Lay of the Land: A series of essays on the spirit of Montana
I made the phone call hoping he wouldn’t answer. This was going to be tough conversation and my husband, although great under pressure, would have a hard time making this decision. I was trying to figure out a way to lessen the impact.
Earl’s X-rays showed no obvious fractures but possibly soft tissue damage. We were looking at a couple of months of physical therapy and massive doses of antibiotics if there was any hope of a full recovery. I was thinking about how to break the news when unfortunately Joe answered the phone. I ran through the good news first, to give him hope, but then I had no choice but to just lay it all out there: Earl may never walk again.
Joe: “Who is Earl?”
Me: “Earl The Girl.”
Joe: “Wait. What? The chicken? Did you take a chicken to the vet? Did you really just say something about physical therapy?”
Me: “I don’t think we’re talking about a wave pool or a stair climber. Just some exercises to strengthen her legs.”
Joe: “You mean her ‘drum sticks’? In some cultures they would just eat the chicken. I can’t remember which culture that is. Hmm… OH YEAH! I remember. OUR CULTURE!”
I am a fourth-generation Montanan. I come from hardy stock with deep ranching roots. My mother’s people own hundreds of acres of ranch land in central Montana and my father’s people still ranch in northwestern Montana. My people understand that animals are a business. They don’t name their critters and they certainly don’t have long-drawn-out funerals for a calf who didn’t survive the early spring cold snap.
Although I had this rural desire to own animals, I was raised by two peace-loving hippie psychologists who bordered on Hinduism in their beliefs about the place of animals in our world. My mother was a cat-kissing, mouse-rescuing, bug-relocating bird lover.
The two competing views of animals stamped on my DNA came together in a shit storm the day the dog got into the chicken coop.
I was washing dishes and watching the kids play in the backyard with their dad. The sun was lighting up their faces and I was thinking that I wanted to capture this moment in time.
Fun Fact: Chickens are pretty fast. They can run up to 9 mph and fly up to 6 feet high when given the proper motivation. Being chased by a German wire-haired pointer is proper motivation.
I saw chickens feathers and dust and the flailing arms of two young boys. I ran out to the backyard. There was squawking and barking and screaming. Several of the chickens were down. Joe had grabbed the nearest limp chicken and began swinging it at his $1,500 bird dog yelling, “Bad dog! No birds!” He swung the limp bird around violently while screaming. The dog ran into the house, no doubt to look at the most recent issue of Gun Dog magazine to get a refresher on the difference between the birds he was encouraged to fetch and the birds that were a definite no-no. We walked through the coop and surveyed the downed birds. As we were deciding what to do about the carnage, they started to pop up. They shook off their stupor and fluffed themselves back up. They started to peck at the ground as if nothing had happened. We both looked at the still-limp chicken in Joe’s hand.
The other hens, minus Martha (God rest her soul), went back to business as usual, but I noticed that Earl The Girl was not able to stand back up. She was still lying on the ground. My son picked her up and put her in a box with some hay hoping she would perk up. The next morning she was still not able to put any weight on her legs.
Me: “Yes, good morning. I would like to make an appointment. Well, our dog got into the chicken coop and I would like to make an appointment. No, the dog is fine but one of the hens is having a hard time walking and … hello?”
Me: “Yes, good morning. Do your veterinarians deal with chickens? Yes, as patients. Yes, I will hold. Yes, I know a replacement chicken would cost me about $1.37.”
Me: “Yes, good morning. I have a gimpy chicken. Can you help me or not?”
Earl was X-rayed and given a high dose of anti-inflammatory medications in addition to a high dose of antibiotics. I was given a high dose of vet bills. Earl The Girl made a full recovery. I may be guilty of anthropomorphizing, but Earl seemed grateful. While the other chickens ignored my existence unless I was toting moldy bread, Earl liked me. She would run to me, moldy bread or not, and follow me while I attended to other outside chores. After all the vet bills, we figured her eggs cost us about $5.50 each.
Martha was our first chicken fatality. We did eventually get better at dealing with chicken deaths and mostly avoided causing them. But if you are going to own farm animals, you have to be prepared to lose a few. My son started giving the chickens unappetizing names, thinking that no fox or dog would eat a chicken named Feces or Poison. I explained that the average predator probably wouldn’t take roll call before carting our chickens off to their death.
I was proved wrong when a fox got into the chicken coop this summer and ate five chickens in one swoop. He got Dean, Doug, Tupac, Kevin and Josh. Guess who he didn’t eat? Feces, Poison and Earl The Girl, the luckiest and most expensive chicken in Montana.
Carrie Woolston Hook, raised in Billings, now lives outside of Bozeman with her husband, three children, two goats and a fluctuating roster of chickens.