The Bird Lovers

My wedding vows were woefully incomplete. My poor husband had no idea what he was getting into when he married the daughter of a veterinarian.

Don’t get me wrong, Justin loves animals. He comes from a family that loves animals. My dad was his family’s veterinarian. He knew he was marrying into a furball-and-feather-friendly family. But he couldn’t possibly have known what would be asked of him. Over the last twelve years Justin has certainly earned his furry halo and wings. But the last two months brought ample opportunity (re: plenty of legitimate grounds for Justin divorcing me) for us to polish our halos and wings.

It all started in December when Justin’s family came for an early Christmas. Justin’s parents, his sister and her boyfriend came with expectations of delicious food, temperate weather, exploring northern California and lots of fun family time. Everything was going great until Justin discovered on day two of their visit one of the chickens, Eleanor, bleeding profusely from her mouth. By the time I came home from taking the kids to school, the poor bird was in bad shape, still bleeding and unwilling to stand.

I called the feed store where we bought the chickens to inquire about a vet and they stifled a snicker before telling me, “I don’t know of a vet. Why don’t you just kill it? It won’t be worth the trouble of fixing the bird.” Clearly, I didn’t preface my question with the right information. On the next call I made it clear that this bird is a favorite pet of my kids and I did not want to scar their memory of Christmas 2012 as the “one when Mommy killed the chicken.” I got the same response as the first phone call but I also got a referral to a vet 30 minutes away in San Francisco. I called and they could see me right away.

Great. I hopped in the car with the dying bird and drove to San Francisco, the whole way playing out different conversation starters for telling the kids Eleanor died but that we were still going to celebrate Christmas the next day. I felt sick to my stomach. I was certain that was where this little story was headed.

I arrived at the vet only to find the office in a busy part of San Francisco and there was no parking…for blocks. I parked and hauled the bird cage out of the back of the car and carried it the three blocks to the vet office. None of the two dozen or so people I passed on the sidewalk even looked at me. What?!? Could they not see that I was carrying a bleeding, dying chicken? What’s not to stare at? Clearly, I was in The City where just about anything goes.

When I walked into the office, the vet took Eleanor right away but I wasn’t allowed into the “trauma room.” It felt like a scene out of a movie when the vet looked at me gravely and said, “She’s in bad shape. We’ll do everything we can to save her. I’ll be back as soon as I have anything to report.” Now, as the daughter of a vet, I have witnessed plenty of animal trauma in my life – cats, dogs, and cows mostly. But even I wasn’t prepared for such a dramatic encounter over a chicken. I mean, it’s a chicken. Were they going to start an I.V. and hook her up to heart monitors? When the vet said she would do “everything she can” I wondered if I should have signed a “do not resuscitate” order or, better yet, a living will on the chicken’s behalf? Would Eleanor want extraordinary measures taken to save her life? I didn’t know. She’s a a chicken. Yet, everyone was acting like Eleanor was my daughter.

As I waited for the vet to come back, I had plenty of time to talk with the Bird Lovers in the waiting room. There was Bill, an older gentleman and owner of a homing pigeon who had suddenly stopped eating, and Marcy, a sassy older woman with a baby parakeet with a bladder infection, and the hipster city couple Ben and Jules with a cockatoo who had lost her voice (no joke). They were all “oo-ing” and “ahh-ing” over each others’ birds and their ailments: “Oh my. That sounds painful. How did you know?” or “What would cause that in a bird?” and “You must be so worried.” I initially feigned concern but inside I was thinking, “You are all a little crazy. These are birds!” Yes, as their owners we have a responsibility to care for them and ease their pain if possible, but let’s not pretend these birds are human.

But I was curious. How did Marcy discover the bladder infection? What do you do for laryngitis in a bird? And the Bird Lovers were not feigning concern. They really were moved by each others’ plights.

When they finally got around to asking me what  my deal was, I told my story and Bill said, with a look of bewilderment, “Really? You brought in your chicken? Why didn’t you just kill it and have it for dinner?” Once I explained that the dinner he spoke of would be Christmas and the chicken was my sons’ favorite pet, there were small utterances of understanding but I could tell that even among the Bird Lovers, there was barely room for chickens. Bird Lovers, with an asterisk.

The vet called me in and explained the injury was to Eleanor’s beak (probably from one of the other chickens attacking her) and only time would tell if it was salvageable. In the meantime, the chicken needed to be kept inside, fed soft foods, and given an injection of antibiotics and painkillers twice a day for two weeks. Ok. Two questions. First, “What do you mean by inside? Is the garage ok? I have a house full of guests for Christmas and every room is taken.” (Implying if Justin’s family hadn’t been visiting I would have put the bird in the kitchen? No.) Second, “How long does she need to be inside?”

The vet explained Eleanor couldn’t be in a garage – a horrible place for birds because of all the fumes and chemicals – but the chicken should be in the house, preferably the kitchen because it’s generally the cleanest place in the house and poses the least risk for infection. Not a chance. Justin’s family already thought I was crazy for saving the chicken. Asking them to help fix Christmas dinner while ignoring the chicken in the corer was too much to ask. (Again, implying that had they not been visiting that the chicken would have moved into the kitchen? Again, no.) The vet further explained Eleanor absolutely could not stay in a bathroom. Fine. They’re all occupied anyway. The basement was out, too, because Eleanor needed warmth and natural sunlight. And Eleanor needed to be inside for as long as it took for her beak to heal – at least two weeks.

What!?!?!? My furry, veterinarian daughter halo and wings were instantaneously incinerated by the murderous thoughts that flew into my head. A chicken for Christmas dinner was sounding just about right. It would be easy. I was at the vet already. The vet could do the hard part and all I’d have to do was make up a story about Eleanor going to the big farm in the sky. It would be so easy…so easy.

But I couldn’t. I put Eleanor back in the cage and took her into the waiting room to hand over half of what we had managed to save for Carter’s college education. And then it happened. A collective sigh and “ooooo” and “ahhhhh” from the Bird Lovers in the waiting room. “She’s GOR-geousssss!”, “Oh my! What a beautiful bird!”, “You didn’t say she was so unusual looking!”, “Oh poor girl…cooooo….cooooo…”, “Oh wittle gul…you need some wuv don’t you?”, and “Well, of COURSE you would save a beauty like that. Christmas dinner…certainly not!”

I. Was. In. Or, rather,  Eleanor was in.  Her beauty was all it took to convince the Bird Lovers. She was “Miss Universe.”  And so I left with a beautiful, drowsy, but revived bird and the adoration of the Bird Lovers.

I called Justin on the way home and explained our instructions. With only one audible sigh, he was on board and would explain everything to the kids and the rest of his family. I was certain he would do exactly that and then pick up the phone and call a divorce attorney.  I returned home and Justin helped me lug the cage up the stairs and into our office.  I made Eleanor a bowl of oatmeal, Justin gave her her medicine, and we fixed a little nest of towels and rags for her to sleep on. No mention of divorce. I was in the clear.

Eleanor stayed in our office for a month, enjoying her soft meals and warm spot in the house. We adjusted to our new housemate, with the one exception being that Justin gave up working in the office at night because Eleanor’s unpredictable wing flapping and clucking were distracting and startling. I rather enjoyed her morning crows (yes, chickens will crow, too), but they sometimes started a little early.

Over the next month, I made several more trips to the vet, made friends with the receptionist and even ran into Bill and his homing pigeon again. Every time Eleanor and I arrived and departed the vet’s office there was a chorus of “ooos” and “ahhhs” over Eleanor and her beauty. And I realized that not only am I a Crazy Bird Lady but I am the Reigning Queen of the Bird Lovers. Parakeets and cockatoos (and even homing pigeons) are so bourgeoisie. But a chicken, our chicken, is special. And she better be. For what we spent to save her, we’re expecting her to lay a golden egg any day now. Seriously, any day would be nice!

(Photos by Ezra Gordon)

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6 thoughts on “The Bird Lovers

  1. I love reading your blog, Jen! You are a wonderful writer and I get very excited to see each new entry. One of my favorite memories of our visit was watching you and your family care for that beautiful chicken. It’s lovely to know people still love and care for animals so much. I am proud to call you my “crazy bird lady” sister-in-law! Love you!

  2. Hi Jenn: what a wonderful, entertaining story…….we really appreciated your Mom sending it on to us. NOW, we cannot wait to see the next one! Your boys are becoming such handsome young men! Can only imagine how much they enjoy (and LEARN) from their chickens!!! Love, Mylon and Pat

    • Oh my! I’m quite tardy in replying to this but, YES, the boys are loving the chickens and learning a lot. We had to answer this question yesterday, “Why do we need a rooster to have baby chicks?” So not prepared for that one! Hope our paths cross soon!

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