Monday, August 3, 2009

Farewell, Eunice

I have stalled for several weeks on writing this post as I’ve dealt with the loss of yet another of my beloved girls, Eunice, who died on June 26th. Now, 5 weeks later, I think I can finally face this.

I have great guilt over Eunice’s death – not that I caused it through some overt act of negligence or malice but that I contributed to it in some way that I am not aware. And then there’s the voice – “What does it say about me that I can’t keep my animals safe and healthy?” I might as well be saying “What kind of a mother am I?”

Eunice’s illness began with the same symptoms 6 weeks after Althea died - loose stools and a distinct change in behavior from her usual raucous self to a more subdued hen. I cried when I first saw her this way and was so afraid she would take the same path as Althea. I also worried that my not giving her the worm medicine in April because it was so hard to contain her was the cause of this illness. More guilt.

There’s no way for me to know if the medicine would have helped and I suspect not, as Althea did not respond to it either. But I gave Eunice the 5 day treatment and when it was clear she was not improving I consulted with a local poultry owner in town. He’s got a whole myriad of birds and keeps them in wonderful surroundings. Being from the old school (like my Italian grandfather), raising birds seems a natural way of life. He suggested a course of antibiotics which I immediately began by adding it to the girls’ water.

But Eunice continued to get weaker and then started falling to one side. She couldn’t hold her head up straight and every time I looked at her it just broke my heart. Every day I brought her out of the coop when she could no longer negotiate the ramp and every night I placed her back inside. As it was with Althea, the other girls seemed to take note of Eunice’s condition and they too were subdued.

During this entire period there should have been the joy of having Flora and Gertrude join the flock. They were still quite young, they ran everywhere, and their high pitched chirps were nonstop. But all I could see was Eunice and how hard everything was becoming for her. If anyone had told me a few years ago that I would get this upset over a sick chicken I wouldn’t have believed it. Well, that’s not exactly true….I have a huge soft spot for animals and seeing them suffer always makes my heart weep.

I just kept thinking there should be more I could do for Eunice. I searched the internet and consulted books, and finally posted a question at Backyard Chickens, a wonderful online resource. I got some advice though honestly, there were so many possibilities that it was hard to sort out a clear action plan. I think that is one of the things that I find so difficult in raising backyard chickens. Was my coop cleaning practice (or lack of) the problem? I thought once a month was sufficient but then I started raking it out every day in case I’d allowed something to fester in the run. Should I have been giving preventive additives to food or water? I bought organic apple vinegar and added that to the water. I considered adding cayenne pepper to their feed but didn’t do that (it helps prevent worms). And which antibiotic and for how long? It’s just not as clear as I wanted it to be…

And all during this time Eunice continued to weaken. I finally brought her into the basement when it was obvious she was not going to improve. She was so brave but it didn’t help. I realized something that had been troubling me about Eunice’s and previously, Althea’s illness. When we have a pet that becomes sick, we immediately take them to the vet where it is common practice to make a diagnosis and come up with a medical plan. And when that plan is not to intervene but to end the suffering then that often happens very quickly – in the interest of not letting the pet suffer. It’s not often that we accompany our pets on this journey towards the end of life.

Even the most caring vet could not help me fully with Althea and it didn’t seem to make sense to put Eunice through the same process. So there was no question that Eunice would be cared for at home until the end. And that is the difference. Naomi and I cared for Eunice for almost 2 weeks before she died and it was a heart wrenching process. She was too weak to take food or water that last week but she still hung on. We even took her to my sister’s house on the Cape when we had planned a few days visit. Poor Eunice made the trip in the back of our little car and every day I prayed she would let go and die but she had an amazing reserve. And all the time I did my soul searching wondering what I was doing wrong. Two chickens dying in two months…

I am grateful to my wonderful step-daughter, Sharon, who is wise in these matters. She kept telling me that chickens are fragile animals and that I was not doing anything wrong. I feed the girls well, give them fresh water, and plenty of yard time. I keep the coop clean. And I love and care for them and still it isn’t always enough. These things just happen and the animals we love get sick and sometimes they die, but it’s so hard.

Eunice was a spunky girl who had a good, though all too short, life. She was so different from the other hens but once she made that adjustment to the other girls she was forever a part of the family. She never liked being picked up and she was a squawker who would run in terror when you got too close. After all, she was a Silver Campine, an ‘ornamental bird from Belgium’ as I liked to say, and they are very particular. But she was a lot of fun and I miss her.