Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and cat in Portland, Oregon.

Chicken runt

When livestock turn into pets

By
May 7, 2008

My good friend Margot de Messières, a painter who divides her time between the East Coast and Bulgaria, grew up on a hobby farm in rural Maryland. Her parents, in fact, served as inspiration for my husband and me when we decided to get chickens, because they were city slickers who had taught themselves how to farm by reading books on animal husbandry. Heck, we thought, if Susan and Olivier can swing it with library books, so can we. (And now you know: If you’ve tried to check out such sexy titles as Poultry House Construction from the Multnomah County Library lately and been stumped, it’s because we’ve got ‘em all.)

punk chicken
Aggressive teenage chickens in their red-lit cardboard home, looking a bit like the bikers in the movie “The Road Warrior.”

Several years ago, I visited Margot at the family farm. It was late spring, and the de Messières sheep flock (all six of them or so) had been nurturing their baby lambs for a few weeks. Most were, frankly, feral, hiding behind their moms and skittering away if we approached. But one little white lamb was terrifically friendly, coming right up to us and sticking its head under our hands, like a dog asking to be petted. You could pick this little guy up and hold him like a baby, and he was perfectly happy.

He, of course, had been the runt of the litter, born sickly and unable to nurse much. The de Messières family had had to bottle-feed him, which naturally turned him into a tame, friendly pet. Normally the year’s lambs would get sent to the local butcher and returned home as lamb chops. But not this lamb. Everyone was too attached to him, and he was too attached to them. The solution? A local sheep rancher who needed adult breeding rams was going to add the lamb to his permanent flock.

At my house these days, we’re facing the same dilemma. Five of our six chicks are no longer cute and fluffy; they’re turning into punk teenagers, with adult feathers sticking out at awkward angles and the aggressive, hyper, moody behavior to match. But Stevie, the sick chick, hasn’t kept up. We feel sorry for him/her, so we pet him/her more often. Which means — duh — that Stevie is turning into a pet.

sleeping chicken
Stevie taking a nap on a human stomach.

After his/her first bout of illness-induced time in solitary, Stevie spent a few days with the rest of the chicken flock. But that didn’t last; Stevie wasn’t getting better, and the chickens were harassing him/her again. So back Stevie went into solitary, this time with water laced with a sulfa drug.

A week or so later, Stevie is a little bit better, but not enough to hang with the big guys, who meanwhile have grown to about twice Stevie’s size. And Stevie has gotten into the habit of taking naps in our arms.

Which is very cute and all — had you realized that chickens blink upwards with their lower eyelids, which have big dark eyelashes on them? — but the problem is this: If Stevie turns out to be a boy, we’ll have to give him away or, well, eat him. Sad either way. And if Stevie turns out to be a girl, her chances of being a productive egg-layer have been greatly diminished by her prolonged bout with illness. (We’re not sure, but we think Stevie might have a common intestinal parasite called coccidiosis. Yum.)

So: Do we give away/eat the manly Stevie? Or do we keep her as a pet, even if she doesn’t lay any eggs?

Correction: Margot has informed me that the pet lamb was a she, not a he. And after my visit, the family dubbed her Dinner. From Margot: “The farmer who took her didn’t think it was so hilarious, so he changed her name to Dina.”

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1. by Carrie Floyd on May 7, 2008 at 5:55 PM PDT

Go Stevie!

2. by anonymous on Jun 6, 2011 at 8:44 AM PDT

It has been 3 years. What happened to Stevie? I am curious because I have a chick with the same symptoms. She has been sick for a month and stopped growing. She still eats, but is weak. Today she is in a box in the house because the other hens are now about 3 times her size; they trampling her and she cannot get up. Would love to know what happened to little Stevie! Thanks!

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