Forcing open a chicken’s beak with my finger so that I could shove a syringe full of medicine down its throat is not a skill I ever thought I’d need to learn. But then I never imagined I’d be the sort of person to keep chickens – let alone learn to love them.
We got two Pekin Bantams as a Christmas present last year for my 10-year-old. He’s been crazy about chickens for a couple of years, ever since seeing them at a country fair. We dismissed it as yet another crazy request for a pet. We certainly didn’t take him seriously.
Having chickens wasn’t something I planned. I wasn’t some crazy chicken lady – I don’t even like eggs. But when Harry started getting chicken manuals out of the library every week we finally gave in.
We told him that if we got chickens they were to be his responsibility. He was the chicken expert. He would have to be the one who got up in the morning to let them out and feed them. He’d have to clean out their chicken coop.
We got a wooden hen house and he chose two Pekin Bantams (a breed known to be gentle natured, friendly and particularly good for children), a speckled black hen he called Lady Mary and a brown Mille Fleur he named Lady Edith. The hen house was, of course, renamed Downton Abbey.
And Harry kept to his word. He got up all through the winter, breaking the ice on their water when it had frozen, keeping their food topped up and putting them to bed at night, trudging down to the bottom of the garden in the dark with his torch. He called them “his girls” and taught them to eat out of his hand.
It didn’t take more than a couple of weeks for me to fall for them too. I hadn’t expected to find the chickens so adorable. I loved the way they ran with their legs wide apart and their fluffy bottoms waving in the air, the way they run up to you when they see you with a bag of seeds, and the way they loved eating out of your hand. They’d cock their heads to one side and fix you with their beady stare.
They had so much character and each had their own distinct personality. Lady Mary is like her namesake – always pushing in front of Edith, taking the food first and being full of herself. Lady Edith is far more ladylike but thinks nothing of running round the rose beds, daring you to chase her when you want to put her back in the house. But unlike the Crawley sisters, our two girls are inseparable. They cuddle up together at night and follow each other around while they’re pecking for treats in the flower beds.
We realised something was wrong when Edith started falling over as she ran across the garden. After a few days, she was falling more and more often. When she started going round in circles I called the vet. We were told that it might be an infection or, worse case scenario, something called Marek’s Disease which is fatal. She prescribed some antibiotics for a week which would clear up an infection.
So twice a day we put the medicine into a syringe and somehow managed to force Edith’s beak open so we could put the syringe down her throat. I’d put Edith on my lap and open up her beak while Harry gave her the medicine. Afterwards I’d leave her on my lap a while and feed her treats.
It was only then that I realised how lovely it was to have a chicken on your lap. She seemed quite content sitting there, eating out of my hand and letting me stroke her. Who knew chickens could be so cuddly? Apart from the difficulty of getting her beak open I began to enjoy the time I spent with her.
Then came the morning she pooed on me. I was in a rush to get the children to school so I just wiped it off with a wet wipe and hoped for the best. The dodgy smell lingered in the car. I thought Harry was leaning in for a kiss as I dropped him off at the school gates. Instead he whispered, “You still smell of poo, Mummy” and ran away as fast as he could.
Every day, we hoped to see an improvement and tried to convince ourselves she was getting better but in truth she was falling over more and more often. By the end of the week she could barely walk. She could no longer eat out of her feeder without falling into it.
The vet has told us that she will almost certainly die from the disease. She can now barely stand without toppling over. There’s no hiding the fact that we now have a special needs chicken.
Telling Harry that his chicken was going to die was never going to be easy. There’s no sugar coating the truth. They say that having pets is a good way of teaching your children about death. It’s a pretty harsh lesson when your child’s beloved pet faces death after just five and a half months.
It was heartbreaking watching the big tear roll down his cheek when I told him.
We’re just trying to make her last days as special as they can be. We don’t want her to suffer so at some point we may have to take the difficult decision to have her put down. For now, the vet has reassured us that if she is eating and doesn’t seem distressed then she is a happy chicken. She can’t move so Mary spends most of the day sitting next to her in the hen house.
Several times a day we put her on our lap and feed her. She’s still enjoying her food, picking out her favourite black seeds and making happy chirping noises. In these last days sitting on our laps is the only time we can be sure that she’s not going to fall over.
So yes, I’ve become that crazy chicken lady. But I’m not sorry. Not one bit.