Not too long ago, a friend of my wife in the organic farmers group told her that with care and protection, our chickens might live to the age of 10 or 12 years. As it is hard to imagine a more protected, more cosseted group of chickens than our little flock, my wife was optimistic.
As each of us get older, if we are still fondly espoused, the thought of outliving our spouse does not seem that enticing. If we have dear animal companions, the thought of seeing our pets die, or worse, “putting them to sleep” depresses us. My wife’s best friend (who lives in Portland), just had to have her much loved cat put to sleep.
Although my wife (as am I) is still healthy, perhaps she imagined our chickens would outlive us. As chickens are productive at laying eggs for only a couple of years, she put out of her mind the difficulties and expenses of feeding, housing and caring for an ever-growing flock of superannuated chickens. If nothing else, we don’t have the room, and I am not about to build another hen house.
As chickens go, Little Peep was not that charming. She pecked the pullets. She ate sow bugs, earthworms, and beetles with relish, with little concern that they were other living creatures who had lives of their own to live. Well, she did let us “pet” her, but only because her “a rooster is about to mount me” instinctual drives took over.
Even so, my wife thought she might carry on pecking and scratching for another five to ten years. When she started limping, my wife hoped she might still be able to survive. As my wife began to accept that Little Peep was not going to live, she hoped that one day I would open the basement door and see she had passed away in her sleep in her cage. Each morning she was alive. Each day, she feebly but persistently pecked at the weeds I put in her cage.
This morning, my wife said to me, “We can’t go on like this. You will have to dispose of her. She has some sort of infection. Don’t throw her out for the eagles or hawks; she might make them sick.” Little Peep liked bugs the best, but it was too hard to find enough for a suitable last meal. All the hens consider oats as a kind of candy. My wife gave her one last generous portion of oats to peck. Then I took her to the other side of the house (where the other chickens could not see what I was about to do).
My wife insisted on watching. Chickens don’t stop moving all that quickly. Even after they are dead, they are still thrashing around for a while. Eventually, she stopped moving. My wife sobbed. I said, “Go inside. I will finish up disposing of her.”
I wrapped Little Peep’s remains in a plastic bag and put her in the trash can. We now have four chickens. As far as I can see, they are all healthy.
I notice there is a new movie out, called Contagion, about a epidemic striking humans on earth. Perhaps I will take the chickens to see it at the local movie theatre. They can peck at popcorn and crap on the seats as they watch. They are too dumb to realize that if humans die off, no one will be around to fill their water container, put out their chicken feed, or keep the juice running in the electric fence that protects them from the raccoons.