The fate of Laverne and Shirley
September 16, 2010
Laverne and Shirley were two buff orpingtons, backyard laying hens here on Upland. They weren’t particularly strong in character, as it goes with chickens. They were fun to feed dead flies and carrot scraps and had just enough personality to easily tell them apart. I picked them up one evening from a small-scale egging and home gardening couple in Tewksbury. The husband caught them easily and I carried them off in a large cardboard box. They were already 3 and half years old, near the end of their lives and certainly near the end of their egg-laying days. We only got two. Any chicken caretaker would tell you that laying hens going on four years are a poor investment, but then again we knew next to nothing about chickens.
Back in Somerville, I flipped the box on its side and the hens fell out and into their unfinished home. We built the coop using scrap wood from around the house and some lumber from Home Depot. My roommate Sara had the artistic vision and my boyfriend Seth the carpentry skills. It came out sturdy enough, and looked great with a fake window and real box of flowers. The next morning we hurriedly fashioned a run while the hens noisily protested against the coop’s closed doors. With a final heavy-duty staple we let them out to acclimatize and split to Whole Foods to buy bulk grains until some better feed came in the mail. It was a hectic first week to be certain.
The hens settled in and I settled into being a chicken owner. I liked their clucking at dusk and was amused that Shirley always got first peck at food scraps. I filled their food and gave them water and said “Good morning ladies” when I came to work in the garden. Neighbors and friends were enthralled with the birds and the thought of having backyard chickens only a block from Tufts. Even our landlord liked them, and called Sara and me industrious. We trained the cucumber to grow up the side of the run and the whole set up became a fixture in the backyard. It was hard to remember the garden without it.
Once the sun went down the hens would go into the coop and keep to themselves until the morning. One night around ten Laverne and Shirley started making all kinds of noise, clucking and crowing loudly. I immediately ran down, recruiting Sara and a friend from the kitchen as I went. The hens were out in the run, looking aggressively into the coop. I opened the top to find a big, gray possum staring at me from the top of the milk crate. Adrenaline rushing, we tried pounding the side of the coop with a pitchfork and yelling before propping up the top and spraying the animal with the hose. The possum quickly ran out of the coop-likely the same way it came in and we all went frazzled back up stairs. We tried to tighten up ship the next day, but to no avail. A week later, Sara found Shirley dead under the coop.
Possums simply slit the throat of chickens and drink their blood, leaving a clean, limp body. I sadly pulled Shirley out from under the coop and into a paper bag. The CDC said we should just put her in a couple of plastic sacks and throw her in the garbage. It felt sacrilegious and was disheartening. We had no shovel to dig her a grave. Convinced we were terrible chicken owners, we agreed that Laverne should go of our own accord sometime very soon. But it was hard to think about killing her in that moment, or really any moment within the next month.
Then one night I heard a similar disruption to the one that sent me running to find the possum. I bolted downstairs and into the shed to turn on the garden light. The covering to the light socket is metal and sticks out from the wall. In my haste and poor vision I nicked my left ring finger on the sharp metal edge, causing a deep gash that would remain open for weeks. Laverne was fine. I was not. I was filled with moral angst, regret and shame. I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t know how. I was scared that I would cause her pain in death. I was angry at myself for not learning how to care for chickens before adopting them. My finger was throbbing and I shook with the first tears of my adult life.
A couple of days later, I did it. Seth helped. It was difficult psychologically and kind of gross, but it was fine. She tasted like a laying hen-lots of fat and tough meat, but made a delicious stock. I was relieved, mostly because I felt compassion for the animal and realized the good in all this. I had developed a respect for and commonality with the bird as livestock and with the human race as omnivores. Everything was okay and I felt like a better person, eater and caretaker.
The coop still stands, the run with a hole where I climbed in to grab Laverne. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the heart to take it all down.