In my last column I wrote about how I’d embraced the local agriculture movement by joining a chicken coop co-op in town and how much I was enjoying my new ethos of local, sustainable agriculture because the chickens were friendly and the eggs were good.
I also wrote about how I had my heart broken when our little brood was culled without warning and how I was leery of the dozen new hens that replaced them because they were strangers.
Well, I’ve moved on.
The temptation with heartbreak is to bury yourself in distraction – work, drinking, shopping or moving on to other chickens and that’s what I’ve done.
Like their predecessors, the new birds are from the Polar Egg farm in Hay River, but unlike the old birds that had mellowed with age, these girls are young and radical.
At first I regarded them with suspicion. They hadn’t yet faced life’s heartless compromises and forfeitures, its countless boring trials and shattering losses.
And like a flock of entitled Millennials, they clucked noisily whenever they didn’t get their own way.
They scarfed down their feed like it was their God-given right. And they were liable to peck you for no good reason.
And like most young people, they were still trying to figure out how to be normal, functioning individuals.
For example, some of their eggs were huge and had double yolks. Other eggs were thin-shelled to the point of translucency. These were too soft to crack and would dent like ping-pong balls.
But the birds were not all bad. I always let them roam free whenever I was cleaning the coop and collecting my eggs so they could wander around the yard and take dust baths, which they loved. Then when I was done they’d file back into their home without too much coaxing.
Things were going fine until one of them fell seriously ill.
It all started with the butt. What had once been a healthy collection of fluffy feathers was now a sad grey mass of wilted plumage. There was a terrible discharge mixed with fecal matter and some crusting. It was not a pretty sight.
None of the co-op members could decide what was wrong with her. Was it fungal? Bacterial? An impacted egg?
Our co-op is made up of intellectuals, professionals and government workers, but there’s not one chicken farmer among us.
I personally believe she had vent gleet. According to backyardchickens.com, vent gleet is also referred to as an avian yeast infection, cloacitis, thrush or nasty chicken butt and is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection.
We had the sense to quarantine the chicken in her own little cage lest she infect the others and now we were faced with a moral dilemma: to cull or to cure.
How much were we willing to invest to save a life?
Why would a person who is very much looking forward to buying a 12-piece KFC chicken meal for about $30, when that fast-food eatery makes its triumphant return to Yellowknife, invest any time or money to save one bird?
Why do people buy fancy technological gadgets while opposing child labour?
Why do they go and illegally download music and movies while realizing theft is wrong?
I suppose it’s because people are filled with contradictions and our principles rarely reflect our actions.
In any case, we were emotionally invested in this bird.
She had a name – Gladys – and once emotions were involved we parted ways with common sense.
Following advice we found online, we gave Gladys all sorts of foods to try and improve her gut health such as yogurt and apple cider vinegar. We even lovingly bathed her in Epsom salts.
But it just wasn’t enough. She stopped eating, wouldn’t drink and lost an alarming amount of weight.
The prognosis was grim. Most doctors would’ve recommended purely palliative treatment at this point.
In desperation we took her to Yellowknife veterinarian Dr. Tom Pisz who prescribed her an antibiotic. The vet visit cost the co-op $102.82.
Putting the little syringe into her beak and injecting the drugs was a two-person job and it had to be done twice a day.
The coop co-op members gave her excellent care – except when I didn’t give her the medicine when I was too busy or forgot, sorry Gladys – and went far beyond the call of duty in trying to save this bird’s life.
And after all of that I would like to tell you that she got better but, sadly, she did not. I’m sorry. This is the newspaper, not Disneyland.
But consider this. There are an estimated 25 billion chickens on the planet and most of them live in terrible conditions on factory farms. Every year, billions of them are trucked to slaughterhouses, dangled upside down on conveyor belts and killed.
But Gladys died peacefully in her sleep on a heating pad. So that’s something.
One night a few weeks ago I went to the grocery store.
While perusing the poultry section and seeing all those birds under plastic wrap, I got to thinking about Gladys. I thought about how I would fill a bucket full of hot water, pour in the Epson salts and wait for the water to reach a comfortable temperature. Then I’d pick her up, put her in the bucket and gently scrub her messed up backside. Sometimes she’d flap about and spray me with a mixture of chicken bath water and filth, which was gross, but sometimes she’d settle into that bath and look very content.
Then I’d take her out and apply warm blow-dryer air to her freshly washed feathers.
We are evolved to eat meat – it is right and natural – but that night at the grocery store I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to buy chicken.
I got beef instead.