When you get a flock of chickens, you don't think much about how they're going to die. You're not yet attached to them, so it's unclear exactly how upsetting their deaths will even be. You're too busy building the coop and installing heat lamps and buying waterers and pine shavings.
I remember that we decided to start with four chicks, thinking that we really only wanted three, but hey, one of them might well die of something or other, so we should get a back-up. (No one would ever do that with a cat. If you wanted one cat, you'd just get one, on the assumption that it probably wouldn't die.) So you get your three chicks plus a back-up, and you give them names, and discover that they have unique personalities that are apparent from the day they emerge from their shells, and then the idea of one of them dying of "something or other" is just too awful to bear. They become like every other pet, a beloved creature expected to live an unusually long and happy life.
So Dolley has had this impacted crop for years. The crop is a sort of feed bag that sits atop the breast; food goes there first and then should move along. Something blocked hers up and food has never moved along very well since then. We have an avian vet in town, and the vet has prescribed a "motility drug" aimed at getting her crop working again (Metoclopramide, for those of you who need to know). In the past, that has helped.
It also helps to pick her up and massage her crop, an activity we both enjoyed. Dolley was as tame as a cat and just as affectionate. If a chicken could purr, she would have purred whenever I worked on her crop.
So Dolley managed just fine with this stretched-out, weird, balloon-like crop. But whatever was blocking it–a growth of some sort, we think–finally got too big and lately she wasn't digesting anything at all. When we took her to the vet, she weighed 2.5 pounds. Most of that was the grapefruit-sized ball of undigested food in her crop.
There's not much that one can do for a chicken. If we thought it was a foreign object–a bit of wadded-up plastic that blew into the yard, maybe–they could have slit her crop open and pulled it out. But this was clearly a growth. And so she died today in the way that all privileged pets in America die.
Which is quite a bit different from how most chickens in America die.
I thought about that as I left the vet with my empty carrier and the little nosegay of flowers they keep on hand to give to the bereaved. If I was a meat eater, I guess I'd have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to explain why the death of my hen was so different from the death of last night's dinner.
But to me, Dolley and her flock-mates are pets just like any other, except that they are heartbreakingly vulnerable–to predators, to poisonous plants, to bits of rubber bands they foolishly ingest– and difficult to nurse through complicated medical problems. I've always had cats and I find them to be straightforward affairs: they have their hairballs, their fleas, their failing kidneys as they age. You know what to expect, any vet knows what to do, and you can pretty well count on a good fifteen to twenty years from a cat. That puts more than a decade between each crying jag in the vet's parking lot. But I'm seven years into my chickens, and I've already lost two of them.
I don't know, folks. I think this may be more Death With Dignity than I'm cut out for. This backyard chicken craze has been great in a lot of ways, but you know what? These chickens are not bred for longevity. And in fact, they come from big hatcheries that probably don't worry too much about genetic diversity or inbreeding. A tumor that takes six years to kill a hen is just not a concern for the average farmer. But the chickens we buy as pets are the same ones that are headed for a short life on the farm.
We are down to four chickens. I don't know if I have the heart to replenish the flock next spring. The remaining four will vie for a spot at the top of the pecking order, the place from which Dolley ruled with intelligence and queenly authority. She was my favorite. I'll miss her the most.