Which Comes First, the Chicken or Your Wallet?

The perils of pet ownership.
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(Illustration: Gary Neill)

(Illustration: Gary Neill)

I knew the chicken was sick the way I know when my kids are sick. The listlessness, the glassy eyes. She wobbled uneasily and plunked down on the snow.

If I were a farmer, I’d have known what to do. But I live a quarter mile outside Boston. We had bought our chickens on a whim, for $4.50 apiece at the feed store, and watched them grow from peeping fluff balls into big clucking birds who strut around the backyard. They’re productive—sometimes an egg a day each, delicious—but we mostly think of them as pets. We gave them names. This one was Dee Dee.

I looked online for advice, but researching a chicken illness on the Internet is like researching a human one. No certainty, but a litany of dire possibilities: parasite, bumblefoot, impacted egg.

So I called the top-shelf animal hospital nearby. The woman on the line said I should definitely bring Dee Dee to the emergency room. Which is how I found myself walking, a little sheepishly, into the vast waiting room of the animal ER with my chicken slumped in a cat carrier.

Most pet owners will eventually come to this moment of reckoning, weighing a beloved family member against a finite bank account.

At the front desk, I stroked Dee Dee’s yellow feathers as the attendant charged me a $145 intake fee. I settled into the “Avian/Exotics” waiting area, beside a woman with a bunny and a man with a ferret. Eventually, a vet came out to inform me that Dee Dee was resting comfortably. But for expert advice, I needed to pay an “avian consult fee” ($70).

I agreed. The vet disappeared and returned a half hour later.

“We think this chicken is really sick,” she said. She recommended a three-night hospital stay ($800 to $1,000).

Human health care isn’t usually delivered this way, led with the bare realities of cost. But most pet owners will eventually come to this moment of reckoning, weighing a beloved family member against a finite bank account. When your pet is an agricultural product, the relationship feels even more tenuous. I cared about Dee Dee. But I also knew that at that moment, defrosting in my fridge, was a Bell & Evans free-range roaster chicken ($3.99/pound).

“Is there a home-care option?” I said.

“I thought you might ask,” the vet replied. For another $80, they could give Dee Dee fluids, an iron shot, and prescription medicine to coat her esophagus. For $40 more, they could conduct fecal sample tests, to screen for parasites. But I’d have to sign a consent form, confirming that I was acting against medical advice.

I agreed.

I later told this story to Drake Patten, a trained anthropologist who now owns Cluck!, a farm-supply store in the center of Providence, Rhode Island. She wasn’t surprised. Backyard hens are on the upswing in America; in a 2013 study of chicken ownership in four big American cities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 7.4 percent of Denver residents planned to get chickens within five years. But hens are a novelty for many of their doting new owners, Patten says, and most urban veterinarians aren’t trained in the care of poultry. This mix of mutual ignorance and genuine concern has predictable results. Patten knows people who have spent $1,000 on surgery to remove a chicken’s stuck egg, only to have it happen again, a result of a quirk in that bird’s anatomy.

Patten handles her own flock with a farmer’s detachment, and end-of-life decisions always loom. A hen that stops laying is usually slaughtered and turned into stock. If a chicken is ill and home remedies fail, she’ll end its suffering with a swift snap of the neck. She advises customers not to name their hens.

But in the animal hospital, everyone has a name. “Are you Dee Dee’s mom?” the pharmacy clerk asked, as I paid for some medicine that I would somehow have to wedge into Dee Dee’s beak. After several hours, my chicken was returned to me, fortified. As I handed over my credit card at checkout, Dee Dee made her first noise of the day: a tentative “Pwack?”

She perked up more on the drive home. Apparently, she had been hungry. We plied her with snacks. By the next morning, she was back to herself.

Two days later, I got a voicemail from the vet. Dee Dee’s fecal tests had come back negative. She wasn’t sure what was wrong. It might be “a more severe disease,” like cancer. Or maybe, she said, the chicken was just fine.

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