Mar 27, 2007

The Barnyard Bully

Things have taken a nasty little turn here in our otherwise idyllic lives. Seems I have a chicken with a murderous streak in her. Ruby Pauline has always been high strung and nervous, much more so than any of the other birds in the flock, and while she can be somewhat aggressive (it's a characteristic of her breed), I never expected it to turn as ugly as it has this week. It also doesn't help that she's a freak of nature: she's easily twice the size and nearly four times the weight of what nature says she "should" be, and by far the biggest bird we have. To say she's gargantuan wouldn't be an exaggeration.

So it goes without saying, that on a routine trip out to the barn, I was devastated to find my favorite little hen (and I mean the "little" description in the literal sense: she's only a sixth of Ruby's size) ripped to shreds and half alive in a corner. Feathers ripped out, comb torn, one eye damaged, bloody and tightly shut, and half her head scalped and blackish purple with bruising. I brought her into the house and cleaned her up and then Griffin and I set up a cage indoors and brought in her best friend from the barn to keep her company while she mended.

On closer inspection, it was discovered that Ruby's head and beak were generously covered with dried blood. Now, while this would appear to be all the evidence one would need to convict, it really isn't. Flock mentality is such that when one bird does something, those of a like mind will join in (kind of like an English soccer riot, if you will). So while it is most likely that Ruby was the perpetrator given the bloody face and predisposition to being bitchy, it wasn't definite. Until a couple of hours later that same day when I caught her on top of another smaller bird attempting to rip the back of that bird's skull off.

So now what do I do? Griffin was all for giving Ruby a dose of her own medicine, but that wouldn't be very humane, now, would it? I thought about removing her from the flock for a couple of weeks and then reintroducing her as if she were a "new" bird, thereby knocking her to the bottom of the peck order. But given her penchant for bullying and inflicting pain on those smaller than her, it would only be a matter of time before she stomped, pecked and dragged her way back to the top of the heap and that wouldn't solve anything. I could try to find her a new home, but there's two things wrong with this option. First, even though I'm not very fond of Ruby and I certainly don't like the way she does business, she does have sentimental value, however misplaced it might be. You see, as a tiny chick she was a gift from a very dear friend who passed shortly after he gave her to me and as such she triggers very, very fond memories for me. And second, what kind of person would I be if I gave someone else a hen that I know will eventually start beating the shit of their beloved birds? I don't think I'm that much of an asshole.

So today it was pointed out to me that I still have two more options. I could debeak Ruby. This is what the major chicken people do, like Perdue, where you cut off the point on the top half of a chicken's beak to prevent them from doing any damage when they peck. The chicken industry does this so they can squeeze as many birds as they possibly can into a very small area and when the birds inevitably become stressed from living in such conditions, they can't really hurt one another when they start to attack each other because their beaks have been disfigured. I don't eat big business chicken for this very reason, so I certainly wouldn't engage in this practice with one of my own birds. My other option, and while it's not permanent is still somewhat mean, is to put what are known as "peepers" on her. This is a little blindfold that looks a lot like the sleep masks women always wore in 1950's and 1960's movies (but without the ruffles and lace). It works like the blinders trainers put on racehorses, limiting vision and therefore any aggressive tendencies the animal might be unable to control. I'm not sure I like the idea of having a hen wandering around with an eye mask on, but what else can I do? A hen in drunken goggles who can't hurt anyone anymore is better than any of the other alternatives, all of which perpetuate violence in some way, be it Ruby committing the act, or me committing it on her.

Still, I have a little time to ruminate on all of this as my favorite little hen (why is it always the favorites who die or become injured? Why do the birds we merely tolerate live on and on and on without incident?) will be recovering for some time and is not going to be reintroduced to the flock anytime soon. Gentle force-feeding is on the menu today and everyday until she can eat on her own once again. And why is it that I somehow always end up with chickens in my house every few months? It isn't as though I enjoy having them in here because, contrary to what my family thinks (and would bet money on), I don't. It just looks like I do. In a perfect world, all my birds would be best pals, would live to ripe old age with nary an injury or illness and my house would stay clean and poultry-free. And none of my birds would have to suffer the indignity of wearing goo-goo-goggles to keep them on the straight and narrow.

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