At 2:30 am we awoke from a dead sleep to a police officer banging on the side door. I stood in the doorway of our bedroom as I heard him explain to my husband that one of the buildings was on fire. As he described which building, I burst into tears. It was our chicken coop. My husband ran out into the -10 degree weather, and I heard him exclaim, “oh my god.” I knew immediately the chickens were gone. Still, I quickly threw on clothes with the intention of running down and saving any that were left, but the police officer explained that we were to evacuate immediately and that the fire department had been called. The nearby industrial propane tanks could explode putting us all in danger. Nick sent him to alert his parents. I threw our passports and cash in my purse, we packed Viv in the car, and drove down the road to safety.
Once the firefighters had the area under control, I surveyed the damage. I don't know what I expected, but it was shocking to see only the foundation of the building left smoldering.
We lost the coop. And we lost 17 hens and a rooster. All evidence points to the heat lamp starting the fire. Nothing remains but the guilt of putting everyone in danger, burning down my father-in-law’s building, and the loss of the lives of those poor chickens.
My perspective is not completely out of whack: I understand that in the grand scheme of things losing chickens ranks low on the tragedy scale. I am very grateful that someone noticed the fire. I’m grateful that none of us were hurt and that we still have our homes; it could have been much worse. I’m grateful for the fire department that put their lives in danger in the middle of a freezing February night in response to the call of duty.
Furthermore, I understand that they were, though it pains me to phrase it this way, just chickens. They were livestock, not human. Regardless, they were living things in my care and for which I greatly cared. Twelve of them were part of our original flock, the hens I hand-fed grubs collected during planting season. They were the hens that ran to me when they heard my voice, that pecked all the snow off my boots when I entered the coop, that followed me around the property last spring when they were allowed to fully free-range on the property. One of them was Henrietta, a Rhode Island Red who earned a name, who I saved from being a casualty of the new dog that has a taste for chicken. I nursed her back to health in my kitchen, applied ointment to her wounds, and hand-fed her once back in the coop to get her back up to weight. She had just started laying again.
I wanted to give them a lovely pastoral life, unlike the stories of all those sad commercial hens. I let them down. I’m responsible for their sad death and their last living moments in panic. And on top of the guilt, I really miss them. I know that sounds silly, but they brought me true enjoyment. They were a highlight of my day. It was one of the things I really enjoyed about living on the farm. Sometimes on those freezing January days, I would go down to the coop with special scraps and just hang out with my chickens. I know it’s weird; I probably won’t include it on my resume.
We are often asked in the wake of this event if we will rebuild and get new chickens. I don't know. For now, I’m eating more red meat and posting pictures of happier chicken days.