said.
We had underestimated Baby Jessica throughout her short life. Though she seemed helpless and less street smart than the rest of her flock, she still had a lot of fight left in her. She fought off a hawk, made the painful journey home, survived my hamfisted attempts at cervical dislocation, and now resisted even the powerful drugs designed to ease her suffering.
“How long have you lived here?” asked the vet.
We resorted to small talk while the hen prepared to shuffle off this mortal coil.
“It’s a lovely property.”
“Thank you,” Adam said while staring at the overdosed chicken on the ground.
Finally, Baby Jessica arrived at her deepest sedation.
“The second injection will be administered directly into the heart.”
“Jesus Christ,” I thought.
The vet gave the injection and tears filled my eyes looking at the honest-to-God peaceful expression on the chicken’s face. It had the air of a life well lived, full of bugs and friends. Adam hugged me and I felt a short sob escape his body. The vet kept her gaze at the chicken, respectfully honoring the grief. She folded the towel over the body and began to gather her things.
“Do you take VENMO?” I asked tearfully.
“No, just cash or check,” she replied.
“I’ll go get the checkbook,” I said after wiping my nose on my sleeve.
I wrote her a check for eighty dollars, and Adam went to begin digging a hole in the yard. I said goodbye to the vet and watched her go back to the Subaru through the steady spring mist. I brought Baby Jessica’s body in its Target brand shroud over to the grave. It began to rain harder into the already wet grave. I wrapped the towel tighter around her to keep her warm and dry for as long as possible. I lowered her to her rest and Adam began to fill.
My animals make me crazy. I frequently rue the day I decided to get one or another of them and, at times, look forward to the day when we will have a quiet, dander-free household. No early morning whining, no breaking up ice in outdoor water bowls in winter, no litter boxes. “No more animals,” has become my mantra. I wonder what exactly these creatures bring to the table. But, while crying over the death of a chicken that I could not bring myself to dispatch on my own, I think even Baby Jessica brought something besides eggs to my metaphoric table.
My chickens brought so much laughter to my life. Instead of free ranging in the open yard or in the woods with the best pickings, they usually stayed near us. Often leaving digestive evidence of their presence on the porch or deck. We had to keep the deck latched because if we were having an outdoor dinner, all five hens would try to join us. They wanted to be at the center of it all. They fled to the house for safety from the fox, and they fought injury to return to where they felt safe.
And Adam and I provided that safety. Maybe that’s what pets bring. A reminder that we care about things outside ourselves. We give shelter to something that brings nothing to us but its presence. We shield their shivering bodies with umbrellas so they’ll poop in the rain, and we excavate piles of feces from the dining room when they won’t. We cradle their soft feathered bodies and learn when to say goodbye. Doing all this reminds me I am human.
Photo Credit: Steven Oliveri