An open letter to the human companion of the dog who killed our chicken.
In the last days of 2016, I came home after work to a flurry of feathers overlaying the grass at the curb. There were feathers even more numerously covering the stairs up to the house. I knew we had lost another chicken, but in the dark could not determine which one. The answer was laid out on a towel on the porch. Gilda, cold and dead. Walking through the front door I was met by both boys.
“Gilda is dead.” they said.
“A dog got her. I think it was fairly quick, I only heard a short squawk.”
“Did you see it happen?” I asked
“No, neighbor Lindsey did though. It was a dog.”
“Did the owners come up to the house?”
We have had chickens killed by the whole gambit of predators and accidents, and even one which we killed our selves after she developed a protruding prolapsed oviduct. But to have one killed by an unleashed dog in our own yard, while the human who made the choice to let a dog roam free through our neighborhood avoids taking responsibility for it, well that feels quite differently than the other deaths.
Even the trauma of watching Butter, the 4H chicken, killed and then feasted upon all day by a Red Tailed Hawk, seems easier in comparison. That was a chicken M had raised from a chick and trained for over a year, a blue ribbon winner at the county fair with only one eye. She was killed and eaten in full view of the dining room window on Christmas Eve a few years back.
I don’t blame the dog for Gilda’s death any more than I blame the hawk. They act on instinct- and the impulse to hunt is strong. Dogs need to be trained to leave chickens alone. The betrayal is with the accompanying humans who slinked away after the deed was done. No words of apology, no note on our door. The waste of it bothers me as well, she was killed and did not feed any hungry belly. As a vegetarian house we chose not to eat Gilda. Instead we held a back yard funeral for her on New Year’s Day.
We had her for 5 years, she was the daughter of our rooster Pete Rose and a chicken out at our garden in Svensen, Norma Jean. (Both killed in 2015 by a cougar.) Gilda was brought to town as an egg, mostly to placate Lady Hawk, a broody mother hen, who lacked a needed rooster to produce her own fertile eggs. Once grown, Gilda was a steady supplier of beautiful pinkish brown eggs and possessed a persistently affectionate good humor. She loved to jump for popcorn. She also had an annoying tendency towards roosting in a favorite shrub at night, rather than getting into the chicken house as she ought. A habit which required us to carry her to the hen house nearly nightly, so she could be locked in safely with the other hens away from the raccoons.
All this, of course, brings up questions about the meaning of life. Also about the consequences of actions and inactions, instinct and choice. I am reminded of the Play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which the players are swept along, befuddled and passive, or conversely clever and conniving. Does our choice to let our chickens roam freely contribute to their deaths? Absolutely. Are there laws that demand chickens be leashed? No.
Is our death predetermined, or do we make choices that influence when our exit lines will be spoken. Might we hasten the deaths of others by actions decided upon in the absence of clarity, even our own? Might we dangerously underestimate our own power to influence events around us?
We humans sometimes like to pretend that our pets are purely loving companions, and deny that they are often predators as well. How does our much lauded “superior consciousness” serve us in such circumstances as those which led to the death of Gilda?
How much I would have preferred that the humans had come up to the door. To have given them Gilda’s broken body to take home and cook up for their dog. Or even to enact the traditional punishment of farm dogs caught killing a chicken, and tie her body round the dog’s neck. Instead she was buried in the ground under the crab apple tree with our other beloved dead pets. Her death served no purpose.
Was her life then simply a series of long slow meaningless scenes? The petty squabbles of the pecking order determined her place in the flock. Waking each morning to drink rain water from buckets, her days spent hunting bugs, eating compost and blades of grass, what use was all of that? Those moments blissfully smeared out in some sunny spot with the other hens on a summer’s day, or shivering and wet huddled next to the foundation of the house and the warmth of the dryer vent on a winter’s day, what gives any of that meaning?
When I look at our lives as humans, I can not help but see that we do not spend our days so differently. What is there beyond the pleasure of spending time with those we love? To pursue our interests, to eat good food and clean water? If there is no value in those things then there can be no value in all of our other machinations and abstract pursuits.
What we choose matters because we are in this together. Life calls us to be active participants in it all – to make active choices, rather than to passively be pushed along. It is very different when we relish that which connects us to each other, and honor the common everyday events. When the Red Tailed hawk swooped down upon Butter it was with the same fierce focus that Butter had hunted bugs all her life. The hawk spent the day eating and resting – well nourished on a cold winter day. Both Butter and the Hawk were part of the web of life.
As humans we often assume that we are somehow separate from the web of life. We have made our food as separate from that web as it is possible to be. The dry kibble we feed our pets is far removed from the cow that died for it. In our hubris we separate ourselves from the grace of acting in the innocence of instinct.
Gilda liked to wander separate from the flock at times- a bit of a dreamy adventurer. The dog, well fed, was not motivated by hunger, but by the allure of the chase. Chasing a chicken was perhaps only slightly more thrilling than chasing a tennis ball. Gilda was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ultimately though, Gilda life was cheapened, and made meaningless by the choice of the human’s to avoid taking responsibility for the play of their dog, not by the dog’s actions.
My hope is that my actions will be more thoughtful in this New Year, less careless. Just as those humans walked away, ignorant of the impact their passive response had, I must wonder in what ways have I rendered harm by my inaction? In what ways have I called down harm upon myself and others? I can not control the choices of others. I can not prevent their bad choices from impacting me any more than Gilda could in her final moments. I can however choose to live as consciously as I can.
Life and death are given meaning by the intent we install into it. To hunt bugs or not to hunt bugs is not the question.