Dearest sweetest Ethel,
I knew something was wrong with you on Thursday, when you didn’t want to come out of the hen house in the morning, and when I proffered sunflower seeds, your favourite breakfast snack, you looked under my hand not at the seeds. Then, instead of stepping demurely down the steps from the house, you executed an inelegant banister-slide, landing in a heap on the ground from which you picked yourself up and tottered off. I suspected blindness immediately, but was shocked at how quickly it had come on, because you had seemed fine the previous night. I brought you into the kitchen to be company for your friend Gracie, who was off her food and very lethargic. You ate Gracie’s unwanted food, and did not seem to have a problem with your appetite, but both you and Gracie sat or stood for lengthy periods with your eyes closed and heads bowed. I wondered if you had acquired a heavy worm burden, as I had read that there were worms which attacked the eyes. But you had no discharge from your eyes, they remained bright and well coloured, but you patently could not see. I scoured the internet, and checked various books for help, but could not find anything, although I did read something about blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency in its turn caused by a heavy worm load. Everything seemed to be pointing towards a worm infestation, and I wanted to start you on Flubenvet, but by this time you had lost your appetite. On Sunday, we put you outside to enjoy the warm sunshine, but you were having a hard time walking. You made it to the far side of the garden and hid under your favourite dust-bathing bush; you seemed to be content, and Ginger was keeping you company, but when I went to pick you up to bring you inside in the evening, you did not appear to be able to stand. It was shocking to see that you had gone from a seemingly healthy hen to blind and paralysed in 4 days.
On Monday morning I took you to the vet. We saw Cat, who had treated you successfully during your illness in February. Your comb was completely flopped over one eye, and when I lifted you out of the box onto the examination table, you could not stand at all. Cat carefully examined you and found a lump in your abdomen, and said that it was probably Marek’s disease, a form of cancer. Such devastating news, I could not help but weep. Cat gave you a couple of antibiotic shots and a multi-vitamin injection, and I took you home. I don’t know how I managed the drive back to the house. I sat you on a cushion with water and treats close by, and put you in the sun to enjoy the warmth and fresh air. Gracie and Ginger came over to sit with you or stand close by that afternoon.
We did this each day, putting you on your cushion in the sun or shade, where your feathers were ruffled by the breeze and the sun shone on your beautiful feather markings. Each day, when I got up and went down to the kitchen I expected to find that you had died during the night, but each day you were still breathing and responded to my voice when I came into the room saying “It’s OK Ethel, it’s just me!”. Each day, Gracie came to sit or stand next to you, keeping you company. I spent more and more time sitting with to you, talking to you, stroking your neck and tickling your wattles. I hope it gave you comfort. By Wednesday evening you were showing signs that your heart was affected, your flopped over comb had turned purple and your breathing was laboured. I could not put off the decision any longer. That Thursday was a lovely sunny cloudless day. I gently washed your bottom and put you onto a fresh towel on top of your cushion and carried you to the car for your last journey. I sat next to you stroking you and talking to you all the while Paul drove us to the vet. Cat was very gentle, and I was able to hold your head and stroke your neck as she injected the anaesthetic which put you to rest. I hope that those final moments were not painful but a blessed release.
We took you home and dug your grave next to Letty’s, under the hawthorn trees. One final cuddle, and then we placed you on a bed of straw and covered you with earth and a ring of stones. I planted a pot marigold amongst the stones. The other hens watched, a little subdued.
I don’t want to remember you as you were that last week of your life, but as the gentle happy hen you had been before. I miss your voice, a soft trill almost like a cat purring; I miss you coming over to me and cocking your head to one side in the hope of getting a treat. I miss your gentleness, the way you and Gracie walked around the garden together, dustbathed together, shared a nestbox at night together. She misses you too; she comes to find you each afternoon, and searches the garage and the hall looking for you. Ginger now keeps her company at night.
I am sorry that you didn’t live to celebrate your heniversary, a year’s freedom from being a barn-hen. The first 72 weeks of your life were hellish; I hope that the 40 weeks you spent with us – eating grass, dustbathing, and feeling the sun on your back – more than made up for it.
Goodbye Ethel, sweetest of sweet hens.