It was inevitable; I murdered Thelma.
I didn’t want to. I bought her as a pair with her Light Sussex counterpoint, Louise, last year as point-of-lay pullets. They both turned one in September. Thelma was a machine, giving me eggs nearly every day since she started laying – her creamy, rosy-tan eggs practically melted on the plate when fried up for breakfast. She was a beautiful bird, black with white penciling around her neck, and her feathers flashed a dark mahogany in direct sunlight. She grew quickly, jostling the pecking order once full-grown, but she was content to be one of the girls. She was neither the alpha (Gotham) nor the omega (Mrs. Cluckity). She ate, drank, slept, laid eggs, and hunted for bugs in our large run.
And then I killed her.
It wasn’t for meat. It wasn’t for sport. It wasn’t even planned. A few days before my husband and I jetted off for a short holiday in Austria (Sound of Music, anyone?), I noticed blood on one of the eggs I had gathered. It wasn’t much, so I thought nothing of it. Chickens are inherently messy, always getting into scraps, and pooping wherever they damn well please. I’d just let Cadbury have that egg with his breakfast come morning – he’s a Labrador, he won’t mind. Plus, it was on the outside. Eggshells are marvelous packages for the goodness held inside, and young hens lay ridiculously strong shells. (Our two youngest, hybrid blue egg-layers, have the strongest shells of any chicken I’ve encountered. You need a jack hammer to break them open.) But, when I saw bigger streaks of red the next day, I started my investigation.
There is perhaps no greater joy than chicken T.V. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Go find a homesteading friend or visit a children’s petting zoo, grab a comfy log or just sit on the ground, and watch the chickens. I’m not kidding. Take some time out of your day to simply enjoy nature doing its thing. As a fledgling raiser of hens, I’ve been advised to spend a few minutes each day observing my chooks. As my vegetable patch is nearby, I sit on one of its sleepers (old railroad ties) and take a look. Initially, all the hens come running over; I am The Treat Lady. When it’s apparent I’m not going to throw a handful of corn or dump grass clippings into their run, they wander off, resuming their not-so-secret lives of chickens. I get to check out the pecking order (with new birds comes the opportunity for new leaders), see their favorite perching, scratching, and sunbathing spots, and figure out if anyone is sick or not. (Yes, chickens can get colds, runny noses, the sneezes, sniffles, and sinus infections. And that’s just the start.)
I sat down and watched all six of my chickens as the first step to my sleuthing. They all looked good, even though Gotham was molting so fiercely it looked like she had mange, complete with all her tail feathers missing. Everyone was bright-eyed and sprightly, pecking the ground for worms and pill bugs. Feathers were glossy (save Gotham in her disheveled state), combs were the correct shade of red, and legs were free from mites and disease. And then Thelma turned around. I’m not going to get explicit about Thelma’s condition, but my gut instinct told me she was obviously Not Right.
I immediately knew my options: nurse back to full health or cull. (After I Googled her symptoms, it was apparent she had a prolapsed anus. I’ll just let you do the research on that one.) Step one of any chicken ailment, disease, or problem is to isolate. I lured Thelma to a little pen I had set up as a chicken quarantine for the new girls and settled Thelma in. She was not pleased with the separation, but I didn’t want the others pecking at her exposed flesh. Chickens are vicious cannibals, if given the chance; they will peck a hen to death and eat her. I wasn’t going to allow that chance. I put on my Gettin’ Dirty clothes, grabbed some medical gloves, and proceeded to clean Thelma up.
Chickens are great. They make all sorts of sounds, including cat-like purring, something I didn’t know until I had chickens. And so Thelma purred while I gave her a warm bath and rinsed all the goop and poop off of her bottom. But, she trembled when I examined her protrusion. Animals won’t show pain because it singles them out as prey, the weakest in a flock, and so they act normal. Thelma wasn’t showing any other signs of being sick, but the mass of tissue hanging outside of her body – when it should be inside her body – was all I needed for confirmation. I left her overnight to recover.
Thelma didn’t recover; she got worse. As a champion egg-layer, she was trying to lay an egg when I checked on her the next morning. The egg was stuck. She was panting and twisting around to see what was happening. From my research online, I knew the chances of this condition occurring again were high, even if I “fixed” her this time. She was a lovely chicken and gave me a steady supply of eggs, but I knew I needed to end her suffering. I knew this day would eventually come – killing my chickens – and I decided upon the “broomstick” method for culling: quick, nearly bloodless, and humane. I wasn’t sad and I didn’t cry, but I did thank Thelma for her life. Then, I killed her. She died quickly. I held her legs until she stopped flapping, which took about two minutes, and then skinned and gutted her. Her condition wasn’t a disease, so there was no reason why we couldn’t eat her. She’s a chicken – she’s bred for eggs and meat. I didn’t want to waste her life.
I’ve always had animals in my life. And I’ve always been responsible for their well-being. It’s Animal Husbandry 101; for pets, for livestock, for show animals. I hate to see anything suffer. Humans seem to think living a long life is ideal. Mostly, that’s what we strive for. But ask anyone in the medical field (I would wager nurses, especially), and they would tell you quality of life is more important than how long one lives. It’s the same for all my animals. My cat, Ruby, has a mild heart murmur. She’s had it since birth. If she died tomorrow, yes, I’d mourn her, but I would also know she had a kick-ass life (all nine of them). Hell, if I get to be reincarnated after I die, I’m coming back as either Ruby or Cadbury.
I don’t regret what I did, quite the contrary. I may only have a backyard flock, but it doesn’t excuse me from livestock responsibilities. I am mother and executioner. And I give my birds the best life they can hope for.