Chickens, Children, and Cuddles
It should not come as a surprise that chickens play an important role in our family’s culture. Four years ago we brought home our first birds. Consequently, for most of their young lives, our children have known chickens. And since we have no other animals or pets, the chickens filled the “pet” void - especially for our eldest daughter.
She had one hen in particular that would put up with her loving devotion. This hen became her doted upon pet. She would take her on walks and attempt to put her in clothes. She would interpret every cluck it made as a murmur of affection. She would nurse it when it was injured and ensure it received its share of the food scraps. And she studied the nuances of that chicken so intently that she could pick her out from among 30 doppelgangers, describe her feather patterns and comb in great detail, and made it her muse and inspiration when sketching. She truly loved that chicken.
However, she had to learn the hard way that chickens don’t make great pets and that favouring one above the rest of the flock leads to problems. Flashback in your mind to grade school: do the girls at the top of the pecking order like the teacher’s pet or do they make her life miserable when the teacher isn’t looking? The pet hen was on the bottom of the pecking order and her constant removal from the flock by our daughter was not helping her assert herself and move up in the order. In fact, a remedy for a bully hen is to isolate it from the rest of the flock so that when she is re-introduced, she finds herself at the bottom of the order; knocks that troublesome hen down a few rungs.
But chickens don’t last forever. Our daughter’s pet hen had a ailment called bumblefoot, which is an infection on the foot that makes walking, scratching, and roosting uncomfortable. She was unable to sit upon a roost and instead slept alone in a nest box. All was well, until one night I unknowingly locked a skunk in the chicken run. After desperately digging and trying to escape under the fence, the skunk wandered into the coop. All the chickens were safe upon the roost and out of the skunk’s reach. All except for the pet hen. That skunk probably could not believe its good fortune! A sleepy, dopey hen sitting right in front of it for the taking. And take it it did.
The following morning was full of stress and confusion as we tried to deal with the skunk. Unfortunately for the skunk, it now had a taste for chicken and had to be permanently disposed of. Dad had been meaning to take the certification course for his Arms Licence, but hadn’t gotten around to that yet. So, armed with only a pellet gun, he spent close to an hour playing hide and seek with the skunk, trying to hit it with a kill shot while protecting himself from getting sprayed by the skunk. In the end, Dad won and the skunk lost. Through the whole ordeal, the skunk did not spray but kept that for its finale; the spray was its swan song. Multiple changes of clothes and showers later, and we were ready to get back to our normal routines.
Back to that pet hen. Our daughter was devastated. She blamed herself (probably some truth to that) for hurting her “pet” so that it could not escape the skunk. Despite our constant reminder that chickens are not pets, they are farm animals, she had grown attached to that hen and grieved its death.
In an effort to protect both our children and our farm animals from another owner-pet relationship, we adopted a different sort of animal for the purpose of being a loveable pet. Something cuddly and relatively low maintenance. We settled on a rabbit. We brought home our new pet and, unlike the chickens, we keep her in the house. Fortunately for us, she came spade and litter-trained (phew) and her upkeep is easy enough that the children can handle it themselves (with some continual reminders, of course). We could even classify the rabbit as a productive farm animal; her manure is a great fertilizer!