Remembering Imo: a very special chicken

23 February 2009, from Writings

Being still, on her last day.

Our chicken Imo had a charmed life. She arrived as a tiny chick, one of a set of six that had been hatched in our friend Douglas’s third-grade class. She was white; the others were various darker shades. We raised them first under a heat lamp in a cardboard box in the garage. They were our first chickens, and it was from them we learned how the tiny creatures learned to walk, to roost, to eat, to sleep, to live.

As the chicks grew and the spring weather grew warmer, we moved the chicks outdoors to temporarily lodgings: an as-yet-unfilled planter box with a lid of fencing wire. The six chicks happily explored this vast new land – all of 18 square feet – discovering burrowing bugs, extracting the twisty roots of grass, and starting to chase after the chicken feed we sprinkled on the ground.

We designed a coop, a fancy affair with a raised platform so as to give plenty of ventilation, a rear access door, and an opulent ladder on a chicken could climb down to the compact enclosed run. The coop had wheels, so we could roll it around the yard; unfortunately, the coop was so heavy and the wheels so small that it was moved only occasionally.

The six chicks grew into young chickens – and then we noticed that first throaty statement of roosterhood. Over a few weeks, first one, then another would begin to lift his head and start the raspy call. We figured that getting six chicks from the local elementary school would result in, statistically, three hens and three roosters. We didn’t expect the probability to lean to one side so heavily, and we eventually found ourselves with four roosters and two hens. And when I found one of the hens by herself on the back deck, again exercising that characteristic rasp, we found ourselves with nearly the worst luck: five loud roosters (who, by the way, do not simply call at dawn), and one gentle hen.

We named the hen Imo, after our similarly white cat Imogen, who was herself named after Imogen Cunningham, the photographer. (At the time, Imogen the cat had another feline housemate named Calder, after the sculptor.)

A gaggle of roosters is not a natural thing; a rooster is a dominating dictator, and does not work in committee. Although there were few direct conflicts between this unfortunate team of leaders, they did each tend to want to lead their diluted flock in a separate direction. Many afternoons, after we’d let the group out to forage on their own, it would take great effort to wrestle the disparate group back into our yard, and into the coop.

Finally, after much frustration among ourselves, and a few complaints from the neighbors, we put the roosters up for adoption. One by one, they were taken in by friends and neighbors who lived far enough out of town that rooster noise wasn’t a problem, and their breeding advantage made up for their aggressiveness.

All but Pepper, that is. We were down to two: Imo the gentle hen, and Pepper the big bully. Not only was Pepper particularly loud and threatening, he was fucking huge: his legs were as thick as your thumb, and he stood (it seemed) three feet high. If he didn’t like you, which was most of the time, he’d show it by nipping roughly at your finger. If he was really pissed, he’d jump up in the air and hit you with his wings. This was not gentle: he was muscular and angry, and his wings could bruise you.

Pepper had to go. One Saturday morning, I took him to the chicken version of the Last Chance Saloon: the poultry auction in Woodburn. I left him in a rather sad array of cages of other unwanted birds, and felt badly – but also happy to be rid of the monster. I didn’t stay for the auction: I didn’t want to be disappointed, or depressed. Later that day, I phoned the auction house and learned Pepper had gone for $7 – a very high price for a rooster. That would have been an expensive (and tough) soup. I still maintain that he took on a second career of fighting; perhaps he lives on, still huge in his later years, talking about his best bouts and how he really winged that guy good.

Back on the farm, life in the chicken universe had calmed down. Rescued from Pepper’s incessant sex drive, Imo spent her time quietly scratching the planting beds, looking for worms and tasty bugs. Without her guardian/dominator, she was approachable and we were able to get closer to her, and even began to pet her.

That’s when we discovered that Pepper’s desperate mounting, coupled with his sharp toes, had left an ugly gash under Imo’s wing. We watched her for a few days, but the wound wasn’t getting any better. In fact, it looked worse than we’d originally thought.

What do you do with a chicken who has a serious wound? She was stoic; she still ate, still scratched around the yard, still got into the coop every night and was happy to get up in the morning. It seemed wrong to stop her life, and yet we clearly couldn’t ignore her injury.

The veterinarians in town didn’t know what to do. Someone suggested a vet in Salem that might work on birds. We phoned them, and they admitted they while they hadn’t had a chicken as a patient, they’d be happy to take a look at her. So we bundled Imo into a cat carrier, and escorted her to her doctor’s appointment.

The wound was indeed far more serious than we thought. Pepper had apparently been after Imo for a while, and the skin around the gash had started to die. The vet thought he could clean out the worst of it, but he said he couldn’t stitch her up, because there wasn’t enough left to stitch. But it couldn’t hurt to try to heal her, and so we left with a bit of hope, some antibiotics and creams, and an intense set of directions on how to treat her.

For the next couple of weeks, we played intensive-care nurses to Imo. Every day, we’d bring Imo into the house, place her in the bathtub, and prepare our medicines. Incredibly, she was always calm and forgiving, as if she understood that we were helping her. We would hold her and comfort her, scratching her behind her ears and under her chin. She would stay still, wrapped in a towel, while we first cleaned her wound, rubbing on the healing cream, and finally feeding her an eyedropper full of banana-flavored antibiotics.

Miraculously, her skin grew back, slowly but surely. Her feathers grew back, too, covering over the grotesque scar. And finally one day she laid a tiny egg – the sign that she was healed, healthy, back to her normal chicken self. Her former injury never seemed to bother her: she was fully able to scratch for her worms, to scamper towards the sunflower seeds we scattered around, to run her wobbly jog down the slope. She became a prolific layer, daily depositing an egg, never stopping, even in winter.

A chicken is not a solo animal, and so we brought in first Flora, then Ruby and Verbena (along with a couple of other accidental roosters, quickly put up for adoption). As the oldest, and certainly the one who’d gone through the most, Imo was always the leader of the flock. She was never aggressive toward her companions, although she would sometimes utter a little bark, making certain they knew who had first priority with food or bugs. Although Imo would submit to a bit of petting and stroking, she knew she was well, and she knew her place was in the world of chickens, not people.

Julia and I split up, and I moved into town. When I visited, I often saw Imo out in the yard, happily rooting around in the infinite earth. Julia would occasionally supply me with a dozen eggs, and it was always clear who laid which eggs: Imo’s were large and full, while the other hens’ eggs were beautiful but daintier. Eventually, over the years, Imo’s egg production grew less and less, until she gave up entirely.

And then today Julia phoned to say that she thought Imo was dying. Imo had stopped eating, and wasn’t scratching around the garden. She would stand for long periods in one place, her eyes closed. She did strange things, like stand in the birdbath, or under the feeding trough. Julia told me I might want to come up and see her soon, and so I did.

When I arrived at the house, I found Imo standing near the front door, very still. Her eyes were closed. I spoke to her, and she stirred slightly, and barely turned her head. I scratched her behind her ears, that same scratch as when I comforted her before we cleaned her wound; I rubbed her soft chest feathers, and felt the same softness as when I held her to comfort her in her pain. It all came back – the sense of connection to this fellow creature, the sense of her unique personality, the sense of permission from her to help, the sense of gratitude received. But this time I could not heal her, but only be there.

Crouching there, I talked to her. I told Imo I was glad we could help save her before. I told her I hoped she was glad, too. And I thanked her: for teaching me how to know a chicken. And I said goodbye.

Tonight Julia called again to say that Imo had passed away. Julia had brought Imo inside the house, to be in a quiet place away from the other chickens and animals. Later in the evening, Julia had heard a slight rustle, and came to comfort Imo and help through her last breaths. Laid quietly in a wooden box lined with a towel, as calmly and as softly as the feathers under her chin, Imo passed out of this world of earth and bugs and sunflower seeds, and into the next. We miss her greatly.