Trigger warning: I talk about the death of animals.
We lost our last little bantam hen to the cold a couple of nights ago. Last year we lost Miss Frizzle to a skunk, which left poor Lemon (aka "Pay Shay", depending on the day) without a bunk mate. You see, we tried to integrate 4 little bantam hens to our flock of bigger birds, but when one got pecked to death we knew we had to separate them. They then became Vera's "peeps" and we made a little coop next to her playhouse outside. That was almost 2 years ago now. She took care of them some in the warmer weather and we thought it a good responsibility for her. But then we found out one was a rooster (we're not allowed roosters in the city), so we found a new home for him. That took it down to Miss Frizzle and Lemon, but this past November a skunk broke into their coop and sweet Frizz was lost. Lemon made it though, and ever since we've been trying to put her in with the big chickens again.
They hadn't been terrible to her, but you could tell that she wasn't fully accepted. She'd hang out up in the roost while the rest of them ate, or she'd hang out outside while they were up in the roost or eating in the run (the above picture you can see her outside of the coop while the others are in). She'd spend a few days in there with them, but often would end up finding her way back to the original coop where she'd huddle up by herself. With these colder than cold days, we'd usually check in that small coop for her and put her back with the bigs each night. It warmed up a bit and we saw that she was back by her old coop. The temperatures dipped again and neither Jeff or I thought to check on her. Then, two nights ago it was a heavy realization for us both that she might not be okay after potentially spending a whole frigid night and day on her own and that neither of us had checked on her. Sure enough, she was huddled in her usual spot, but this time all the life had left her.
We had to tell Vera, and she was very upset but I was proud of the way she weathered her emotions about it. She ripped up paper and said "I'm mad, so I'm ripping this now. Are you mad too, Mama?" So I said that, yes, I was mad. At that point she offered me half of her paper and said we could rip it together. <3
We put the kids to bed and then Jeff and I both grieved quite a bit together. We felt so terrible about it. What's strange is that we are no stranger to chicken death around here. We've lost a couple here and there, and we've killed them with our own hands. We were recently talking about killing our own flock because this winter has been so harsh and they are older now. We have recognized and accepted the reality of our responsibility to the animals we keep, which to us will sometimes include taking their lives.
In some ways our sadness was encouraging to me. I am planning on keeping more animals when we go live on the land, and I was gearing up for more of that level of stewardship- which would likely include more tough jobs and decisions. I know how it feels to decide to take a life for food, and now I know how it feels to lose a life to irresponsibility and just generally crappy conditions. These details matter. I know now that killing an animal for food feels purposeful and swift, but the same result by another means brings about grief unexpected.
I never wanted to become hardened, but in some ways I anticipated it. Now I'm not so sure that a hardening is the right way to think about it. Maybe it's more a realization of my own natural and moral capacity? I remember being surprised the first time I killed a chicken, how it felt serious but also very okay. It didn't supply the trauma that I had geared up for. It felt more natural than I had anticipated. But this? This feels unfair, wasteful, tragic. Jeff and I vowed to each other that we won't let it happen again, and that we won't keep animals if we can't always hold up our end of the deal. Making mistakes is inevitable, I suppose. I hope to only make new mistakes when it comes to the care of other living things.