I am going to tell you a sad chicken story. Get your hankies out. You have been warned. And if you’re a Buddhist, a vegetarian or of a nervous disposition I think you’d better move swiftly on, gentle reader. It has become my great privilege to become a chicken keeper. But with the joys of having them clucking around my feet with their funny ways, producing eggs and keeping my garden bug free as well as providing manure, comes also the sorrow.
Chickens are not immortal. They get sick and they die. And sometimes they get sick and you have to put them out of their misery. The hard truth is we eat their eggs and we eat them. And it’s messy. When we got a chicken from the supermarket its all wrapped up in a plastic bag and already gutted and plucked. A lot of my friends have said that’s the way they’d like to keep it and I don’t blame them for that. But I have always been of the belief that it’s better to be able to look a creature in the, eye, kill it and eat it, because then you have taken responsibility for what has taken place. But I tell you one thing, that’s very hard.
My first chicken, my beautiful brave cockerel Nando, who defended his hens from all comers, even me, has gone. In fact I killed him. This is very shocking to me. Before I came to Portugal I’d hardly ever killed a creature. Maybe the odd robin that was already flayed by the cat, but nothing substantial. Since I have kept chickens, we have killed three. None of them were killed for food, but rather to put them out of their misery.
The first one to cop it, poor Chicken Licken, was bitten by something, probably a weasel or a cat and the bite got infected before we really knew it was there. She was staggering about looking very woebegone and so, with a heavy heart and thanking her for her life, we researched a quick and effective method of despatching her and did the deed. I wasn’t prepared for the mess, the fluttering after death or the sadness I felt. But I know we did the right thing.
The second chicken, rather unfortunately named Yoko, had a problem with egg laying. She kept laying shell-less eggs. (I don’t mean to sound facetious, but I have adopted a kind of gallows humour about all this, so I can cope) As long as she looked happy we persevered, removing the eggs from the egg boxes and clearing up after her. But eventually she got peritonitis and she too was despatched. Very disconcertingly, she blinked at me once reproachfully from the eye on her beheaded head. I howled for an hour.
But my cockerel was my precious. I always told myself I wouldn’t get sentimental over the creatures. So much for that! I find it impossible not to be emotional about them. They follow me around whilst I’m gardening, I nurse them when they’re sick. How can I not feel something for them? And this same gallows humour is adopted by many of the Portuguese country people hereabouts, who joke about eating their cockerels with “batatas” but still suffer when they have to take the knife to them.
Nando got sick. The whole flock caught fowl pox, which isn’t a serious disease in its dry form. I suspect they caught it from the collared doves who spread it to them via mosquito bites. They survived it well and each recovered in turn, but Nando caught the wet form of it and developed sores in his throat. The poor bird coudn’t crow and call his hens for tasty morsels. He began to lose control of them and only his stalwart first hen, Mother Clucker stayed by his side. I watched over him for weeks, poring over internet forums. I fed him all the normal remedies, garlic and oregano, natural antibiotics and small amouts of olive oil as advised to me by a neighbour. But he couldn’t beat it. I went to the vet who gave me antibiotics and caught him every morning and evening, hand feeding it to him wrapped up in egg morning and night , but he only got worse and worse until his breathing became laboured and raspy. He spent his days amongst the grasses in the garden, staying still and fighting his last fight.
One morning he came out of his coop unable to walk properly and I knew it was time to put him out of his misery. Such a dignified bird shouldnt be suffering the indignity of not being able to be the first in the coop at night. The strangest thing was is that I felt it was me alone who should send him to the Great Chicken Coop in the sky. I had looked after him for the past two years and felt it should be me to carry things through, and not my husband or someone else. I didn’t know if I would have the strength of will to carry out this act of mercy, but somewhere I found it. I won’t go into details but it is one of the worst things I have ever had to do. So now I am a chicken keeper and a chicken murderer.
The moral of this sad story is think carefully, dear friends, before you decide to keep them, because these issues will come to you too, sooner or later. But there is a happy ending to this story, or at least the promise of one. The day after Nando departed this world, Mrs Chicken, one of his hens became broody. And she is at this moment sitting on a clutch of his fertilised eggs. If they hatch and there is a male, I shall keep him and call him Phoenix. Mind you, if there is more than one male, I will probably kill and eat his brothers. Will I? Or maybe I’ll just become a vegetarian!