The trouble with animals and the reality of rural living

Neither Darcie or I grew up in the country. We were both born and raised in the City. Our parents on both sides were city dwellers for their wholes lives as well. So the realities of living in the rural setting were unknown to us, aside from what others had told us to expect. But we both agreed, when moving out here, that we didn’t move here to have an easy life. We expected difficulties and challenges and we have had our fair share since Day 1, whether it be a flat tire, a broken garage door, a truck that breaks down, locking your keys in the car, being snowed in, dealing with a power outage, and so on – if it can happen to you, it probably will. Still, one thing that we had not yet experienced, but knew was an eventual guarantee, was DEATH.

To real farmers, I imagine, death is a common occurrence on the farm. It happens. It’s not taken for granted, per se, but kids who grow up with farm animals learn early on about the concepts of life and death, and are often present for both of those experiences on innumerable occasions through their young lives. Darcie and I, on the other hand, we had never experienced it. Sure, we have had pets that needed to be euthanized when they were old, but there was always a separation and a distance to it. We had never really seen something die. And certainly neither of us have killed anything ourselves.

Last winter when I had been studying up on raising backyard chickens for our tiny urban lot, I read several books on raising chickens, what they need to eat, how an egg is formed, building a coop, et cetera. Most of it was very positive, optimistic and cheerful. But one thing that worried me: What do we do when they get old or sick? This question was never really answered in the books I’d read, but to be honest, I didn’t really want to think about it. When the time came, I’d deal with it, I reassured myself. I recall reading an article though that was a criticism of the urban backyard chicken movement in the USA. Many cities and towns were now allowing people to have 3-4 hens – people, like ourselves, hipster environmentalists and animal lovers who wanted a taste of the rural life without losing the comfortable, easy life of the city. It is certainly an appealing idea! But there was starting to be a big problem with either old hens who’d stopped laying or those that had gotten ill. These well-intentioned folks had no idea what to do with them. The article talked about people abandoning these hens in fields, at vet clinics, and farms. They weren’t able to deal with the other side of farm life – or at least, did not feel that “urban” farm life needed to deal with that one dreaded fact: things die.

I certainly didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want to even think about it. When people would ask me what I would do when that inevitable time came I told them the truth: I have no idea. Well, in the past few weeks, this time came. First it was Ruth, our big black Australorp.

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She had always had something strange about her from the get-go. She had an engorged crop (the crop is the area of the esophagus where digestion initially begins) and never really appeared that healthy. But she never looked to be suffering and ate normally. But then she gradually stopped laying eggs, which we thought might have been due to the winter as egg production usually slows down then. Then one day, out of the blue, we came home and there she was lying there, still. Ruth was dead. We were both pretty shocked by it. I picked her up – I’d never held a dead thing before (aside from a fish maybe) – we bagged her up and said, “well, I guess that happens.” I was a little sad, but it didn’t feel as bad as I thought it would.

As the winter was drawing to an end and weather was starting to warm up we planned to get a couple more chickens. My concern was now with only two chickens left, if another one died, then the last one would too (chickens need companions and will die of loneliness if they don’t have a partner). Four weeks ago, at about 4am, the dog started barking (which she never does) and we were awoken to a horrible shrieking sound. I bolted up in bed and looked out the window. The fence around the chicken coop was shaking. I ran outside in the freezing weather. Whatever it was – a fox, a coyote, I don’t know – was gone, I had grabbed a flashlight and there 15 feet from the coop, our little Barred Rock hen, Hildi, was dragging her back leg and groaning. I rushed over and picked her up. We looked at her only to find a large tear of flesh from her side. The first thing I thought was, “what am I going to do?” Here this poor little bird was clearly injured severely. I’ve never felt so much sorrow for an animal before. We took her into the house, cleaned her wound and put a large bandage on her while we contemplated our options. I thought we needed to end her suffering. But I couldn’t conceive of killing her myself. The thought made my stomach turn and my heart ache. I know a real farmer wouldn’t have thought twice about what to do. He likely would have put her out of her misery immediately. But maybe she would be ok? How am I supposed to know? So instead we did what we do when our animal is in need of help. We took her to the vet. Although the vet initially thought she might make it, once they did an X-ray and found she had a broken leg, that was the end. She said, “we should help her go to heaven.” Gah, I felt so terrible. This was how death felt.

We were now down to our last chicken, Marge, the Buff Orpington. We needed her to have some friends though, quickly. Darcie made some calls and we found a heritage breeder who was willing to sell us two hens the next weekend. But in between the four days from Hildi’s death to us getting the new hens, perhaps out of boredom or trauma, I’m not sure, Marge started to eat her own eggs. Oh yes, it’s the worst! So disgusting. I frantically read information on how to stop egg eating, which I’d previously read is a very bad problem. If it becomes a habit/addiction it is impossible to stop. We tried using fake wood eggs (thought being that they peck the egg and hurt their beak) – fail. We tried draining the egg yolk and filling the shell with mustard (apparently they find mustard disgusting) – fail. She ate three mustard eggs, shell and all! We tried collecting the eggs as soon as possible, but working during the day, it was impossible to do so. We tried feeding her more protein (scrambled eggs for a week) – fail. The last option was to build a nesting box with a sloped bottom (the thought being here that they lay the egg and it rolls away down the ramp into a covered area). I built the box and we prayed that this would work. It was the last thing to do besides “culling” (the nice word for getting rid of or killing her). Fail. She started laying in other parts of the coop and we found the broken shells scattered throughout.

By this point we’d gotten our two new chickens: Mrs. Bouvier (a red Chantecler) and Jackie Brown (a cream legbar – notice the afro). They were super cool chickens. Very sweet and gentle. And Marge, well, she was a total ass! She would peck at them and chase them around. She was very mean. Let’s just say she wasn’t earning any sympathy given her current plight. We decided to give her one more week, try the nesting box, move them to the larger coop I’d built, give them more space, feed her lots of protein and hope that she snaps out of it. Well, day 7 is here. I walked to the coop only to find yet another egg shattered and eaten. Now what?

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