Books on dogs are a dime a dozen. Dogs as companions. Dogs as amazing creatures that rescue. Dogs as goofy creatures that bring joy to our lives. Not to belittle canines, because I love them, too. But what about books on chickens, not as commodities but feathered friends? Haven’t seen too many titles.
It’s not often you walk into someone’s house and find a chicken running around. (They poop everywhere, so if you’re going to do this, invest in some chicken diapers.) Or one in a basket. The one I had in a basket would gently kiss me on the nose with her chopped-off beak when I leaned toward her.
That was Gloria. Alas, she is no longer with us. But I’d like to share her tale with you.
She was one of three Leghornchickens, the classic white chicken that for many represents the “eidos” of the bird, as represented by Foghorn Leghorn from Looney Tunes. They were rescued from a horrible factory farm that had run out of money and couldn’t afford to buy feed. The farmer chose to abandon his 50,000 chickens and let them starve to death. And of course, thousands did until Animal Place in Vacaville got word and rescued the survivors. Some of the hens made their way to other shelters, including our local humane society.When my husband and I read about the poor creatures, we went up to adopt a few. We came home with three forlorn looking hens, all of them badly debeaked, missing feathers, and weighing less than 2 pounds. They looked awful, unlike our other girls who were plump, beautiful, and confident roaming around our yard. Unfortunately, two of them didn’t make it past the first week. I think they were too far gone by the time we got them, and perhaps the shock of moving again was too much.
But one of them survived. One thing I forgot to mention was that when we adopted the chickens, we decided to check out the dogs “just for fun.” Of course, we ended up coming home with a 7-week-old cattledog mix that we named Koan (as in the old Zen paradox, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The last thing we needed was a puppy, yet we found ourselves falling in love with him, and hence the name). Anyway, one morning I arose to find Koan sitting next to the one remaining Leghorn. He wasn’t just sitting next to her, he was chomping on her leg. And she was just sitting there putting up with it. Now, I know other chickens that would have toppled over and died by then. We had a predator get into our yard once, and while I was shooing it out, one of our favorite chickens named Ugly Betty, who was completely unharmed, starting spinning in circles and just toppled over and died. From fear and shock. The others had just flown up to a tree or the roof and were perfectly fine. But this Leghorn gal simply let our pup chew on her leg and just sat there staring. I screamed and grabbed her, blood dripping down my pajamas. My husband wanted to immediately end her misery, but I called my friend, an exotic animal vet, who told me that some birds are extremely resilient.
I chased away my husband, and cleaned her up. I had some antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication leftover from another chicken who had gotten sick earlier, so I started to give her those. I retrieved a basket from storage, filled it with towels, and kept watch over her in my kitchen. Everyday, we changed her bandages, gave her medicine, and special treats to eat in her basket. She especially loved raspberries, and would often be covered in red stains that guests would mistake for blood. She would sit in her basket and watch me as I moved around the kitchen. But we were never sure she was going to make it. She had fluid in her lungs that you could hear from her gurgled breathing, and even if her leg heeled, her lungs had to clear up as well. But she brought me joy each day as I came down the stairs to the kitchen, and she would look at me and greet me with a cluck. After several days when it became clear that this gal was not going to give up, my husband came up with the name “Gloria,” for Gloria Gaynor, the singer of “I Will Survive.”
Gloria was a fighter and she wasn’t going to let the loss of a leg or some fluid in her lungs get the better of her. Over the next few weeks, she got better. Her lungs dried up, and she began to move around in her little basket. She had an amazing appetite, and in addition to raspberries, she’d wolf down blueberries, greens, and a medley of grains. One day, I turned around when I heard some rustling to witness her as she flew out of her basket onto the kitchen floor. Koan, by this time, knew not to bother any chickens, but as Gloria hopped around the kitchen floor, just to be sure, our old German Shepherd gal, Chloe, sat close by and growled at Koan when he got too close. Time and time again, she kept guard over Gloria. Chloe loved Gloria.
After a couple of months in her basket in the kitchen, she recovered enough that we put set up the old dog pen outside the kitchen door and placed her inside. There, she could bask in the sun and scratch the dirt with her one leg. We couldn’t let her out with the other chickens, because they would peck at her. People sometimes wonder why chickens can seem so mean spirited, but if you look at it from a fowl’s perspective, it makes sense – they are protecting the brood as a whole, as a weak or sick bird can attract predators. So Gloria passed her days hopping around in her little pen outside. She grew so healthy that she eventually began to lay eggs again (yes, hens lay eggs whether or not there’s a rooster. And without a rooster to fertilize then, the eggs don’t hatch.). She became a stunning bird as she gained weight and her feathers grew back in. She glowed, even as she hopped around on one foot.
But with her recovery came her downfall. Her once clipped wings had grown back, and one day, I walked outside to find that she had flown out of her pen. I realized the danger in this, and put her back in her pen. But I knew I couldn’t contain her in there forever, and had to figure out how we would keep her safe from the other hens.
We frequently took weekend trips to our little cabin in the mountains, and when we did, we would take her with us. We’d put her in our old doggy crate, and she’d ride in the back with our dogs and cats. Yes, we are the crazy family that takes everyone along – dogs, cats, and even chickens.
One day late in the summer, we were preparing to go up to our little mountain get-away. I ran out to the store for an hour, prepared to come back and pack Gloria up in her crate for the 3-hour road trip. When I came back, instead of the usual sweet clucking of the hens as they pecked and talked to each other, I heard silence. As I walked onto the back patio, I noticed a trail of white feathers. Gloria was not in her pen. I followed the feathers to the top of our six-foot fence to a branch with feathers. It was the bobcat, the one that we had seen several months prior. It had staked the perimeter of the yard and entered just when Gloria had flown out of her coop, when the dogs were napping, when I was gone. I don’t want to deny any creature of its meal, but why my chicken?
I cried. In fact, I froze. Why had I not seen it coming? Why had I rushed to the store without bringing her inside first? I was only going to be gone for an hour. It was broad daylight. The dogs were home. How could this happen?
She fought for her life from the beginning. From being debeaked to starved almost to the point of death to having her foot eaten by a crazy puppy. She had a will to live that was so strong that despite physical trauma, she saw the value in life. Even if her life was confined to the world as seen from a basket, she was going to live it up. On raspberries. And blueberries. And the love and care she got from all of us. And in watching the humans go about their activities in the hub of the home. For those few months, Gloria seemed to find joy at last. But in the end, even her fighting spirit couldn’t save her from Mr. Bobcat.
There’s something we can all learn from Gloria about spirit. You might surmise that unlike humans, this is simply how animals are. But they’re not all fighters. Recently, we had another chicken, a favorite of ours named Sierra who loved being held and cuddled, injure one of her toes. We’re not sure how, but we found her hobbling and hurt. We set up a large dog crate in the kitchen and placed her inside with lots of water and food. But she didn’t eat. Or drink. After a couple of days, I took a syringe and started giving her water. But she wouldn’t touch her food. Not even raspberries. About a week later, I found her listless, eyes closing, head flopping. I realized she was giving up. What to do? It suddenly occurred to me that I could give her a liquid diet. I mixed up some tahini and soymilk and started giving it to her with a syringe. She was so listless that she just let me shoot it into the back of her beak. I didn’t know if I was abusing her like force-fed geese, but the next day, she was sitting up again looking alert. When I tried to feed her again, she put up a little fight, but I managed to squirt a few shots in. And a couple of days later, her attitude began to change, and she began to eat a little.
It took a couple of weeks before Sierra’s toe recovered enough that she began to stand and walk around in her crate. A few days later, we set up the dog pen outside, and let her roam there. And now, she’s back with the flock, pecking at bugs and scratching up dirt. She’s not the fighter Gloria was, and needed a lot more encouragement and help to keep on living. But at this point, anyway, this story has a happy ending.