Dealing with the death of something you care about is always hard. When something dies of old age or illiness, it hurts. There is still sadness and anger. When you can honestly say the death was not your fault then there is no shame. But when the death is your fault, the healing process is really hard.
I lost two chickens about two weeks ago. Not old chickens or sick chickens, but healthy eight-month old hens. And their death was my fault.
When you get pets or livestock you make a commitment to take care of them, protect them, and treat them with compassion. I loved these chickens and took good care of them, except I did not keep them safe.
At night they sleep in a henhouse, up on a roost. A ramp from the hen house goes out into a run that they can’t get out of. I thought the run was secure, so I stopped locking them into the hen house all the way each night. I locked up the run, but I left the door into the run open. Over the time they have lived outside this happened several times. A few times we forgot, but they were OK. So after a while we stopped closing it all together. And it was always OK.
Until it wasn’t. Some animal climbed a tree down on to the top of the hen house and found a way in.
When the first chicken went missing, I did not realize what had happened. There was no body, no feathers. She was just gone. I figured she might have gotten locked out when I let them free range the night before. She was a very broody hen and it was possible she made a nest under a bush. So I spent two days searching for her. I looked under everything, and went into neighbors’ yards. I even wandered around calling her name. She was my favorite chicken, Speckles. She was the sweetest when she was a baby. I would hold her in my hand and she would fall asleep. She was the most beautiful, most friendly, and had the most trusting nature.
I could not deal with the idea that she was dead. She must just be lost and I would find her. So it never dawned on me that something was able to get in the hen house. Two days after Speckles disappeared I went outside to find feathers everywhere.
I can’t describe what that felt like. In one moment I realized Speckles was dead, another chicken was dead, and that both deaths were my fault. I cried, I screamed. I wanted to find the animal who did it and kill it. I want to punch something. But what I wanted more than anything else was to go back in time and fulfill the commitment I had made to these animals.
Goldie was the second one dead. She was the warrior princess of our chickens. She scared my two twenty-pound cats when they came out with me for a visit. She once ate a snake. She took on a rooster role with the other chickens, looking after them. I think she did that the night she died.
The feathers were everywhere — in the henhouse, in the run, even outside the run. She tried to fight whatever got in, but she could not manage it. And it was not her job. It was my job to keep her safe, and I failed.
The run is secure now. We lock them up tight every night. I have had trouble sleeping every night since then, listening all night long in case they need me. And every morning starts with fear. Will I find five chickens this morning? Or four and a pile of feathers?
I don’t know how to deal with that. Sometimes I still think they might just be lost. But it is a lie my mind tells me when my shame is too much.