I used to think that people who brought their chickens to the vet were ridiculous. Come on, taking a hen to the vet? How silly. I’m much more practical and cooler-headed about my birds. Sure sometimes they get sick – a little wheeze or some diarrhea now and then, but they’ll sort it out on their own eventually. After all, they’re farm animals – they live outside. They’re tough. They’ll be fine. I would never take my chicken to the vet – what a crazy waste of money! That sort of thing was for naive, soft-hearted urbanites who merely kept a trio of layers in their back yard with names like Daisy or Myrtle. Not for real country folk like us. (You do know where this is going, don’t you?)
Yes, last night I had to change my tune, eat my words and become humble. One of our hens was truly sick. The very fact that I could easily catch her told me how unwell she was. She was our eldest hen – the chicken who’d started it all. The one we bought as a fuzzy, yellow chick at Tractor Supply one Easter season, the one who bore most of the flock we have today, the one to have survived foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink, hawks. The one who’d seen some thirty coop mates disappear over the past three years to unseen predators, plucked one by one from the flock, or mangled en-masse in a dead of night attack. She had survived it all. While we’ve had many birds casually named things like ‘Keithie One’ or ‘Keithie Two’ (hens named for Elihu’s friend who’d found the eggs they hatched from) or ‘Claras One and Two’ (seems a shame to lose a perfectly fine name just because we lost a hen) this hen was our dear Molly. Our first hen, our only white hen. Our one and only Molly. We had to do something.
When she made no effort to run or even struggle, I knew she was bad off. I’d noticed that in the past week she no longer roosted at night, but stayed on the ground of the coop. She’d lost all the feathers on her butt too – but I’d chalked both changes up to a new, broody sort of behavior. Early spring, perhaps? A motherly mood? Now more serious problems came to mind – did I have an egg-bound hen? I turned to google, and in a few minutes had Molly bathing in a warm sitz bath in the kitchen sink. Admittedly, I’m not as frontier bad-ass as I’d like to think; it took a moment to get into the new mindset needed in order to massage my hen’s bald and bulging ass end. I knew that soon an oiled up finger might need to be inserted into her rear to check for a stuck egg. I just wasn’t up to it yet. So I massaged, felt around for any clues under the skin. I know I wasn’t patient enough with her bath and massage – I was so eager just to get her system moving – to expel whatever was blocking her up – I ended the massage after barely ten minutes, and after making a few more google searches I chose instead to inject some olive oil down her throat to lube her up. I’d added some Epsom salts in order to improve upon the laxative properties of the oil – but she puked it up instead. I later learned Epsom salts can make you nauseous. Oh poor Molly, I wasn’t providing any benefit to her, and I was now seriously concerned about her getting worse.
One half hour later, there I was, walking into the local animal hospital with a hen in my arms – instantly dropping a cool $55 just walking through the door. I justified my visit by considering it to be a mini class in hen health. I’d I thought I’d keep it to that; I was there to learn what ailed her and how I could treat it on my own – the way a real, able-bodied chicken farmer should. But my objective was quickly forgotten in the talk of fecal tests, parasites, antibiotics and dietary supplements. Before I knew it my mother was coming to our aid, visiting us at the vet’s, checkbook in hand. I could afford to walk in, but I couldn’t afford to walk out. Tests cost money, medicine costs money. And apparently, Molly needed some high tech help. Although the vet was able to massage her in a more productive way than I (the gassy smell in the room was good evidence) poor Molly’s system was fairly compromised by this point and needed assistance. The damage? $260. Hmm, let’s see, that means it ended up costing $52 a pound to mend her. Although mom knows my financial situation – that is to say she won’t be holding me to pay her back that huge sum – it’s still kinda of a bummer to know that in the end, we couldn’t do it old-school, on our own. We needed help. Phooey.
Plus it does kind of cast a shadow on the prospect of Eggs of Hope appearing to make a profit. I guess that’s kinda in the tank now anyhow. In the beginning, we did actually make some money. Not much, but some. That was then… Three years ago, when we started out, I’d hoped to keep the operation simple, organic, cheap. The girls would forage all day, reducing the need to buy feed. They lived in the garage at first (this was a disaster – chickens poop quite a lot, and they create dust, dander, just plain a dirty mess…) Live and learn. Fareed popped twelve dollars for a retired international shipping container for their coop – which ended up being, in Elihu’s words – a ‘death capsule’. A year later and a little help from my dad and we had a professionally made coop. But when the workers left us with our brand-new, empty coop, we still needed more stuff. A little extra carpentry for roosts and nesting boxes. Here began my learning process as I started to use my saws, my crude assembly of tools and salvaged lumber. But as with anything in life, there’s more to everything than one fully appreciates in the beginning. I ended up throwing in the towel this past fall, when my roosting bars finally fell under the jostling of twenty birds. For the time being we’re using tree branches stretched across the rungs of a couple dilapidated ladders for roosting bars. And the nesting boxes I made (I’m actually kinda proud of these) still sit on the floor of the coop – rather than a few feet up and on the wall as they should be. The fence which once (well, almost once) enclosed them is now in tatters, and I can’t keep a one of them inside. All in all it’s a sketchy, hillbillyish setup at the moment. But this year, goddamit, I will finally get it all under control.
There’s something to be learned in every new endeavor. And I’ve learned a lot these past three years. Ultimately what I take away from my experience thus far is that having chickens – doing it right, that is – actually does take some organization, infrastructure and yes, money. And sometimes even a trip to the vet.
A Post-Script: Molly seems a tad better now. At this writing, some twenty-four hours after her trip to the vet, she’s begun to drink water on her own and looks a bit less stressed than she did before.