Early this week, as the kids and I were sitting in a hospital waiting room in Arkansas, waiting for my mother to come out of outpatient surgery, all 13 of Will's chicks were killed in their chicken yard.
The chicken yard is well-secured, as is the chicken coop. There's a door between the two, however, that isn't well-secured. The chicken yard is meant to serve only as the chickens' range when we're out of town and the coop door is closed, but while the babies were too young to introduce to Fluffball and Arrow, they've been staying in the chicken yard, using our old, smaller coop, and Fluffball and Arrow, of course, free-range during the day, and are locked into their coop at night.
I knew that the little connecting door wasn't secure, and I knew that we have predators in our area, but that connecting coop door is only unsecured in the daytime, and raccoons and possums are primarily nocturnal predators.
Until they're not.
Poor Matt held onto the news of the chicks' deaths for a full day, not wanting to upset us while we were away, but on the way to visit my Pappa in the facility where he's rehabilitating from a broken hip I called him, and his response when I told him that the kids wanted to know how the chicks were caused me to immediately pull over and demand the story. Basically, he said, "Let's talk about it later." When someone says that to you, you obviously immediately stop what you're doing and demand to be told what's going on.
The kids were both devastated, of course, but Will... that kid's heart was broken, of course. She'd poured herself into those chicks. She carried a chick or two with her everywhere. She caught bugs for them. She sat with them and just watched them, for hours, all the time. They meant so much to her, and the knowledge that they'd all been killed was a hard blow for a little kid.
If anything, I'm just thankful that we were out of the state when it happened. We'd have been away that morning, anyway, at our weekly volunteer gig, and then we'd have come home to the wreckage, ourselves, and I never would have been able to keep the kids from seeing it. Matt, who was merely fond of the chicks, was himself terribly affected by the carnage--the babies that had hidden in their little nesting box in the coop and still been torn up, the feathers everywhere, the blood. It was awful.
If only chickens weren't so sweet, so gentle, so funny, and didn't have so much personality, so that one was able to not become attached to them.
The kids bravely carried on with our visit to Pappa--they even interviewed him about his experiences in World War 2, and did a masterful job of it--but while we were visiting Matt called me again, with more news.
The hatchery where we'd mail-ordered those chicks? It's actually on our way home from Arkansas. Like, exactly on our way home. We pass right through the small Missouri town where it's located. And Matt had called them. And yes, they accepted walk-in orders.
I didn't know what Will was feeling, how her grief over her chicks was working with her sorrow over possibly not having chicks again until next spring, so I put her on the phone with Matt to hash it out. She walked back into the room after their conversation still very sad, but confident that yes, she wanted more chicks, and yes, we should go get them on the way home.
We had to change a lot of plans to make it happen, but the St. Louis Zoo will always be there, and with strict timing and very minimal pee breaks, we were able to screech up to the doors of Cackle Hatchery a full 30 minutes before they closed.
The clerk there was a freaking rock star who, once I'd explained the situation, totally took over. She suggested that we buy chicks that had been hatched that day, so that she could pack them up for the remaining six-hour drive just as she'd pack them to be mailed. She wrote down the list of breeds that Will wanted, came back with the ones that they had, then took out their catalog and showed Will similar alternatives to the ones that they didn't have, and let Will choose from those. I told her that we wanted one rooster, but only if there was a breed known to be gentle with people, and she said that there was, and she got him for us. He'll grow up big, too, so hopefully he can help us keep his flock safe, and give the kids some more chicks next spring.
We drove another six hours, listening to audiobooks and eating peanut butter sandwiches, with the kids watching my TomTom and switching whose lap the box of chicks got to sit on exactly every hour. We got home at 1 am to Matt, who had the brooder all warmed up and ready for us. We unpacked the babies, dipped their beaks in their warmed water, and then all sat around and admired them for another hour before we dragged ourselves to bed.
We tried to be easy on ourselves the next day. We read, painted deck furniture, we loved our new chicks, and I did a LOT of cooking on account of I'm from the South and that's what we do when we're sad. We also bought a live animal trap, and we did this:
I was actually outside reading at about 6:30 am when I heard the trap spring, so this raccoon could definitely have been our daylight predator. When I heard the trap spring I tore around the side of the garage, loaded for bear, ready to kill whatever I found with my bare hands, until I actually stood over the trapped raccoon and saw its little paws covering its muzzle as it cowered, its big eyes looking up at me all scared. Raccoons are psychopaths when faced with captive chickens, but damn was it cute.
Matt drove it outside of town to live in the woods by a lake. It can make an honest living there without murdering anyone's pets.
So, here are our new babies:
I was a little surprised that Will deliberately chose only eight chicks this time. She loved her thirteen, but she also learns from experience, and it didn't take long to see that these eight chicks are much easier to care for than our thirteen were.
The chicks aren't really old enough to pose for their formal portraits yet--if you look closely, you can still see the egg tooth on some of their beaks!--but here are a few pics of them. I still think that the kids look sad in these photos, but not as sad as they'd be, I think, with empty hands not cradling feathery little puffs of fluff:
And yes, fine, I'm totally smitten, too, especially with this one. I named her Hedwig:
It's selfish of me, but I'm willing to admit that I don't want the kids to learn these lessons. I don't want to have to see their faces break when they're told that a loved one has died. I want them to live charmed lives, never feeling loss nor grief, never having to mourn.
But what would be the point of that? Never let them have chicks, because they might die? Never go visit far-flung family, because the children will miss them when we leave? It's too late for that, anyway, so let's just let this lesson be enough for now. Let's just let this flock of chicks grow up safe and healthy, doted on and loved by their girls. Let's let them be just as sweet and gentle and funny as the original thirteen were, let them learn tricks that are just as cute, let them love the kids just as much, follow them around just as faithfully, trust them to keep them safe and never have that trust betrayed.
We'll have another lesson sometime, I know, but let's take a break from these types of lessons for a good long while yet. Let's let these tender hearts heal and grow a little sturdier first.