The Death of a Chicken

Just over two years ago, I purchased four chickens for my household. We had chickens when I was a kid and I remember being made to pluck some of them in preparation for dinner; I had an old-fashioned childhood in that respect. But I’ve never owned chickens or any other animals as an adult as I’ve moved around a lot and mostly lived in apartments and flats.

My reason for getting chickens was entirely pragmatic. With the corona lockdowns, I had increased the amount of vegetable gardening I was doing and that requires fertiliser. I reasoned that the chickens would provide manure for the vegetable garden and eggs for the kitchen table. Plus, I had a small shed sitting on the property that could easily be turned into a chicken coop. It had a concrete floor and tightly constructed corrugated iron walls, perfect for keeping out predators.

The question arose whether to have a coop-and-run set up or let the chickens free range in the backyard. For a variety of reasons, I chose the latter option. I set up a feeder and water. It was going to be a nice system

About two weeks after I brought the new chickens home, Melbourne went back into lockdown and we would spend much of the rest of the year in lockdown. I could never have known it at the time, but these seemingly trivial and unrelated factors – the decision to buy chickens, the decision to let them free range in the garden, the fact that I was at home most of the year due to lockdown and the fact that I was spending a lot of time in the backyard – would eventually lead me down a path that I have only come to fully understand in the last few painful weeks.


Not long after getting my four new chickens as pullets, I was given two older chooks from a friend who was moving interstate, bringing the total to six. Things were going well. The new chickens had quickly integrated into a flock and I had worked through all the bugs in my set up. Then, one of the four pullets, who I had named Blue (cos she was a Blue Australorp), started showing signs that something was wrong.

I rang my father who, apart from having tended to our chickens when I was young, had also worked for a couple of years on a chicken farm early in his life. I explained Blue’s symptoms and asked his advice. This was the first but not the last time in this story that I was told something very important that I didn’t understand. When chickens get sick, they don’t get better, he said. But Blue didn’t look sick. She was still eating as normal and was hanging around with the others doing the usual chicken things.

Melbourne was now back in lockdown. I can’t remember whether veterinary clinics were open at that time. Even if they were, it would have been an Orwellian nightmare to visit one. So, I ruled that option out and did as my father suggested which was to feed Blue some softer foods like fruits and try feeding her food with olive oil added to help with digestion since that seemed to be where the problem lay.

About two weeks later, Blue stopped eating.

As anybody who’s owned chickens knows, it’s the passion with which they attack their food that is a big part of their charm. Every day is like the first day and every meal is like a gourmet delight. Sometimes they’ll catch a skink or other small reptile or rodent and the chicken who has found the unlucky creature but cannot swallow it straight away gets chased around the yard by all the other chickens looking to steal the bounty.

So, when a chicken stops eating, you know you have a problem. And when the chicken has already shown signs of illness such as Blue had, the matter becomes urgent. Even as an inexperienced chicken owner, I knew that much. But we were still in lockdown and a trip to the vet was still going to be a nightmare. I tried various tricks to get Blue eating again and to my delight these seemed to work. She bounced back and began eating with the other chickens again. A few days later, she stopped eating a second time.

I called my father again only to receive the advice that I knew he was going to give. The chicken is dying. I asked him about euthanising her since I assumed the death could be painful. Again, I knew what he would say before he said it. No, let it die naturally


This word natural is a dangerous word. Do chickens die naturally in nature? The question sounds absurd.  In nature, we might say, a sick and weakened chicken would be killed by a predator since predators always go for the weakest looking member of the flock.

Most of the time when we use the word natural, what we really mean is normal. Do chickens normally die from predators in nature? That question makes sense. And the answer may very well be yes. That leads to another question. Is a suburban backyard nature? The answer is either yes because all the world is nature or no and then the question of a natural death becomes irrelevant.

I was not ready to deal with these issues. A dying chicken had not been part of the plan and I did not expect it to happen so soon with a chicken that was still young. I had been thrown in the deep end, required to make a decision I wasn’t prepared to make based on a situation I didn’t really understand.

Because we were yet again in lockdown, I was going to be at home all day every day for the foreseeable future. I resolved to proceed as follows: I would follow my father’s advice and let the chicken die naturally but if there was any indication that the chicken was in pain, I would end its life.

I prepared an appropriate block of wood from an old tree stump lying around in the back yard and confirmed that the axe was in the shed where I remembered it. I resolved to check on the chicken every hour or two and make sure it was not suffering.

My plan makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s rationally airtight with a perfect either/or logic to it. I didn’t realise what it really meant. It meant I was going to have to watch a chicken die.


Euthanasia is one of those issues I have never paid much attention to. We live in a society where euthanasia is becoming more and more common. It wouldn’t surprise me if before too long there will be voluntary euthanasia even for people without a valid medical reason to do so. Apparently, euthanasia enjoys a large majority of public support.

I have written before about the author Stephen Jenkinson. His book Come of Age: A Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble was a big inspiration for my Age of the Orphan series of posts and will feature in my upcoming book of the same name. Jenkinson’s message is not born out of ideology. It is born out of his lived experience as a grief counsellor where he realised the extent to which our culture is terrified of death.

The confrontation with death, like most important things in life, is not amenable to reason. To the extent that cultures construct “rules” around death, these are developed over long periods of time through trial and error. Such practices are irrational and our society encourages intellectuals to tear them to logical shreds and replace them with rationally airtight theories. We think of this as progress.

Jenkinson saw first-hand that the result is that we now have a culture where people stand naked in the face of death. Counterintuitively, the problem is usually felt more acutely not by the person dying but by the loved ones who have to watch. All our social debates around death – abortion, euthanasia, not letting granny die from a respiratory virus – betray this terror and this nakedness that our culture has in the face of death.

I had been called to face the issue of euthanasia not as an ideological argument but as a lived experience. I had a dying chicken and I had made a promise that I would relieve its suffering if necessary. Nevertheless, I did what most of us do and turned to the internet for guidance.

Among the hysterical shrieking on either side of the debate, I came across this article which seemed well-balanced. More importantly, it helped me to frame what was really going on with me and my chicken. The article asks the question whether it is better to let a “wild animal” die by starvation/dehydration. My chicken had stopped eating. If I did nothing, it was going to die by starvation/dehydration. My choice was between that or euthanasia.

The article addresses the issue not from a veterinary point of view but from a human one. It turns out that voluntary death by starvation/dehydration (VSED) is something that has been tried many times in the human realm and we have better data about that domain since we can ask the person dying how they are feeling.

On first reading the article, a couple of points stood out to me. Firstly, nurses rated VSED positively in that it was almost painless and also peaceful. Secondly, the negative first-hand accounts in the article, the ones arguing against VSED, seemed to contain more ideological arguments while the pro-VSED accounts were based on the experience of the person who was dying. Also, the negative arguments included people who had to watch a loved one go through VSED. That is a different issue and one which I’ve come to appreciate more than I ever knew I would. The experience of dying and the experience of watching the dying are very different things and should be treated separately. Jenkinson knew that.

The article gave me some clarity but no firm answers. I decided to stick to my original plan of euthanising Blue only if she was in pain.


I named Diogena after the cynic philosopher, Diogenes, because it seemed like she was at the bottom of the pecking order but really she was at the top. I realised this about a month after I brought the chickens home when she simply took the top roosting bar from the other chickens who had until then ruled the roost.

In ancient Greek, the word cynic meant to live like a dog. One of the things the cynics did was renounce all creature comforts including houses. Most cynics slept outside. Imagine my surprise when Diogena decided that she was also going to renounce the comfort of the coop and sleep outside. She really was a cynic.

She originally tried to roost on a PVC pipe that runs from one of the gutters on the house to a water tank. PVC pipes are very slippery but that didn’t seem to bother Diogena. Comfort and practicality were clearly not her thing. Nevertheless, the PVC pipe was out in the open and when it rained Diogena would get wet. Rather than let her find out the hard way, I blocked off the pathway she had taken to jump up on the pipe.

Did Diogena go back to roosting in the coop? No way. She hunted around the back yard and found a tree which had been planted very close to the fence and had developed an unusual growth habit where the branches stretched out horizontally; perfect for chickens and also with protection from the rain by the tree canopy above. Diogena had found her new roost.

I wasn’t sold on the idea. Roosting outside carries a risk of predator attack. But how could I say no? I had named Diogena after the cynics and now she was living up to the name.

Diogena roosted in that tree every day until about four weeks ago when she fell ill.


I have only in the last couple of weeks realised that the deal I made back when Blue became sick was the deal to walk the path of death with her. When my father said let it die naturally, he meant leave it alone, let nature take its course. But when I decided to observe Blue so that I could be sure she was not in pain, I was not leaving her alone.

I had taken on the role of observer. But I had also agreed to change roles if necessary and move into what we might call the role of helper. I was going to help Blue end her life early if she was in pain.

In our society, we outsource the role of helper to experts; nurses and doctors in the human domain and vets in the animal domain. That leaves us as family members and loved ones in the role of observer. I wonder whether our severance of these two roles doesn’t cause us extra distress. Often in life, we show our love through our actions. When we are forbidden from helping sick and dying loved ones, when we are relegated to observing, we lose one of the main ways to communicate our love. 

I suspect this is why VSED is so traumatic for observers because the help would be so easy to give. You just have to provide food and water.

With my chickens, I had inadvertently chosen the role of observer to VSED. In hindsight, I wonder if my idea about euthanising the chicken was not born out of the distress of this role. The distress is not for the one dying but for the one watching the dying. How much of that distress gets projected onto our social debates about death? I think we saw the answer to that in the last three years.


I have now learned how VSED progresses in relation to chickens. I have seen it four times.

Firstly, the chicken stops eating. As a good chicken owner, you do your best to get them eating again. You offer them their favourite treats like bananas or meat. They eat it and seem to get their strength back. They go back to eating the regular chicken food and you feel good that you have solved the problem and life will go back to normal now.

A few days later or maybe a week or two, the chicken stops eating for a second time. All your efforts to get them to eat again fail. The food that they once so joyfully and greedily gobbled down is no longer of interest to them.

The first two days after the chicken stops eating are the hardest because there is still hope. The chicken has relatively high energy levels and will occasionally run around and look perfectly healthy. This can lead to you to believe that it’s not going to die. But there are contrary signals. The main one is that it separates itself from the other chickens and spends its time alone in a corner or under a tree.

Sometimes, when the other chickens are feeding, it will run over to where the food is and seem to eat. You get your hopes up. But the chicken is not really eating. It takes a half-hearted peck and then turns away.

It’s this up and down nature that makes the first two days so difficult for the observerhelper. It’s an alternation between hope and despair.

The speed of the decline makes things harder to take. Just three or four days earlier, you had a seemingly healthy chicken and now you have a chicken that is deteriorating in front of your eyes. I had made the deal far more difficult for myself by taking responsibility for the euthanasia option if the chicken was feeling pain. But the truth is I never saw any visible sign of pain or even discomfort. On the contrary, once the first two days are over, the chicken changes into a state that can only be described as peaceful.

The chicken has now weakened to the point where movement is slow and limited. Gone are the sudden bursts of energy which you can mistake as signs of a return to health. The chicken spends its time resting. It finds a comfortable spot where it sits for long periods with its eyes closed. Breathing is calm and dozing off is interspersed with periods of alertness that can last hours.

In an image I will never forget, one of the ISA Brown chickens my friend had given me, which was the third one to die, had placed herself in a sunny spot beneath an olive tree. It was late winter and the weather was cool and sunny. She was facing directly at the sun. Her eyes were closed but her head was not pointed downwards in the dozing off position but upwards towards the sun. It’s impossible to know what a chicken is feeling, but all external appearance suggested to me that she had gone beyond peaceful and into blissful.

Among the positive accounts of death by starvation/dehydration in the VSED article are these two:

“Instead of feeling pain, the patient experienced the sense of euphoria that accompanies a complete lack of food and water”.

“After a few days without food, chemicals known as ketones build up in the blood. These chemicals cause a mild euphoria that serves as an anaesthetic. The weakening brain also releases a surge of feel-good hormones called endorphins—the same chemical that prompts the so-called “runner’s high.”

What I have seen in my chickens who have died of VSED matches these accounts.

When you walk the path of death with another creature, you really do live it with them. When the chicken is alternating between the will to live and a kind of resignation, you match them. And when the chicken becomes peaceful and equanimous, you do too. That’s why the third and fourth days are the easiest for the observer-helper. There is no question of pain and neither is recovery an option any more. You and the chicken are on the last leg of the journey.

The peace is broken on the last day. The chicken no longer has enough energy to sit properly and keep its head up. There is no more lucidity or alertness. The battle now is between consciousness and unconsciousness. The chicken’s head is down. It is no longer sitting but lying on the ground.

Once again the question of euthanasia arises. As a helper, I am plunged back into my original responsibility – should I end it now?

But there is still no sign of pain or suffering. The VSED accounts say that most human patients go into a coma at this stage and that is also what I saw in my chickens. There is no tension in the body. No pain. No struggle. The final stage of the journey is from unconsciousness to death.


The first time I noticed something wrong with Diogena was the Sunday morning. I saw that the vent area on her behind was soiled and that she had diarrhea. I didn’t think much of it as she seemed otherwise normal and appeared to be eating well.

But I wasn’t in observer mode anymore. Melbourne was no longer in lockdown. Tuesday was a public holiday and that meant a long weekend. From the Sunday morning til the Tuesday evening, I was barely at home. It wasn’t until the Wednesday morning that I knew for sure that something was wrong. Diogena had stopped eating.

Now I was worried. I had seen this pattern before. But something was different this time. The sickness and death of the other three chickens had been expected due to illness or old age (ISA Brown chickens have a short life span). But Diogena had been a picture of health the whole two and a bit years she had been with me. She was now a mature chicken in the prime of her life. Why had she suddenly become sick?

I called my father who couldn’t talk for long as he was about to go into a meeting. The symptoms I had noticed were too vague: diarrhea and loss of appetite could be any number of things. My father suggested coccidiosis as one possible cause. As there is a medication for this that can be bought off the shelf, I went to the pet store and got some. This was a big mistake. I had jumped to conclusions. But the worst part was that I now had to wait for the medication to work which prevented me from exploring other reasons why Diogena could have been sick.

In the meantime, I did what I had done with the other chickens and tried to hand feed Diogena to keep her energy up. Again, something was different. She was being very fussy about what she ate and was not eating her favourite treats but only weird things like oats and small bits of bread neither of which I would normally offer to chickens but I was trying anything by this time. Still, her condition seemed to improve and this gave me the false idea that the medication was working.

Circumstances change in life but we stick to our old scripts until reality forces our hand. It wasn’t until Saturday morning that I had time to think about Diogena’s problem more. I turned to the internet to get some ideas and the notion of an impacted crop came up. The crop is the first organ in the digestive process of a chicken located on their breast. It was instantly clear even to a novice like myself that this was the real problem. I hadn’t noticed before because I didn’t know what to look for.

There are only about half a dozen or so vet clinics in Melbourne that service chickens. I called them all up but they were booked solid. One vet offered an emergency service. I made an appointment for Sunday morning.


I purchased Diogena, Blue and the other two chickens from a guy I found online. He had a very cool setup at the back of a factory just north of where I live with lots of cages and about 30 hens and roosters of different breeds. The cages he kept the chickens in were only about 2 metres by 2 metres in dimension. He told me he’d been selling chickens for many years. He clearly knew what he was doing.

He got Blue and the other two chickens into cardboard boxes easily. The fourth was Diogena. She was the smallest of the lot and, it turned out, the nimblest. I stood back smiling while he clambered around the cage. It took about 30 seconds for him to catch her but no sooner had he got her into the cardboard box than she sprang out again and the whole sequence started over. It took him six tries to get her into a box and close the lid. Panting and red-faced, he handed me the box. I tried to hide my smile. Diogena was special from the start.

As I gave him the cash for the chickens, I casually asked how long they live for. That depends, he said, on whether you’re a pet person or a food person. I had no idea how important this sentence would turn out to be. I’ve only learned it in the last few weeks.

The economics of backyard chickens only works if you kill the chicken at the end of its productive laying period and you use the chicken’s manure to fertilise a garden that produces food. If you don’t do both of these things, the cost of the chicken feed outweighs the value of the chicken in dollar terms. That’s what the chicken dealer meant when he was referring to a food person. He meant that you were keeping chickens for food/financial reasons.

If you’re a pet person, you don’t care about that since pets are not kept for financial reasons. You expect to pay for pets not for pets to pay for themselves.

The story I told myself at the start of this journey was that I was a food person. I was buying chickens for eggs and manure. That story changed almost immediately after I got the chickens home. The Melbourne lockdowns meant that I spent a much larger amount of time in the back garden and I got to know the chickens far more intimately than I expected. The thing about chickens is that they are individuals. They have as much personality as dogs and cats. Diogena had an extra-large dose of personality (I would call it spirit).

I had become a pet person, but I didn’t know it.


The vet who saw Diogena on the Sunday morning told me there was a stick in her crop and the only way to get it out was surgery. She then told me the cost of the surgery. All of a sudden, my confusion about being a pet person took on a very real dimension. For a pet person, surgery is a no brainer. For a food person, it’s a no go. Like Buridan’s Donkey, my rational mind jammed up. I was confused but I didn’t know the source of my confusion. Meanwhile, the vet was looking at me strangely. She assumed I was a pet person.

I decided to go ahead with the surgery but in my confusion forgot to ask all the questions I should have asked. How likely was success? Would Diogena recover fully? How long would that take? In hindsight, I would argue the vet should have seen my confusion and told me these things anyway. But the vet clinic was busy and there were other people waiting.

The vet called me the next day after the surgery and said that Diogena had not swallowed a stick. The hard lump on her breast was actually scar tissue. The vet asked me how Diogena got the scar tissue and I had no idea. It’s possible she had fallen off something and injured herself. It would be in fitting with Diogena’s character. That might have been the cause of the problem, but we will never know for sure.

The vet told me there had been more food in Diogena’s crop than she had ever seen before and the crop had stretched significantly. This was the first of several hints she gave me about Diogena’s real condition but I didn’t understand at the time. I was navigating in a world of half-truths, false assumptions and incomplete information and confusion was the order of the day.

The confusion wasn’t helped by another surprise I received when I went to pick Diogena up after the surgery. There was a week’s worth of medication to administer. Chickens don’t know what medication is and they won’t eat it voluntarily. You literally have to jam it down their throat. The vet showed me the correct technique to open the beak and administer the medication and then sent me on my way.

Diogena, the wild chicken, the chicken who would not even sleep in a coop, was now a house chicken and I had become her nurse. These were not roles that either of us asked for and I’m not sure that I understood much better than Diogena what was happening. One thing we both agreed on: it sucked.

At the end of the week, we went back to the vet for a checkup. The crop was not right. The vet prescribed two extra types of medication for another week. More work for the nurse. More aggravation for the patient.

Diogena was still only eating a very select few things. She refused anything larger than an oat and I was mainly feeding her on seeds, crushed up chick feed, mince meat and banana. This seemed like a worrying sign but I carried out the chores of giving her the medication twice daily in a soldierly fashion. I still had the rest of my life to worry about.

The second check-up was two weeks after the surgery. The crop had not improved. The vet prescribed another week of medication and casually slipped into the conversation that if the problem persisted we would be looking at three months of medication. The penny dropped. I finally realised what she had been hinting at.


The vet must have known immediately after the surgery that Diogena’s crop had become too stretched to recover. Why didn’t she tell me the truth? Why did she only drop hints and ultimately force me to raise the issue? It’s tempting to say that she and the vet clinic benefited financially from doing so, but I don’t believe that was the main issue.

Most people love their pets. But this love is not properly recognised in our society. Sometimes we assume that people are trying to fill a void that is missing elsewhere in their life. Maybe that is true in some cases. But love is love. And the flipside of love is grief. What you love, you will one day lose.

A vet is trained in biology, physiology and anatomy. They are not trained in theology or its bastard child, psychiatry. They are not trained to inform people how to walk the path of death and to lay that out as an option that should be considered.

The decision I faced and that many other pet owners must face every day touches on the core issues that our culture does not know how to deal with: death, love, grief and conscience. The vet has no necessary authority on these. So, they stick to what they know. They offer two paths: medication or euthanasia. Increasingly, our medical system offers these same two paths. The third path is rarely discussed. If I had not accidentally walked the path of death with three chickens prior to Diogena, I may not have even known that path existed. Our culture systematically avoids it.

Dostoevsky noted with his Grand Inquisitor that most people want somebody to outsource their conscience to. Stephen Jenkinson noted that most people want somebody to outsource their grief to. These issues both come together in the medical and veterinary industries. If ever there was a place for theology, psychology or philosophy, it is here. But there are no priests, philosophers or psychiatrists to be found in a vet clinic.

What is behind our desperate desire to trust the experts is that we want to outsource our conscience and our grief. We got rid of the one institution that at least attempted to deal with these matters (the church) and replaced it with consumer capitalism. Our experts churn out solutions to things that are not even problems. A lot of money gets made. And people are left to flounder in confusion and despair.


For the first three of my chickens who died, I had voluntarily taken on the role of observer-helper. I had set the terms of those roles. With Diogena, terms were imposed on me and through me on her. Diogena’s life was in my hands. I was not choosing her mode of death but between life and death. The life that I had to choose on her behalf was to have medication forced down her throat twice a day. How could I do that to Diogena, the wild chicken, the chicken who did not even want to sleep in a coop?

In truth, I was no longer in the role of helper, but enforcer. The vet had assigned me the role of enforcer, literally forcing medication down Diogena’s throat. Much of modern medicine has this dynamic built-in, but it is never discussed openly. As a patient, your job is to submit. It’s a role we have all gotten used to without knowing.

Now that I have had time to process all this, I can present it as if it makes sense. But it wasn’t making any sense to me at the time. I didn’t know I was a pet person. I didn’t know I had been a helper. I didn’t know I had become an enforcer.

I spent the whole week trying to work through these issues rationally and got nowhere. Ultimately, I had to go by gut feeling. I decided to stop the medication. I would let Diogena back into the yard and give her a chance to adapt back to her old life.  


I was not prepared for how fast the whole thing fell apart. It was clear immediately when I let Diogena back into the yard that she was not as strong as she looked in the coop. Now that she was back in her normal environment, I could also see that she was acting strangely. She didn’t interact with the other chickens. I told myself this was to be expected. She had been three weeks by herself in what amounted to solitary confinement. She had reason to be disoriented.

But the part that destroyed my plans entirely was that she stopped eating. My plan had failed. But, more importantly, I knew what this meant. This was something I could be absolutely sure about because I had seen this pattern three times before. Diogena was walking the path of death. My new decision, which I did not understand, was whether to switch back to being an enforcer. I could yank her off the path. She would go back to the coop and back to her medication.

These are terrible questions to have to deal with and none of it was helped by the fact that I could not rationally process what was going on. The fact is, there is no right answer and you can’t be objective because you have a responsibility to bear. I had given Diogena a home. I had taken her to the vet. I had forced the medication down her throat.

There was one simple fact I had failed to understand and have only understood in the aftermath of all this. Whatever my choices and my decisions were, Diogena had already made her decision. She was the one who had stopped eating. She did that immediately after being returned to her natural (there’s that word again) environment; the place where she could make decisions.

She chose to walk the path of death in exactly the same way that Blue and the other two chickens had before her. With the other chickens, I had accepted their decision and been content to play the role of helper. The difference this time was that I had refused to accept Diogena’s decision or even to recognise that she had made it. I was still stuck in enforcer mode.

Among all this confusion was the ultimate realisation. I had come to love Diogena. Yes, I had come to love a chicken. I don’t know how that happened. It just did. I was a pet person after all. I loved Diogena and I did not want her to die.

This is the great wisdom of Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. Responsibility is the flipside of love. We become responsible when we love. It’s not a scientific, cause-and-effect kind of responsibility. Neither is it a legal or even a moral one. The case won’t be tried in a court of law. It will be tried in your own heart and the verdict will be: guilty. That’s what sin means. It’s a weight of responsibility you feel in your heart. And that’s why all you can do is weep and ask for forgiveness.


Diogena died on the sixth night after she stopped eating. She went through the same cycle as the three chickens before her. The first two days were up and down as her energy waxed and waned. On the third day, she entered the peaceful state that precedes death. The weather in Melbourne had been miserable. But it now cleared and we had three straight days of late autumn sunshine with little wind and mild temperatures. It could make me believe in divine intervention.

On the morning of the third day, Diogena slowly and unsteadily placed herself down on the grass under a tree. The sun, which is low in the sky at this time of year, shone down on her face as she alternated between dozing and long stretches of lucidity where she was able to take in her surroundings. On the fourth and fifth days, she was too weak to walk, so I carried her to the same spot in the morning where she could enjoy the sun. That was my job as her helper.

Then something happened that I’m not ashamed to say brought tears to my eyes. The other chickens, who had been avoiding Diogena since her re-entry into the garden, came and sat down beside her. They sat for several hours together in the sun and Diogena spent the last hours of her life in their company.

On the fifth evening, I could see that Diogena was entering the final phase where consciousness slips away for good. Just like the other chickens, she died during the night. Just like the others, there was no sign of struggle or pain on her face or in her body the next morning. The weather had turned bad again and I buried her in a secluded spot in the yard just a couple of hours before the rain set in.

Goodbye, Diogena. I will miss you.

17 thoughts on “The Death of a Chicken”

  1. Hi Simon,

    I think something may have got in my eye towards the end. That was powerful writing, describing an even more arduous journey. Respect too, for your actions and the insights you’ve clearly learned. That was nicely done too for her at the end, and yep, other chickens will keep their dying flock mates company.

    Sorry to say, but your dad is right, sick chickens never get better. However, the flip side is that chickens usually lead very healthy lives, right up to the end.

    Sometimes you might find yourself in the position where you have to end the life of a chicken. There was the Isa Brown turned cannibal and the half eaten, yet still alive chicken. That wasn’t good, and is up front and personal. Quite hands on really. I don’t keep such breeds any more and am happier with the lower yields – and also now feed more protein to the flock. A visitor once let a chicken out through utter carelessness, and one of the dogs injured the chicken. It wasn’t going to make it. The visitor seemed oblivious to the carnage they’d begun.

    I’ve been with dogs and cats at the end, and people. We all go, and the end comes for all of us.

    When I was a kid, people used to drop dead sometimes as part of their day to day activities. It wasn’t common, but it happened. Nowadays we whisk people at the end of life off to an institution. The problem with institutions, is that they are institutions. All of our society is geared that way in relation to this time in our lives. The distance in the experience I believe engenders fear.

    I’m probably wrong, but I have this weird hunch that a lot of the fear from the recent health subject which dare not be named, related to the fear that if the parents of the boomers died, they’d be next in line for that journey. Nothing really stops time. It was hard not to express disbelief at the disingenuous of one article which suggested that a centenarian dying of you-know-what, was taken before his time. No disrespect to the bloke or his family. But you know, I heard someone express that fear of being next in line long ago, and have long cogitated upon what it meant.

    Hope you get some more chickens, they live in a good place.



  2. Chris – yes, with all four chickens they were healthy until they weren’t. What was surprising was that it wasn’t as if they were too weak to carry on but rather that they just decided “time’s up” and that was it. Our culture is so used to fighting death at all costs that even the idea of just bowing out quietly is never considered. “Do not go quietly into that good night”.

    I think Stephen Jenkinson hit the nail on the head that the problem is with the people watching the dying and not the ones dying. Prior to the wars, it was probably very common to have an elderly relative die at home and that would have been a normal part of life. Now we have broken the personal connection with death and people freak out just at the thought of it.

  3. Dogs do this too, we just rarely let them, and from my experience it depends on the breed. Long lived mongrel breeds like Kelpies and Blue Heelers in my experience know their time is coming and will just wander off and die, usually somewhere down the back of the farm. More over-bred breeds that are common house pets seem to develop too many health issues before they reach this stage, although I’m sure they would go the same way riddled with cancer and blind if we weren’t so keen to end it quickly with euthanasia.

    It makes me think of that quite confronting idea of Junger regarding the transcendent experience of battle for the warrior, that absolute facing of death and being happy to embrace it. If two of our less trained bulls who aren’t familiar with each other got in the same paddock there is a fair chance they would fight until the very verge of death, non stop for hours. And they both seem to have the same approach as the warrior, revelling in it.

    It’s something the Iliad captures, although from a different culural perspective. Achilles knows his choices will result in an early violent death, but that’s the whole point. More than anything, our weird attitude to death reflects our complete submission to materialism and utilitarianism and lack of spiritual or metaphysical depth.

  4. Skip – there’s a very poignant scene in the TV series “The Ascent of Man”. They are following a small tribe in Pakistan who run their goats up the mountain in summer and back down to the valley in winter. In autumn, on their way back to the valley, they must cross an extremely fast-flowing river about 20 metres wide. It’s so fast that they lose about 1/3 of their goats in the crossing. One of the older men refuses to try and cross. He just sits down on the bank and watches the others. They all know exactly what this means for him because it’s what will happen to them eventually too.

    Interestingly, the VSED accounts liken it to a “runner’s high”. It may very well be that death by starvation and death in battle are subjectively similar.

  5. Simon – your post is synchronistic for me; on the weekend a friend was talking about how a friend’s mother opted for euthanasia, which led to a long discussion of where Oz is going w/ euthanasia laws & how each of us would choose to die should we be so lucky (my friend has a DIY attitude & I don’t want any medical experts present!).

    When my mum’s nursing home was still just doing lockdown lite, I was allowed to talk to her through the courtyard gate for 1 hour max from a distance of 1.5 metres. And while waiting for staff to wheel her out, I watched a couple of visitors w/ their aged relative on the inside. They were clutching her hands through the bars– defying the rules because no-one was supervising – & weeping freely, uncontrollably. The cruelty of the institutions our culture has created for ‘caring’ never ceases to take my breath away.

    What I learned from watching another friend’s free-range chickens for hours over a few days (while doing other stuff too :)) was how smart they are &, as you say, how distinctive their individual personalities. Maybe I’m jaded re dogs, as much as I love them (dog ownership is off the charts in my neighbourhood), but I found the chickens more interesting. When a fox took one, I think I felt sadder than my friend.

    Today’s veterinary industry, from what friends have told me, sounds no different to the human medical business. Another friend learned recently, after the vet cut open his cat to desex it, that his pet (a stray he’d taken in) was male, not female. My friend had misidentified his cat’s sex & the vet hadn’t bothered to check.

    Thanks for sharing your experience w/ your chickens. (What a great-looking home they have!) Deeply moving. Gives me hope.

  6. Hi Simon,

    I agree. The problem is with the people watching. I’ve seen some strange outcomes when there are vast differences of opinions between the people watching. In many ways it is a taboo subject, and rarely gets discussed, which is all probably a bad idea. I’ll tell you a funny thing too: I’ve known people (nobody I hang out with) who have had regrets about the way they had acted when they were watching. We can learn as a society, but there is a distinct lack of discussion and/or guidance in this area.

    Incidentally, I believe that vets in particular are exposed to a lot of emotional energy from their customers. It would be a hard job to do, which is why the person you encountered was probably a bit cagey and spoke in hints. Can you imagine a vet trying to have an end of life discussion with a customer? That conversation could go anywhere. Probably why they avoid it.



  7. “Apparently, euthanasia enjoys a large majority of public support.”

    No, it doesn’t, not in my world. By saying this, you are trying to stretch the Overton window, even though you have no access to knowing if this is true or not.

    A great article, sent to me by a friend. Thank you. I adore chickens. What boggles the mind is the ease people make unwarranted assumptions and have them believed. Sick chickens can get better. People use diluted vinegar, garlic water, egg yolks if the chicken is ready to eat, and most importantly, water with electrolytes in it. No need to drag the chicken to a vet (unless there is an injury). And with home remedies, you are still mostly a helper.

    “My chicken had stopped eating. If I did nothing, it was going to die by starvation/dehydration. My choice was between that or euthanasia.” If a chicken stops eating, placing her in a quiet safe cage and make a few simple remedies available is the best choice. If that does not work, letting go and giving her her freedom to die as nature intended seems to be the way. Thank you for such a detailed description of what you have observed. Chickens are wise…

  8. Shane – yeah, now that the medical industry can no longer be relied on to provide a minimum standard of humanity, making alternative arrangements is a wise move. I looked up the reviews of the vet clinic I went to and was very interested to note that almost every review that wasn’t 5 stars was 1 star and every 1 star review was a case where the pet had died. Reading the reviews, it was pretty obvious that people were just externalising their grief. Of course, it may very well be that the vet made mistakes too. Arguing about it via google is not going to resolve the issue, though, and I can easily see how vets have to take protective action both for their business and their emotional state.

    Chris – an ex-colleague of mine told me the story of his 90-year-old grandmother who was given 48 hours to live. She had told the family to let her die but the doctors gave them the option of a surgery with a 50/50 “success rate”. There was a lot of arguing among the family and ultimately they decided to go ahead. She lived for another 5 years but required full-time care and medication the entire time and also resented that the family had gone against her wishes. How can anyone, even a trained psychologist, navigate such a minefield? This is what happens when technology runs in advance of morality.

    Vera – good point. The correct statement should be “Terminally sick chickens don’t get better,” which just leads to the question of how you can know a chicken is terminally sick. I tried those remedies you mentioned on all my chickens and I would recommend for anybody else to try them too. I’m certainly not advocating to let a chicken die without trying to help it.

    “letting go and giving her her freedom to die as nature intended seems to be the way”

    Exactly. It’s a very fine line between being a helper and an enforcer and we each have to navigate it as best we can and acknowledge when we make mistakes.

  9. Thank you Simon for sharing this. Your chickens had a wonderful home and an honorable death, which, sadly, is denied most people and animals now.
    During the late, great mass hysteria I returned to a community I have spent a lot of time at. They were, with the best of intentions,’ we are so glad you are back. We will keep you safe. We keep our elders safe”( I am 83). It was nauseating. They would gladly have hauled me off to be hooked to a respirator if I had shown symptoms. I had to be very explicit and sign papers that I wouldn’t go. I am still not sure they would have honored them if I was incapable of fighting them.It wasn’t really malicious on their part. They just mirrored the hideous fear of death in modern society. Sadly, it has distanced me from them ever since.
    I remember the general concern that ” in your age group there is a 5 o/o chance of your dying if you get it.” Oh, yea, in my 80s. Wow. We went into Dong Xoai, in VN with 400 men and came out with 90. Tell me about odds.
    Sorry to vent, but this excessive fear of death does push a lot of my buttons.
    In an exception to my usual lack of respect for and distrust of doctors, I went to an orthopedist here in Mexico about my hip. He had been 28 years in the navy. He looked at the x ray, and went, ” Yep. Its fucked. You are an old man. We can do surgery if we have to, but better not yet. I love the man.

  10. Stephen – thanks. I think this is so ingrained in the culture now that it will take generations to set right. It’s noteworthy to me that in practically every Orphan-Elder story the Elder dies and it’s precisely that death which forms a key part of the Orphan’s journey. We have hidden death away for decades now so that whole generations have never had to face it even in the role of Observer. So, I think we have a twin terror now. The Boomer’s fear of dying and their children and grandchildren’s fear of watching them. Nobody is prepared to deal with it and the medical-aged care industry makes enormous amounts of money out of ensuring that people don’t have to deal with it. And, of course, the medical and aged care industries are gradually sending us broke just to add to the mix.

    The straight-shooting doctor. A rare specimen these days 😉

  11. My last two encounters with vets…
    An eye injury in a midlife tom. Vet said, it will not heal, recommended his eye removed, $700. I demurred, and chose to administer the eye antibiotics three times. His eye gradually cleared after that. Another vet then confirmed no injury to the cornea. The first vet actually got in touch later, offering a partial deduction from the price, saying they got a donation to cover it. Were shocked when I told them the cat had healed.

    Then, a kitten with distemper. I wanted to keep her fasting. He insisted I feed her expensive paste from a tube. Almost killed her. I threw away the tube, and in desperation, began to give her antiviral herbs every couple of hours. She was in recovery the very next day. (Doing saline drips did help to keep her hydrated.)

    I am not happy with the direction vet care (or human care) is heading.

  12. thanks Simon, I felt so blessed that I was able to be there for my mother’s death holding her hand and, with two other friends. chanting for her: also that my daughter, then ten, was able to be there until almost the end and tell her granny goodbye. She had had an unsuccessful operation, and fortunately the hospital honored her request for no life support and wheeled her to a quiet room where we were able to be alone in peace. It was a catholic hospital and, though not at all into facilitating death, still with enough sense of honor to respect her wishes. They asked if she wanted a priest and ,when we said no, didn’t push it. This was 30 years ago in California. I wonder if now, between the huge greed of the medical industry and the fear of litigation. they would be so accommodating. That was also a fairly small hospital and is now gone.
    Thinking of my earlier comment about the covid panic and your statements about the roles of helper and enforcer: it is interesting how many people were prepared to move from the former role to the latter without even questioning it.

  13. Vera – I’ve had a couple of similar interactions with GPs. In fairness to the people involved, I think it’s a financial issue primarily. The system is too stretched now and there’s no time to give proper attention and follow up on diagnoses and prescriptions so the doctor/vet can learn from their mistakes. I think a lot of doctors/vets prescribe stuff then never see the patient again and so presume that it worked even when it didn’t. Of course, they are also financially rewarded for prescribing medication and that gives them an incentive not to learn from mistakes.

    Stephen – glad to hear that about your mother and, yes, could it even happen today? Probably not.

    The enforcer role relates to what Toynbee called the transition from Creative Minority to Dominant Minority. The Dominant Minority rules through coercion, not through organic social bonds like respect or allegiance. That’s where we are now and the more the system becomes an enforcer the more it pretends that it’s doing it for your “safety” or “protection” or whatever. I think it will get worse before it gets better.

  14. Oof, this post definitely cut a few onions. I recently lost a cat to a heart attack – no quiet death from withdrawal of water and food in the sun for her – she was in a lot of distress and suffering badly. There was nothing much to do other than rush her to the vet to get euthanized, although in retrospect, there was lots of big rocks handy.

    The part I hated was that the euthanasia procedure, a two-step series of injections similar to what Americans executed by lethal injection face was essentially carried out without my informed consent. The first injection, a painkiller of some sort, calmed my cat down and evidently made her feel better. She relaxed and lay with her cheek in my hand as she always did. The vet ignored this and kept going with the second, lethal, injection. I have had another cat die of a heart attack earlier in life, where the cat expired after 45 painful minutes on the way to the vet – we lived further away from services then. My thoughts at the time were focused on the reality that I wasn’t going to bash my cat’s skull in with a rock, even though that might have been best for the cat, and that she needed to be killed in a humane manner as fast as possible.

    I’ve seen the devouring feminine keep pets alive long after a rock to the head or a course of lethal injection was warranted. It is ugly and I will never tolerate it even if it means I have to do it myself with a rock, even though I’ll still drag it out for 20 minutes for one last car ride if I have an alternative. On the other hand, why couldn’t that damn vet, an aspiring devouring female complete with cotton candy hair, just recognized that my cat was pretty content, heart attack or not to lie there with me. She wasn’t a bad vet, and was clearly relieved that I was realistic about my cat’s prospects.

    But there’s more to this – although it would have been nice to spend 20 minutes or however long with my dying cat while she was flying on opiates and clearly ok with the situation – ultimately, she was a cat, and didn’t know much more than she was scared and in pain and then felt pretty good after she got the kitty fentanyl or whatever it was. She knew her assistant was there and was scratching her cheek and rubbing her belly and was happy about it. But then the vet found a vein and injected whatever it was that stopped her heart.

    I guess my thesis here is that we can’t accept the big things, like our own deaths, so we can’t receive the little graces, like letting a dying cat enjoy however many minutes of opiate-induced bliss with her assistant as she dies.

  15. Justin – that sounds awful. Did they give you an explanation why they did it without asking you first?

    The lesson for me from this, which is one I had already learned from the medical industry, is that you have to be prepared to ask lots of questions and not just take whatever the vet/doctor says as the word of God. A friend of mine once almost died as the doctor she was going to refused to change his diagnosis even though his treatment was clearly not working. She went to another doctor for a second opinion who sent her straight to emergency.

  16. Simon,

    Sorry for posting late, I started a new job that keeps my life interesting. Your comment likening death by starvation and dehydration to dying in battle reminded me of a theory of mine that seems relevant to this discussion, and I’d love to hear your opinion.

    Military history is an interest of mine, and after listening to an interesting episode of the podcast “Hardcore History” by Dan Carlin about battles in the ancient near east circa Alexander The Great, I came to know we are actually not sure how battles back then were done in practice. The most prevalent theory among military historians is that two armies would clash in formation, and fight hand to hand until one side broke formation and fled.

    What I found interesting is that there is another theory, which may explain how entire societies had all of their men fight multiple battles in their lives, without having 50 percent of the population suffer PTSD like symptoms (anyone who have meet veterans with PTSD can tell you it’s not just an emotional damage, but damage to the brain. And yet we know Socrates and Plato both fought in battles like these and were later able to be philosophers).

    According to this theory, the armies would march toward each other in formation, but stop to form a narrow gap. There are a couple of things that may have happened in this gap. It could be rival armies tried to pull soldiers from the front row into the gap, to slaughter them. But another thing that may have happened was that the most violent or ambitious soldiers of both sides would go into the gap, challenging the other side to send a champion to fight them in single combat.

    This got me thinking. We are talking about males of military age. Granted teenage suicide is on the rise in our current society because of our lifestyle, let’s assume back then there was still a small percentage of suicidal men. I believe it is established that statistically, suicides are more prevalent in males as well.

    What if back then, those poor boys did not commit suicide by stealing their father’s shotgun, but instead took the opportunity to volunteer to go into the gap the next battle? Maybe even they were the driving force in their society’s fights, along with the politically ambitious, so their societies effectively channeled those tendencies to a useful goal (back then fighting was often about the survival of entire city states), while allowing those who choose to die with dignity, remembered as heroes?

  17. Bakbook – I know very little about military history, but what you’ve just described sounds to me exactly like the way that battle scenes unfold in The Iliad.

    “Mighty Patroclus pierced Areilycus in the thigh with a throw of his spear as he turned to run, driving the point clean through, so the bronze shattered the bone and Areilycus fell face-forwards on the ground. Warlike Menelaus thrust at Thoas and hit him in the chest, where the shield failed to protect him, loosening his limbs. Meges was too quick for the charging Amphiclus, striking through the thigh, where the muscle is densest, the spear-point tearing the sinews, and darkness shrouded his eyes.”

    It also reminded me a story Steve Jobs told of how he and Wozniacki once pulled some kind of illegal long-distance phone call scam and the lesson he took away from it was that you have to be prepared to take risks, including breaking the law. In the Iliad, it seems that the lowly-ranked soldiers are taking a huge risk by fighting against the great hero. But that risk carries an equally huge reward since they will also become a hero if they win. So, what might look suicidal to an objective observer is really risk-taking behaviour that has some logic to it.

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