I am oft referred to as 'The Chicken Lady', a title to which I am actually quite partial. If I convey in my enthusiasm for chicken keeping, how much I truly love my girls (and the one boy~ Harold!) then hopefully, those to whom I procrastinate about chickens will get a sense of how significant a pet can become to a smaller and younger person.
Imagine my devastation then to return from holidays to discover that Dilys and Fussy have been snatched. We are no longer a flock of 7, but only 5. Snatched by what, I am not completely sure...certainly a hawk or similar, judging by only the smattering of feathers left behind.
But surely, I hear some of you say...this is nature. Crikey, from others...how can you encourage children to keep pets if this is the sticky possibility of how it ends? And yes, both are true. I accept that my dearest chickens met the misfortune of a passing predator. There is no blame to attribute. It is a risk of every chicken keeper. But equally, I shed a few tears and there is a lesson to be learned....
Fussy the silkie, was more than a chicken to me. She was hatched at the school where I once worked. Her main behaviour was preening and she walked with a dislike of dirt. She was one of 2 twins (Scruffy remains devastated and unable to leave the safety of the coop). Through time she has squeezed and squawked, bullied and pecked chickens twice her size...in short (forgive that pun!) a personality emerged distinguishing her from other chickens. Dilys, the largest and strongest of my chickens was the defender of the pack, first in line to the worms and a regular double-yoked layer. She was the 'bruiser', top of the pecking order and could run (or fly) like the wind. I couldn't catch her, so fair shout to that hawk!
What this exemplifies for me, is that pets are not merely animals. As we live and grow with them, we begin to identify, to anthropomorphise, to laugh at their idiosyncrasies, to relate their behaviour back to our own. As Fussy bullied the bigger chickens, I empathised with the underdog. As children live with and watch chickens, they learn about life, death, food, function but more importantly, about pecking order, bullying behaviour (foul behaviour!?) friendships, identity, personality, care and nurture. They learn these things not only by going through the motions, but by feeling. Chickens, like other pets, offer attachment, relationship of sorts. They are vulnerable and dependent, inviting nurture and care. They are fearful, inviting protection, they are soft, offering touch comfort, they are chatty and curious, stimulating our own curiosity and chat.
...and they do not live forever. Whether they die a natural death, or an unfortunate 'chicken-napping' like my own girls, this attachment is tested. We learn about the pain of separation and death, but in a safe and supported context where we might rationalise, talk about and explore this tricky issue and the associated feelings and so learn to assimilate the ending of relationships and death (as will happen untold times throughout life) and begin to grow more resilient in the face of it.
Fairwell Dilys and Fussy. I already miss you.