Tuesday, July 1, 2014

In the Same Room: Death and Life

"Mom!  Look at that dog!"  A large, shaggy, anonymously-yellow dog lopes across the back of our property along the edge of the corn.  The hairs on my neck prickle as I began walking towards it thinking to shoo it on its way.  But it stops, smelling at the empty chicken coop.  My stomach clenches -the girls are out!

In a matter of seconds, the dog looks at me then sights a chicken and takes off at a full run.  Now I run, pursuing the dog as he runs after my girls, snapping and pulling out tail feathers.  The chickens squawk in terror, flap their wings and fly in all directions.


I began shrieking as I run.  Our son, dressed only in his striped pajama bottoms, stands on the back stoop and watches with fear.

"Robert!  Robert!"

I scream as loud as I can, but it feels like a dream where nothing comes out of my mouth and I don't make a sound.  It seems like forever before he responds, running from the house.  Robert, barefoot in a t-shirt and boxers, takes off after the dog with a "Roarrrr!" but it is too late.  The dog has Miss Rhode Island in his mouth and is running back in the direction he had come from.

"Get the other girls!  Get my gun!"  Robert shouts instructions as he runs after the dog.

I frantically run in the house, pushing past Evan.  "What are you going to do Mom, shoot it?"  "I don't know!  Get out of the way!"

 I locate his loaded Ruger and get back outside, but Robert, the dog and Miss Rhode Island are nowhere to be seen. 

I find Hattie hiding in the neighbors' juniper bushes.  She seems unharmed, but is unwilling to be coaxed out.  I leave her, figuring that if I can't reach her, the dog can't either.  I continue around the house calling, "Here chickie, chickie. Here chickie, chickie."  Dhalia and Daisy are safe on their roost.  I close the door to the coop and secure it.  My heart is races and my head and limbs vibrate from adrenaline. 

"Evan, put on some shoes and help me get Miss Hattie."

We poke and prod and reach into the junipers until Hattie emerges.  I inspect her, and finding no obvious wounds, place her in the coop with the others checking again that the latch is secure.

Robert returns winded and wheezing and doubles over to catch his breath.

"Did you see Miss Rhode Island?"

"The dog ran off with her."

"He dropped her in the neighbors' yard.  Her head was up when I ran past."

We begin searching for our wounded bird, now with flashlights as dusk is falling.  We find only occasional feathers.  "Here chickie, chickie.  Here Miss Rhode Island."  She appears out of nowhere in the grass where we have been searching and she has been hiding. She's like an apparition in the half-light.

"Stay back, Evan.  Don't go any farther, we don't want to scare her."

Robert approaches with care and scoops her up.  We bring her into the brightly lit kitchen to exam her and decide our next move.  The wound across her back is bloody, gaping - three inches in length.  It is hard to tell how deep it is, but we can see muscle and fat. 

My mind jumps into survival-mode.  I-can-fix-this-and-it-will-all-be-better mode.  I pull out our old issues of Backyard Poultry, then quickly put them aside, it is taking too much time to find the information I need.  I search Google for "dog bites on chicken."  We read some articles and then find that it is too late to go to Rural King to get the supplies we will need to do this on our own.

My next search is for "emergency vet Decatur."  I call the number and the man at the exchange tells me he does not think the local vets deal in birds, but he will have someone call me.  We wait and read some more articles on wound care.  "Did they think that was a prank call?  Why aren't they calling back?"  I run out of patience and call the exchange again.  They have my number wrong, but tell me that I will have to call the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

At the U of I emergency line and speak with Dr. McCann, the vet on call.  He advises that we should come in.  "Call back when you are a half hour out so that we can prepare for you."  I redress Evan then wrap up Miss Rhode Island in a towel and we load up for the hour-long drive to Urbana.

After-hours emergency vet care is performed in the large animal clinic.  Dr. McCann meet us in the parking lot with a question:  "I need to understand the nature of this chicken.  Is she a beloved pet or a laying hen?"

"That's a hard question.  She lays eggs for us, but she's also a pet.  Maybe somewhere in between?"  The way I cradle the chicken and stroke her neck probably give a better answer than I can with words.

We are ushered down wide hallways with bare concrete floors.  It smells of cows and horses, hay and manure and antiseptic.  Cows are lowing from one of the halls we pass.  There are holding pens, a cow inverter and multiple doors large enough for trailers to back up to and unload livestock.  It feels very surreal and much too large for our 6 pound girl.

Dr. McCann places Miss Rhode Island on an exam table and begins to clean her wound.  A veterinary student attempts to administer oxygen while speaking gently to her.  She flicks her head and turns aside, not liking the feel of the air at all.  Another student listens to her heart and lungs and takes her temperature. 

As he flushes more water over her back the doctor explains, "I'm looking for air bubbles that would indicate any pierced air sacks."

Another student enters.  "Doctor the doe in stalled labor is a half hour out."  "Okay, get set up and page Dr. Stewart."

"I don't generally work with small animals.  I would like to call over to the small animal clinic and see if there's another doctor to take a look."

Dr. Stewart arrives and gives some advice to Dr. McCann, then leaves to get some sedatives for our chicken.  "We'll make her more comfortable and help with her pain so that it will be easier to treat her."

With medications administered, Dr. Stewart returns to her preparations for the laboring goat.  To her student she says:  "I don't hold out much hope for a viable birth.  The doe has been in labor a long time, but she might surprise me."  All I can think about now is how I'm going to explain to my son not only this goat giving birth in the same room, but also the dead babies that she may deliver.

While we wait for the consulting vet I begin to prepare myself for the weeks of care ahead.  "How often should I change bandages?"  Every 2-3 days.  "How do you give oral medications to a chicken?  I've given them to cats, but chickens?"  Inject them into meal worms or wax worms.  "Should I use a triple antibiotic ointment?" Yes.

Activity picks up as a very pregnant goat is wheeled in on a cart, her worried owners in tow.  The vet and students gently off-load the animal onto a rubberized mat in the holding pen next to us.  Immediately, Dr. Stewart sets to work prepping the doe for delivery and questioning the owners about her labor.

The small animal vet arrives in the flurry of people now in the exam room.  She is sympathetic to Miss Rhode Island and speaks kindly to her while getting Dr. McCann's assessment.  To us she says: "I'm going to exam her as well and then we can discuss whether or not to suture the wound or allow it to heal by second intention."  She listens to the chicken's heart and air sacks, then begins to probe the wound site.

The goat is moaning as Dr. Stewart grips the first kid's feet firmly and twists it back and forth.  Very quickly it seems the baby slips from its mother and is handed of to a student who waits with a towel.  "Is it breathing?  Is it alive?"  The owner is asking what we are all thinking.  The student vigorously rubs the kid and suctions his nostrils and mouth.  The kid bleats weakly and wiggles a bit.  We all sigh in relief and laugh a bit at his cuteness grateful for a break in the tension.  At least one is alive.  Dr. Stewart smiles and begins to work on the next kid.

"This doesn't look good."  I turn back to the vet.  "Her skin has separated from the muscle far past the wound.  I can reach my finger up way under the skin and hook my finger around her shoulder."  "What does that mean?"  "Well, it's a deep pocket.  You can try to heal it at home, but it will take more intense care to keep an abscess from forming and infecting the wing joint.  It will be a lot longer healing process."  The wind is out of the sails.  Thoughts of where I might obtain a dog kennel at midnight on Sunday vanish.  This is way more than I bargained for.

"Can we have some time to talk?"  "Sure, take all the time you need, we can wait here with the bird.  If you decide to treat the wound we will give you as much instruction as we can as well as antibiotics and pain medication.  Take all the time you need."

For the first time since arriving, Robert, Evan and I step away from the table.  "I don't know that I can care for a wound this serious.  I think it's beyond me."  Robert nods, the muscles in his jaw working as he clenches his teeth.  He answers: "I know what we need to do.  Why is it so hard to do it?"  I hold his bicep with one hand and slip my other around his waist.  "I don't want to torture her.  I'm afraid that if I try to treat it she will be worse off.  This is beyond me."

I kneel down to explain to Evan what is happening.  "Miss Rhode Island is hurt too bad for us to fix.  We can't make her better.  The doctor is going to give her some medicine to help her go to sleep.  It will stop her heart and she will die."  "Will she wake up?" "No, honey.  She will be dead, but she won't hurt anymore.  Do you understand?"  He nods as his lip quivers.  I pull him close, whisper how much I love him and how sorry I am.

"We may have to do a cesarean to get the next one out.  It keeps slipping back in."  "Will she be able to kid again?"  "Maybe, it's tricky with goats."

Dr. Stewart is holding on to two tiny hooves.  A stream of blood and water flows across the floor and under the exam table that Miss Rhode Island rests on.

In the same room: death and life.

I tell the waiting vets, "This is more than I can care for.  We're going to have to put her down."  I can barely get the words out before tears and tight throat takes over.  I have held it together through dog chase and flying feathers and gash and car ride, but now it is too much.  "It really is the best thing for her."  The doctors are kind and reassuring.  "We will prepare the drugs and some paperwork for you to sign.  Take as much time with her as you need."

We pet our chicken and whisper softly to her as she lies sleepy from pain medicine and wet from the water used to flush her wounds.  She shivers a bit and I cover her with the towel she is laying on.

Behind us the second kid is born.  She is floppy as if her limbs are filled with jello rather than bone.  The students take over suctioning, rubbing, drying, stimulating.  She needs more encouragement than her brother, but she has made it.

The doctor returns with a form to sign.  "We'll take the body.  I want to bury her at home."  I look to Robert.  He nods.  When the time comes, Robert takes Evan to wait outside.  Miss Rhode Island is given more sedation and then, finally, a barbiturate that stops her heart.

I will not say that she went peacefully.  If you've ever seen death you'll know that's a lie, a dressing up of the truth.  She is no longer in pain or in danger of greater pain at my well-meaning, but inadequate efforts to rehabilitate her.

I wrap my chicken back up in the towel I brought her in.  We thank the doctors for their compassion and kindness to us.  And I stop one last time to admire the baby goats.

"Congratulations on your babies.  I'm so glad that they made it."

"Thank you.  We're so sorry for your loss."

In Loving Memory of Miss Rhode Island 3/2010 - 6/2014


In Appreciation of the Compassionate and Competent Doctors and Students at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital


  1. I am so sorry for your loss! We had lots of chickens on our farm, but none of them were pets. So I can not relate in that way, but loosing them to a dog or a cyotte never was easy. Hugs to you and your family in this loss.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Sara. I am glad to know your family was supportive in this situation. I am taking my cat in for surgery today, and it is an investment into his future. It helps that my husband is supportive, and also has the time to take him in for the surgery. We are hoping for a good result, but you never know when an animal goes under. Blessings, Kate Stankovic